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The Navy's Gators: An Endangered Species?

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The Navy's Gators

An Endangered Species?

by Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Armstrong, Small Wars Journal

The Navy's Gators: An Endangered Species? (Full PDF Article)

For over five decades the nuclear powered Aircraft Carrier has been the center of naval strategy and policy for the United States of America. In the 1950's the big guns of the gray-hull battleships had been America's capital ships since the Spanish American War. In the six decades that the battleships ruled the seas they brought the United States from a regional power to a global leader in the bipolar world of the Cold War. The Carrier and its embarked air-wing have dominated the oceans, littorals, and near-shore, taking the United States to its current position as the world's lone Superpower. In the post-Cold War world, filled with asymmetric threats, a global war on terrorism, and the prospect of mounting regional stability operations, it is time for the Sea Services to re-evaluate what they consider their capital ship. In the 21st century the busiest and most important naval vessels, and therefore our capital ships, are the Amphibious Assault Ships, known affectionately by their Sailors and Marines as The Gators.

Throughout the United States Navy's 233 year history strategy and policy have dictated what vessel was the focus of our nation's shipbuilding plans. The early Navy was based around the strategic concept of guerre de course, and its missions of commerce protection and commerce raiding. The result was an American Navy based around Humphrey's Fast Frigates as the capital ship. As the nation left the age of sail and the littoral warfare of the Civil War behind us, and began to move toward the world's stage, it became clear that a blue water fleet was required. Visionaries like CAPT A.T. Mahan helped lead to a fleet dominated by battleships and the battlefleet. After years of struggle against the battleship mafia" by men like ADM Moffet, World War II dramatically demonstrated the importance of the Aircraft Carrier. The struggle against the Soviets placed it and the Air Wing as the central vessel of the time. American naval strength throughout history has been ensured by the ability to recognize when new strategic challenges present themselves. It is time to consider what asset best accomplishes the strategic missions of the new century as a guide to identify today's capital ship and shipbuilding priority.

The Navy's Gators: An Endangered Species? (Full PDF Article)

About the Author(s)


BJ Armstrong (not verified)

Thu, 07/16/2009 - 10:40pm


There is plenty of historical example for this approach. Navalists are commonly focused on high end capability. With that focus they can lose the forest for the trees.

Whether we're talking the mosquito fleet of local craft put together by Porter to fight the Pirates in the shallows of the Caribbean, the many civilian ships confiscated into the Union Navy to work in the blockading squadrons, or the Q ships of WWI to fight the U-boats, there are plenty of examples of successful use of "civilian" ships as part of a naval force. As long as commanders understand their capabilities and limitations, they can be extremely effective.

There is a debate over the status of the LCS as a warship, which is legit because it is being sold as a warship. However, JHSV and other examples of nontraditional craft that can be built inexpensively certainly need to be explored.

Alan Boyer (not verified)

Wed, 07/15/2009 - 3:36pm


The problem our navy has is getting the right number of ships with the right capabilites at a reasonalbe cost. Clearly keep costs under control so we have to find another way. We all love multi0mission plaforms, but we are at a point wehre their cost means we need to look for alternatives.

We have already seen the army deploy retrofitted COTS aircraft as either Aerial Reconnaissance Multi-Sensor (ARMS) or Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System (MARSS-II) RSTA platforms, in order to perform their C-IED mission, in Iraq. The navy may want to consider a simalar concept for selected mission sets. CDR Hendrix's concept may well support this idea.

BJ Armstrong (not verified)

Wed, 07/15/2009 - 3:00pm


Great comments, and I'm not going to disagree. The days of the ARG operating "alone and unafraid" are back as the rest of the surface fleet has removed their CRUDES support for the concept. As you point out, they're alone but they really shouldn't be unafraid.

While I don't think that it is fair to use the insantiy of the first build of the LPD-17 class to define an entire class that has only just started to be built, your point on expense is well taken. The problem with JHSV, in my eye, is the lack of a helicopter hangar in order to allow embarked rotary-wing assets. However, the idea of purpose built vessels is a good one. CDR H. Hendrix's concept of the "Influence Squadron" in his article "Buy Ford, Not Ferrari" in the April issue of Proceedings is a good start for the discussion.

Alan Boyer (not verified)

Wed, 07/08/2009 - 2:36pm

I agree with LCDR Armstrongs comment that it is time for the "Sea Services to re-evaluate what they consider their capital ship." Just making more amphibious ships like the ones we have will help but is not the real answer. One must first look at the operational environment and where you are operating in an opposed or unopposed scenario. Current amphibious ships cannot operate in any sort of an opposed environment without serious CRUDES support. They are too big, too slow, and poorly armed. Irregular naval forces like swarming boats and land based ASCMs will quickly put an end to any ARG. Maybe the navy should look at cheaper ships designed to only operate in a low threat environment missions (disaster relief, building partner capacity, etc.) instead of significantly buying a lot more expensive amphibs. The JHSV comes to mind here. Cost is a critical factor for the navy that it has not been able to get under control. The only way to get the numbers to perform many of the missions LCDR Armstrong discusses is to find a low cast alternative, especially for low threat environments. According to the CBO, "on a per-ton basis, the lead LPD-17 was the most expensive amphibious ship ever built, at more than $130 million per thousand tons." LPD-17 costs between $1.4 billion and $1.7 billion.