US Considering Australian-Designed Light Amphibious Warship


New amphibious vessels would each displace 1,000 to 8,000 tons and measure around 100 meters in length (image : ASPI Strategis)

US Navy and Marine Corps reimagine their future amphibious force, high-level discussions have focused on an innovative Australian-designed vessel to land troops and their equipment on unprepared beaches.

Gold Coast – based Sea Transport Solutions' stern landing vessel is one of several contenders vying for the US Navy's light amphibious warship program. The stern landing design overcomes problems of conventional landing craft, which features a large ramp in the bow that makes for poor handling in rough seas, reduces speed and obstructs visibility. Stern landing vessels are a mature capability and have been used extensively in Australia's mining industry.

After years of US marines waging granting counterinsurgency campaigns inland, Marine Corps Commandant General David Berger's 2019 planning guidance refocuses on 'exploiting positional advantage and defending key maritime terrain'. He encourages naval expeditionary forces to look to ‘unmanned platforms, stern landing vessels, other ocean-going connectors, and smaller more lethal and more risk-worthy platforms” when reconceiving the amphibious fleet.

Large US landing ships displace up to 45,000 tons and are intended to stand off a shoreline and launch their own bevy of landing craft from an internal well deck. The new amphibious vessels would each displace 1,000 to 8,000 tons and measure around 100 meters in length. With a range of 3,500 nautical miles and the ability to operate within a fleet or independently, they could serve as 'lilypads' for dispersing and relocating marine littoral regiments among western Pacific islands or along the Baltic coastline, for example.

Lieutenant General Eric Smith points out that such a light amphibious warship is 'much more able to hide in plain sight, much more affordable, much more numerous because of its cost'. Offloaded platoons could fire anti-ship cruise missiles at Chinese naval forces in a conflict scenario, or conduct other missions such as forward refueling and rearming of friendly aircraft, coastal surveillance and radar early warning or air defense.

The total planned buy of 28 to 30 ships, at US $ 100–130 million apiece, will be competitively awarded, but Sea Transport Solutions is considered to be in with a strong chance. The Department of the Navy's 2021 budget request explicitly calls for 'a stern landing vessel to support amphibious ship-to-shore operations', according to naval reporter Megan Eckstein, and the US Congressional Research Service indicates that the marines want the program expedited to ensure the vessels are operational by 2026.One option would be for the Australian company to partner with an American yard for construction of the vessels in the US. For instance, West Australia-based company Austal has such a shipyard in Alabama where it builds the Independence-class littoral combat ship and the expeditionary fast transport.

If that plays out, US marines could find themselves aboard fresh, Australian-designed amphibious vessels.

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