US troops in an amphibious landing drill in Thailand during annual Cobra Gold exercises, February 2018. Image: Handout

The two American aircraft carriers operating in the South China Sea in recent weeks are a reminder there are two US Navies: one that scares the hell out of adversaries, and one that makes people scratch their heads.

Over the last ten months, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has launched two Type 075 amphibious assault ships and a third is reportedly due shortly. Meanwhile, the US Navy recently commissioned one amphibious assault ship, USS Tripoli, while another, USS Bonhomme Richard, burned up pier-side in San Diego two weeks ago.

USS Bonhomme Richard had nearly completed modifications to handle F35B stealth fighters. The US Navy worldwide has only ten (nine after, as is likely, the Bonhomme Richard is scrapped) “big deck” amphibious ships potentially able to operate as small aircraft carriers – and only three of those are currently able to operate F35Bs.

It generally takes an inventory of four ships to deploy one “forward”, in Asia or elsewhere around the globe. While one ship is deployed, one is being overhauled, another is in pre-deployment work-up training and another is held back for emergencies.

So losing a ship throws a wrench in the works. The Navy either keeps ships longer at sea, or maybe brings an older “amphib” out of mothballs. 

But there is something more alarming. If losing one amphibious ship upsets things so much, one fairly asks whether the US Navy’s top leadership gave enough thought over the last 20 years to fighting a serious enemy and the potential of losing a couple of ships in an afternoon? 

The USS USS Bonhomme Richard aflame in San Diego. Image: AFP

Perhaps not. Consider the USN’s littoral combat ship, which is better suited for taking on pirates than fighting China’s PLAN. And there’s the Zumwalt-class destroyer fiasco of spending US$20+ billion to produce three ships and the guns don’t work.

As bad, the Navy willfully pared down training for junior surface warfare officers starting around 2000, reckoning they would learn “on the job” after reporting aboard their first ship. And during Ray Mabus’s tenure as secretary of the US Navy from 2009 to 2017, social engineering had priority over defeating the PLAN.

So the US Navy is now stretched thin while the Chinese Navy outbuilds and, in some cases, outguns it. The Americans have their work cut out for them.

But back to Bonhomme Richard and the Navy’s amphibious ship situation. Amphibs are never a US Navy priority compared with carriers, destroyers, frigates and submarines. Such is the lot of the so-called “gator navy.” Recall that the heroic Tom Cruise character in the Top Gun movie was an F-14 pilot and not an amphibious ship skipper. That tells you plenty.

But even if the US Navy builds only as many amphibious ships as it is forced to build, America’s friends have a lot of amphibious ships.

Bring these into the mix. A back-of-the-envelope calculation of allied or friendly militaries in Asia, from South Korea to India, counts at least 50 amphibious ships of different types. Admittedly not all are the most modern, but they’ll work.

The Japanese, for example, have seven “amphibs” and among them the two new Izumo-class ships can handle F35Bs. The Royal Australian Navy has three amphibious ships, of which two are newer ones, the HMAS Adelaide and HMAS Canberra.

The Philippine Navy band welcomes the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) vessel HMAS Adelaide (III) for a goodwill visit in Metro Manila, Philippines October 10, 2017. Photo: Handout/Agencies

These can’t operate F35Bs without considerable and expensive re-working.  But maybe later. In the meantime, Royal Australian Air Force land-based aircraft have a chance to figure out how to support the Royal Australian Navy (RAN).  

So maybe the Bonhomme Richard conflagration might spur action on an idea that’s been floating around for a while.

Why not establish a multinational amphibious task force, akin to the USN Navy/Marine Corps amphibious ready group? The configuration varies, but an Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) is usually three amphibious ships – among them one big deck – and a couple of thousand Marines with their weapons, aircraft, vehicles and equipment.

This will relieve some of the strain on American amphibious forces. There is currently only one such unit forward deployed in the Asia-Pacific region. It is composed of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit on Okinawa and Amphibious Squadron 11 at Sasebo, Japan. That’s a lot of territory for one ARG to cover.

A multinational amphibious force will have beneficial knock-on effects, operational and political. As one obvious advantage, amphibious operations that combine air, sea and ground capabilities are the military equivalent of CrossFit training.  

This is how one develops thoroughgoing interoperability with partners, both at sea during operations and via the extensive pre-deployment coordination required to operate an amphibious force.  

First steps? For starters, make the initial unit a US-Australian affair. American and Australian forces already work well together.  

US Marines from the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines arrive in Darwin as part of a Marine Rotational Force in 2016. Photo: Twitter.

Base the unit at Darwin in northern Australia. Excellent port facilities already exist and can be improved. Australia’s top end is also a good location with direct access to the heart of Southeast Asia. Go a step farther and make Darwin the Asian equivalent of the US Navy’s amphibious training center at Coronado, near San Diego.

At the earliest opportunity, invite the Japanese Navy (Maritime Self Defense Force) and the Ground Self Defense Force’s Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade to join the unit.

As opposed to merely conducting pro forma canned exercises and “key leader engagements,” there’s a political knock-on effect when forces are solidly linked and regularly operate together. This builds confidence on both sides and adds a mutual sense of equality that is important but often overlooked. 

Other nations might also want in on a good thing. India, Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, New Zealand and others all have amphibious ships or forces that could incorporate periodically or even more deeply into a “free nations’” amphibious force. This could conceivably lead to two amphibious groups in the future.

Watching Bonhomme Richard burn was unpleasant – even for this former US Marine. Not least, she played a key role in Japan’s amphibious development. But maybe this will be what it takes to bring to fruition the idea of a standing multinational marine expeditionary unit or ARG in the Indo-Pacific.

One might suggest the US Navy and Marines might have made more efforts to develop and integrate partner amphibious capabilities. Indeed, all the talk about “interoperability” between US and foreign militaries was too often in name only, although every exercise done over the last 50 years declared “improving interoperability’” as an objective and every exercise was declared a rousing success. 

Aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force Akizuki-class destroyer JS Fuyuzuki transit alongside the Indian Deepak-class fleet tanker INS Shakti (A 57)(C) during a replenishment-at-sea exercise as a part of Exercise Malabar 2015. Photo: AFP/Handout/MCS Chad M Trudeau

Yet, a few years ago the Marines took score and noted there wasn’t a single partner force with which they could do a real-world, short notice amphibious operation. That’s neither here nor there, however; the important thing is to make up for lost time.

If the will exists, it will take a day or two for the right young officers to get something going. The US Navy has plenty of experience working with regional navies. And USN’s Japan-based 7th Fleet might even have a plan in the files already.

In fact, the biggest challenge of all might be getting the Australian Navy to move up to northern Australia.  It’s rustic and hot up there. Though nothing at all like the Kokoda Track in 1942.

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine Corps officer, a former US diplomat, currently a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies

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