Navy leaders have considered implementing large-scale commercial components into a new amphibious assault ship as a way to both achieve performance goals and lower construction costs.
Called the LXR, the new amphibious ship could be a new design or configuration of several existing ships such as a version of the existing LSD 41/49 or a modified version of the Navy’s LPD 17 San Antonio Class amphibious transport dock, service officials said.
Weighing the need to keep costs as low as possible and still build a technically capable new ship, the Navy is considering using a commercially-designed ship propulsion system for the LXR, said Vice Adm. Willy Hilarides, Commander of Naval Sea Systems Command.
“You put the propulsion train on a commercial standard which is still very survivable. Commercial ship operators don’t want their ships to fail if they hit the rocks or get hit by a tug hard,” he said.
Using commercial technology could have the effect of lowering production costs for the new ship, as opposed to developing military specifications for the same system.
There are several current Navy ships which draw heavily upon commercial technologies, such as the large, 80,000-ton Mobile Landing Platform, or MLP and Afloat Forward Staging Base. The MLP is a 785 foot-long commercial Alaska-class crude oil carrier configured to perform a range of military missions such as amphibious cargo on-load/off-load and logistics support.
For the LXR, the Navy is now immersed in what’s called an Analysis of Alternatives, or AOA, for the project, meaning shipbuilding experts, strategists and requirements personnel are working to explore the realm of the possible regarding ship designs and technical specifications.
“The conversation that is going on is right at the balance between technical excellence and judiciousness,” said Hilarides.
Calling the ongoing AOA the “best ship design discussion we’ve had in a long time,” Hilarides said ongoing deliberations were looking questions of shock, vibration, battle damage, weapons and propulsion systems.
In fact the AOA is designed to take up and consider a range of anticipated scenarios such as those parts of the ship which might sustain battle damage and still need to function. Things like magazines, command and control, missiles and the ship’s well deck could be among the key components that would need to function if the ship sustains damage, Hilarides added.
The amphib will also still need to travel at eight knots if it is hit by enemy fire and sustains battle damage, Hilarides explained.
“What are the parts of the ship that you cannot afford to lose with moderate battle damage. You still got to be able to go eight knots,” he said.
Hilarides explained that there are a few ways to achieve this such as building a hardened or protected propulsion train designed to military specifications --- or building an armored box in the front of the ship with a small, eight-knot outboard motor that can be lowered into the water when needed.
The armored box could enable the ship to continue at an eight-knot pace after sustaining damage from enemy fire, Hilarides said.
While much of the deliberations regarding LXR are ongoing and have yet to be finalized, Hilardes discussed the commercial propulsion train and small outboard motor as an example of the kind of strategies now being entertained.
In terms of mission function, the LXR will likely be similar to the LSDs and LPDs. Both the LSD and the LPD transport docks are integral to what’s called an Amphibious Ready Group, or ARG. The ARG is tasked with transporting up to 2,200 Marines and their equipment, including what’s called a Marine Expeditionary Unit, or MEU.
The current configuration of the LPD transport dock is slightly different than the LSD dock landing ship in that it has more aviation capability, more command and control equipment, a crane for use on small boats and a different well deck configuration, Navy officials said.
The 1980’s era LSD dock landing ships consist of eight Whidbey Island-class 609-foot long ships. The 15,000-ton ships, configured largely to house and transport four Landing Craft Air Cushions, or LCACs, are nearing the end of their service life.
There are four Harpers Ferry – class dock landing ships first deployed in 1995. These 16,000-ton ships are also 609 feet-long but only carry two LCACs. The Harpers Ferry-class carriers fewer LCACs but increase the cargo-carrying space on board the ship.
The LSD does not have the same ability to operate independently of an Amphibious Ready Group compared to the LPD 17. The LPD is able to transport up to four CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters or two MV-22 Ospreys.
The LXR AoA is examining the need for well-deck support, command and control, aviation capability and the extent to which the ship will need to be engineered to operate on its own away from the ARG.
Members of Congress and industry advocacy groups are arguing that the LXR should be based on an LPD 17 design in order to best help the Navy and preserve the amphib-building industrial base.
Although the 2015 proposed budget only allows for the construction of 11 LPD 17s, a Congressional budget mark-up restores money for a 12th LPD.
Hilarides did not rule out the possibility that the LXR would be based on an LPD 17 design but said it would definitely not be the same ship.
“An LPD variant that is built exactly like the current LPD 17 is off the table. It is unaffordable in the context of the ship we need,” he said.