After Japan's Quake, Rethinking How We Build Our Navy

Amphibious assault ships have been crucial in aiding Japan, so why is the Navy trying to kill them?


Of the 11 commissioned U.S. warships ships en route to Japan, almost half are big Cold War-era amphibious assault vessels purpose-built to land Marines on hostile shores. But while these unglamorous transport ships dispatch helicopters and critical aid to a grateful ally, they're being marginalized by a Navy that tends to fixate on the capabilities to wage a high-tech, blue-water war, while underestimating the importance of mundane disaster-response work in maintaining our global power and influence.

The Navy's amphibious forces have carried out the lion's share of America's disaster-response work, responding to 114 crises and contingencies over the past 20 years. Yet this enviable record means little inside the beltway. With the recent cancellation of the pricey $25-million dollar Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, a specialized floating tank meant to speed Marines from sea to shore, defense leaders are signaling that troop transporters, helicopter carriers, and other old-school "charge the beach" tools of amphibious warfare are obsolete and not worth full funding. The EFV deserved cancellation for a number of reasons, not the least of which was its price tag, but skeptics of amphibious warfare are using the EFV's demise to claim that the amphibious fleet as a whole has lost its reason for being and should be cut.

But even as Washington cuts, more countries are investing in amphibious warfare platforms than ever before.

Last December, Russia solidified plans to buy four $900 million-dollar Mistral-class assault ships from France; Canada is mulling a purchase of two. China, almost done with a second new amphibious warfare vessel, is in the early stages of a rumored 16 assault-ship building program. Australia is planning for a pair of massive helicopter carriers. South Korea, Japan, and even Indonesia are building amphibious craft, all capable of transporting and landing hundreds of fully equipped troops on hostile shores.

This buildup of amphibious warfare platforms is unprecedented, yet the Pentagon seems unconcerned, perhaps psychologically unready to grapple with the dramatic proliferation of amphibious power. And why should it be? The U.S. has enjoyed 60 years of overwhelming superiority in amphibious force. It hasn't felt compelled to update, luxuriating in the assumption that it could hand to like-minded junior partners the disaster response, non-combatant evacuations, and other stability-enhancing projects blue-water warfighters no longer want.

But these new navies will not collaborate forever, and the U.S., its attention focused elsewhere, risks missing that this world-wide build-up of new, versatile assault craft could affect our ability to project force in the global littorals.

Rather than join in the build-up, U.S. amphibious assault capabilities are being targeted by budget-cutters. Last year, the White House Deficit Commission urged on the demise of the Marines' MV-22 Osprey helicopter-plane, the Marine version of the F-35 strike fighter, and the Future Maritime Prepositioning Force, floating warehouses meant to support the Marine Corps in a major contingency. Plans to purchase several cheap and speedy Joint High Speed Vessels, a modernized fast ferry and potential mainstay of the future amphibious assault fleet, is under pressure. Modernization aside, fiscal hawks are expressing an eager desire to shrink the existing fleet of 33 specialized amphibious ships used to transport Marines -- the very ships that are, right now, leading the way in our effort to support a beleaguered Japan.

Some vigorous pruning of bloated naval programs is overdue, but Washington's over-enthusiastic campaign to cut amphibious warfare appears founded on a flawed assumption -- that the era of World-War II-like offshore assaults is over forever, ended by accurate anti-ship weaponry and the proliferation of sea mines, submarines, and other area-denial capabilities.

We had a similar debate 50 years ago, when Navy theorists predicted that nuclear weapons would mean the end of beach assaults. But big amphibious fleets are still here. To take Grenada in 1983, the Pentagon marshaled 22 ships and 11,414 sailors to support an assault by some 8,000 soldiers and Marines. The decoy fleet off Kuwait in 1991 was even larger. Amphibious assault ships will always gather when America needs to "kick in the door" someplace. Perhaps even more importantly, they're a crucial tool for the sorts of humanitarian response missions we're leading in Japan. Providing relief for Japan isn't just the right thing to do, it's necessary for us to maintain a strong naval presence at both ends of the Pacific. If our amphibious fleet continues to decay, and China's continues to evolve, then Japan may look west rather than east the next time it needs a foreign navy to intervene.

Though it may tempting to consign "charging the beach" tactics as outmoded, amphibious warfare seems set for a perilous global renaissance. Even if island warfare remains a rare phenomenon, amphibious ships are some of the most useful, if unglamorous, military tools in the arsenal. After responding to two tsunamis in the space of six years, amphibious assault platforms have proven their ability do a lot of good in key places. Supporting a large, utilitarian fleet of floating pick-up trucks may not be very exciting, but Japan's earthquake and tsunami are important reminders of the importance of amphibious capability -- and of the risks of neglecting them. After all, the next mega-tsunami may very well be our own.

Photo: An MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter delivers pallets of supplies to the multi-purpose amphibious assault ship USS Bataan off the coast of Haiti. By Tony Sisti/U.S. Navy