In light of the distributed lethality operational concept, the Navy is looking toward up-gunning the ‘gators.’37 Original designs of the San Antonio-class LPD called for two 8-cell Mk-41 VLS in the bow of the ship, but the cells were cut during development.38 Marine Commandant General Neller has expressed public enthusiasm for reversing this decision, stating that the addition of the VLS to the LPD would “change the game.”39 The addition of missiles would provide long-range fires to Amphibious Ready Groups or Marine Expeditionary Units, and support disaggregated, independent operations by the LPD. While the addition of 16 TLAMs would increase the LPDs’ lethal capability, it does not appreciably improve NSFS capacity, especially if the LPD is operating independently. The lack of a reload capability restricts tactical flexibility for fire support: the threshold to expend a TLAM would likely limit small, distributed units from exploiting gaps and seams as they develop. It also limits operational flexibility as the small magazine would prevent longer operations and limit time on station.Click here to read the entire article.
Instead of installing a VLS into the LPD, the services should investigate the possibility of installing a naval gun. Quantity has a quality all of its own: guns provide a capacity that a 16 cell VLS does not. From an economic perspective, the use of a naval gun allows the Navy to invert the acquisition model from one centered on high-cost, low capacity missile purchases to a low cost, high-capacity gun system that will would enjoy better economy of scale.40 While the initial costs in ship modification may be more expensive when compared to the VLS, the price dynamics of a gun system are more favorable than TLAMs over the long term, especially given the tactical dividend of the gun’s ability to be reloaded indefinitely at sea.
A potential course of action could be the Advanced Gun System Lite (AGS-L), a modified AGS that was designed to fit into the same space as the Mk-45 5-inch gun found on most surface combatants.41 The AGS-L is capable of firing the LRLAP to its 71 nautical mile range, at six rounds per minute, housing up to 240 LRLAP rounds in the magazine. 42,43 More importantly, the modification of the LPDs to support deck guns would allow the ships to capitalize on the future Hyper Velocity Projectiles (HVP) that are currently in development for strike and air defense.44 Capable of being fired from a traditional gun, HVPs launched from the AGS are capable of intercepting cruise missiles at ranges over 10 nautical miles, but are exponentially more affordable than the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles currently stocked in the VLS for defense.45,46 When Houthi rebels attacked the USS Mason with Chinese-produced C-802 anti-ship cruise missiles in October, James Holmes estimated that it cost the Navy upwards of $8 million dollars to defend the vessel against enemy projectiles valued at $500,000 piece; a cost ratio of over 8-1.47 The installation of a naval gun not only allows the LPD an increased capacity to support troops ashore, but also position the fleet to take advantage of fiscally sustainable medium-range air and missile defense capabilities in development.48
Counter-arguments to the retrofitting of the AGS-L into standing surface combatants exist. Studies would have to identify the effect of the gun on other naval systems, specifically the heat, vibration, and gases. Of most relevance is the ship’s superstructure: will the bridge’s fragility prohibit a gun entirely? While BAE promotional materials highlight the similarities of the physical dimensions between the Mk-45 and the AGS-L, careful attention would need to be paid to the extent at which the ship would have to be modified to support shell hoists, cooling, and magazine spaces. The back end logistics and life cycle maintenance would be an additional cost to consider.
While these challenges are indeed daunting, the ability for an LPD to provide NSFS to the Marines already embarked would relieve other surface combatants and their magazines to prosecute other warfighting functions. An LPD is already better suited to provide NSFS because her engines and fuel supply allow for longer on-station times compared to cruisers or destroyers. On a personal level, the LPD crew providing fires to her previously embarked Marines could yield a familiar and habitual relationship between supporting and supported units, leading to increased combat effectiveness (and plenty of opportunities to practice processes while underway).49 Combined with her reduced radar cross-section, aviation space, and command and control capability, the LPD would be in a unique position to operate independently, supporting distributed operations across the maritime domain.
Click here (or the highlighted portion above) to read the brochure on the Advanced Gun System Light.
I personally like this idea! Still not sold on the idea of LPDs having to provide naval gunfire while operating independently (why is the entire Marine Corps so enamored of the Expeditionary Squad Concept...do they want these little groups of Marines to be highlighted on an ISIS beheading and soon rape video???) but as part of supporting an Enhanced or Reinforced MEU? It freaking sings! Well done Captain!