Navy Wants To Cut Two Nearly New Sea Base Ships That Are Like Nothing Else

The U.S. Navy wants to decommission both of its Montford Point class expeditionary transfer dock ships as part of its budget plans for the 2023 Fiscal Year. Cutting these vessels, which are both less than a decade old, relatively young by ship standards, is ostensibly part of a broader reorganization of the Navy and Marine Corps to focus more on distributed operations. This logic seems highly questionable given that these floating logistics nodes, which are unlike anything else the service has now, offer capabilities that would be ideal for those new concepts of operations. On top of that, this comes amid Navy plans to significantly trim back other existing amphibious warfare fleets and a new class of Light Amphibious Warships is still years away from entering service.  

The Navy announced its desire to cut the USNS Montford Point and its sister ship USNS John Glenn from its fleets as part of the rollout earlier this week of its budget proposal for the next fiscal year. The service is looking to decommission 24 ships in total, the others being all nine Freedom class Littoral Combat Ships that are now in service, as well as five Ticonderoga class cruisers, two Los Angeles class attack submarines, and some combination of four Whidbey Island and/or Harpers Ferry class dock landing ships.

This plan, overall, which the Navy says will free up around $3.6 billion to spend on other priority projects in the coming years, is already facing staunch criticism from Congress for a variety of reasons. The proposed elimination of the two Montford Point class ships seems particularly glaring given the heavy emphasis that the Navy and Marine Corps have been placing on expeditionary and distributed maritime operations, especially across the broad expanses of the Pacific region, including when justifying this very budget proposal.

The Department of Defense’s budget “request enables us to provide the joint force commander globally responsive, combat-ready Naval expeditionary forces aligned with and supporting the Department of Defense strategic pillar,” Meredith Berger, the senior U.S. government official currently performing the duties of Under Secretary of the Navy, told reporters at a press briefing on Monday. She added that “tough choices” had to be made in order best support these broad missions.

It’s not clear how this is necessarily reflected in the planned decommissioning of Montford Point and John Glenn, which the Navy only acquired in 2013 and 2014, respectively. These expeditionary transfer dock ships, which are based on the Alaska class oil tanker design, as their name implies, are primarily intended to serve as self-propelled piers onto which larger logistics vessels can unload vehicles and other cargo for movement ashore using Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) hovercrafts, or their future replacement, the Ship-to-Shore Connector (SSC). This all makes the Montford Point class ships, an invaluable interface between cargo-carrying ships that do not have integrated well decks and LCACs, especially in areas where established port facilities have been destroyed or otherwise rendered inaccessible, if they exist at all.

An LCAC comes in to dock on the USNS Montford Point during an exercise in 2014. Two other LCACs are seen in the other two docking lanes. The Montford Point is also seen here attached to the cargo ship USNS Bob Hope, with vehicles able to drive off that ship on the expeditionary transfer dock via a ramp., USN
US Marine Corps Assault Amphibious Vehicle (AAV) tracked amphibious armored vehicles on the deck of the USNS Montford Point during an exercise in 2014., USN

However, this is just one of the capabilities that these ships, which can partially submerge, offer the Navy. They can use their 25,000 square feet of open main deck area to carry cargo, including outsized items such as smaller vessels. Amphibious vehicles can drive right off into the sea and head for shore and they could serve as launch points for other kinds of smaller manned and unmanned vessels, as well.

A US Marine Corps AAV departs the USNS Montford Point during an exercise in 2014., USNS

The extensive deck space found on these ships, which were originally known as Mobile Landing Platforms (MLP), can be used as a flight deck for helicopters, Osprey tilt-rotors, and vertical takeoff and landing-capable drones, but is also readily reconfigurable. It gives these ships the ability to transform into sea bases or floating hospitals, among other things, depending on operational requirements. 

That same open deck area could accommodate weapons of various kinds, including vehicles or bolt-on launch systems capable of firing various anti-ship, anti-aircraft, or land-attack missiles.

The USNS John Glenn during sea trials before various expeditionary transfer dock-specific equipment was installed on the deck, showing how much physical space there is to work within the design., USN

It’s certainly true that in their baseline configuration, the Montford Point class ships provide less sea basing capability than their cousins, the Lewis B. Puller class, of the which Navy has five and plans to retain for the foreseeable future. In addition, they are even more vulnerable to various existing and emerging threats, especially anti-ship cruise missiles, than traditional large amphibious warfare ships.

At the same time, they still offer additional sea basing and amphibious warfare capacity, on top of their other capabilities, that could be one part of a larger hub-and-spoke logistics network supporting distributed operations across a broad maritime area. Modular point defenses, in the form of vehicle-mounted or containerized short-range air defense and electronic warfare systems, could be readily integrated as required to provide at least some immediate protection against cruise missiles and other threats, as well. The Navy has a history of doing just this with more traditional amphibious warfare vessels.

The potential loss of the unique mixture of capabilities found in the two Montford Point class ships would seem to be even more pronounced in light of the Navy’s other amphibious warfare plans. In addition to the proposal to decommission the four Whidbey Island/Harpers Ferry class dock landing ships, the service is looking to substantially scale back purchases of Flight II San Antonio class landing platform dock ships, from 13 to just three. 

The USS San Antonio., USN

In addition, a planned new class of smaller amphibious warfare ships, or Light Amphibious Warships (LAW), that the Navy and Marines want to buy to support new expeditionary and distributed concepts of operation are still years away from entering service in any substantial numbers. The 2023 Fiscal Year budget proposal says that U.S. Special Operations Command is looking to acquire at least one afloat forward staging base of some kind for use in the Pacific region, but there are currently very few details about that program.

Regardless, “the Light Amphibious Warship isn’t a substitute for that [traditional amphibious warfare ships]. It’s the tactical mobility to move a smaller element organically that fits this stand-in force approach that we’re taking,” Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger stressed earlier this year. “No, they are not substitutes for each other. They’re complementary capabilities.”

Separate from all of this, the Navy stands to lose substantial missile capacity across its surface fleets, at least in the near term, as part of its other decommissioning plans. The service is looking right now into the possibility of arming ships like the Montford Point class as one way to mitigate that reality.

The Navy has been getting all of this for a very reasonable cost. The pair of Montford Point class ships were relatively cheap to acquire at between $500 and $600 million apiece, compared to the billions it takes to build traditional large amphibious warfare ships, and they have been equally cost-effective to operate and maintain. As of December 2019, the Pentagon had estimated the total cost to keep these two ships, as well as the five Lewis B. Puller class vessels, running for the next 40 years was just under $10.6 billion, or under $38 million per ship per year on average, in Fiscal Year 2011 dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that still’s just under $48 million annually. Compare this to the average estimated annual operating cost for a San Antonio class ship, according to the Pentagon, which is just over $92 million when adjusted for inflation. 

How many ships the Navy will ultimately be cleared to decommission through the 2023 Fiscal Year defense budget very much remains to be seen. Criticisms from members of Congress about the service’s overall shipbuilding and force structure plans are growing and lawmakers have not shied away from blocking such proposals in the past. Representative Elaine Luria, a Virginia Democrat and Navy veteran, has been particularly vocal about her displeasure with the service’s plans.

The Navy could well find opposition to sending the two Montford Point class ships into mothballs, despite them having decades’ worth of life left in them and providing capabilities that the service says it will need going forward in a cost-effective manner, to be particularly strong.

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Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.