Marines: Doing San Antonio Right


September 13, 2018: The U.S. Navy is spending nearly $200 million to design a second batch (Flight II) of its San Antonio class LPDs (Amphibious Transport Dock). These “LPD 30” class ships will be built without some of the more troublesome and expensive features of the first (Flight I) LPD-17s. The new design is supposed to get the cost per ship down to an average of about $1.5 billion and be capable of performing a wider variety of duties. The first of these special jobs is replacing aging command ships. The basic LPD 30 design will thus accommodate 400 crew (including specialists for other duties like a command ship) and carry only 500 Marines and fewer landing craft. A lot of the space normally devoted to Marines and their equipment (vehicles, landing craft and aircraft) is to be redesigned so they can quickly be switched to other tasks, including embarking more missiles or electronic equipment. In effect, the Navy wants Flight II of the San Antonios to use the same hull and basic features of the LPD 17s but with a number of economical and practical changes. At least that is the goal and the new design is to be completed by 2020. At that point, the Navy and Congress (who has to provide the cash) have to approve the Flight II design and decide how many to build. The original plan was to build 13 of the Flight II ships but a lot depends on how much the Navy and Congress trust the plan, which will be carried out by a new generation of shipbuilders who have an opportunity to show they learned from the mistakes with the Flight I LPD-17s, or not.

The 25,400 ton Flight I San Antonio class ships were something of a disaster. The original design was created in the 1990s and sought to avoid the growing number of problems American warship builders were experiencing. The LPD 17 design incorporated a lot of new features that made the ships stealthier and easier to operate and live in (for both crew and Marines). There were a lot problems with building them and a lot of changes and repairs were required on the first few ships. The original cost of $800 million each ballooned to $1.6 billion with the last two costing about two billion dollars each. The eleven already built entered service between 2006 and 2017 with another two (under construction) appearing in the early 2020s. All these LPDs are expected to serve until the 2050s and replace 41 other ships comprising four classes of amphibious ships (LPD 4, LSD 36, LST 1179 and LKA 113).

The lead LPD 17 ship was supposed to enter service in 2002 but encountered so many problems that had to be fixed that it was not until early 2006 that the San Antonio (LPD-17) was accepted into service. There were also some problems with subsequent ships, but not as severe as with LPD 17. A lot of the blame went to poor management at the shipyard and ineffective supervision by the Navy. The Flight II LPDs are an attempt to learn from those mistakes and not repeat them. Sometimes that works, sometimes not.

The original San Antonio class ships are 208 meters (684 feet) long, have a crew of 361 and carry 700 Marines and all their equipment. There is 2322 square meters (25,000 square feet) for vehicle storage. The hospital has two operating rooms and the ability to expand from the normal 24 beds to 124 beds in an emergency.

Onboard weapons include two Bushmaster II 30mm Close In Guns and two Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) launchers to defend against anti-ship missiles. The ship is designed to carry and use two LCAC (Landing Craft Air Cushion vehicle), and 14 of the new amphibious assault vehicles. The MV-22 (Osprey tiltrotor aircraft), as well as current helicopters, can operate off the ships flight deck. The flight deck can handle two MV-22 tilt-rotor aircraft once and the ship can carry up to five MV-22s.

The Flight IIs will use the same hull design as the Flight I ships and will look very similar from the outside. Inside Flight II will be quite different. Details to follow when the Flight II design is finished.




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