The Rise of the Amphibious Warfare Ships

A Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) approaches the well deck of the amphibious transport dock "USS Green Bay."

A Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) approaches the well deck of the amphibious transport dock “USS Green Bay.”

In a rapidly changing world marked by terrorism and natural disasters, navies across the world are looking to diversify. Modern navies find themselves called upon for disaster relief and counter-insurgency far more often than naval warfare, but must still retain naval warfighting capabilities for times of crisis. Amidst this dilemma, amphibious warfare ships are becoming a popular asset for navies all over the world, for reasons to be explored in this article.

First, a brief explanation of the term amphibious warfare ship. Amphibious warfare ships (commonly referred to as “amphibs”) are vessels whose primary role is the insertion of forces onto land from the sea. They vary greatly in size and capabilities. The largest amphibs displace more than a small aircraft carrier and can launch fixed-wing STOVL aircraft such as the F-35B or Harrier. The smallest merely insert troops onto beaches using small boats or hovercraft. Most amphibs land their forces using either a well deck or helicopters. A well deck is a floodable water-level deck that can deploy boats and hovercraft. Many amphibs have both a well deck and aviation facilities. The small vessels launched from the amphib then make their way towards land, allowing for the establishment of a beachhead from which conventional land forces can conduct operations. One must consider that past amphibious landings have suffered heavy casualties against a well-prepared foe, as the landing crafts are not as well protected as tanks or infantry fighting vehicles. However, many new technologies (V-22 Osprey, improved helicopters, F-35B, and new amphibious vehicles) have been introduced to increase the mobility and lethality of an amphibious assault. As a result, no one can know for certain how well a modern amphibious assault incorporating these new technologies would fare.

The Japanese Izumo-class helicopter destroyer, which is essentially a helicopter-only amphibious warfare ship (albeit with a great deal of anti-submarine capabilities as well).

The Japanese Izumo-class helicopter destroyer, which is essentially a helicopter-only amphibious warfare ship (albeit with a great deal of anti-submarine capabilities as well). An example of a large and advanced amphib.

The procurement of amphibs is proceeding at a rapid pace. More affordable than aircraft carriers, many nations are procuring amphibs to meet their expeditionary needs. Over 28 countries operate or are purchasing amphibious warfare ships, including naval lightweights such as the Philippines and Oman. By comparison, only five countries operate Conventional Take-Off and Landing (CTOL) aircraft carriers.

What makes amphibious warfare ships so attractive? The answer is versatility. The ability to quickly bridge the gap between land and sea has a multitude of uses. For one, amphibs can be used for Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR). In fact, amphibs are often commissioned with an official emphasis on HA/DR. The helicopter facilities present on most amphibs allow for access to inland areas. In addition, amphib-launched helicopters are ideal for rapid evacuation of casualties as well as insertion of search-and-rescue (SAR) personnel. Even amphibs with no aviation facilities can assist by evacuating coastal and delivering supplies by boat. For nations whose territory includes many remote islands lacking in ports and airfields, the rugged HA/DR abilities of an amphib can be extremely useful, especially as global climate change cranks up the frequency of severe natural disasters. After all, no country wants to endure the humiliation of needing other nations to save its own people.

Furthermore, amphibs can carry out many combat-related tasks, making them militarily versatile. For example, they can serve as command vessels. Italian Rear Admiral Massimo Annati (Ret.) says: “In many cases the major amphibious vessels can act as command vessels, thanks to relevant facilities for an embarked staff and large availability of communication suites as well as command-and-control systems.” He further notes: “Thanks to the presence of large spaces onboard, together with the availability of small watercraft, helicopters, accommodations, etc, [the role of amphibs can be] expanded also to new tasks as different as Mine Counter Measures Command and Support Ship (MCS), floating base for Maritime Interception Operations with an Embarked Military Force, support of patrol craft during security operations to distant areas, transport, humanitarian and disaster-relief operations, and more.” Some of this versatility is provided by the embarkment of helicopters, which can perform tasks from insertion of forces to antisubmarine warfare to cargo transport. By simply changing helicopter outfits, amphibs can accomplish a wide variety of tasks. For navies who do not have the liberty of purchasing purpose-built vessels for every mission, this is an appealing proposition.

In addition, amphibs are useful during high-intensity conflicts. As demonstrated in the Falklands War, the STOVL aircraft carried on some amphibs are capable of holding their own and even triumphing against conventional planes under certain circumstances. Of course, modern STOVL aircraft will never be superior performance-wise to modern conventional aircraft; STOVL aircraft are burdened by the extra equipment necessary for shorter takeoffs and landings. However, STOVL aircraft can triumph if their adversaries are under-equipped, poorly trained, or arrive to combat low on fuel. Because of this, amphibs are quite useful for defending far-flung interests, especially islands such as the Falklands which are not easily accessible to high-performance aircraft without aerial refueling. Further, amphibs are well suited to launching strikes against insurgents who have limited air defense capabilities. Amphibs can also carry attack helicopters to provide fire support for landing forces.

In conclusion, the number of nations operating amphibious warfare vessels today exceeds the number nations with CTOL aircraft carriers, a trend which will likely continue. While designed primarily to insert land forces from the sea, amphibs can perform other roles as well, making them ideal for smaller navies. With amphibs on order or planned for a multitude of nations including the Philippines, Egypt, India, Canada, the United States, China, and Japan, these vessels will continue to be an increasingly common sight on the world’s oceans and seas.

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