Marines: An Inexpensive Success

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August 25, 2022: The U.S. Marine Corps recently decided to retire the first two of its new ESB (Expeditionary Mobile Base) ships because these two smaller ESD variants were built mainly to test the ESB concept, which proved to be a success. The improved ESB design was even more successful, so much so that the two earlier ships (Montford Point and John Glenn), which had been in service since 2014. Ordered in 2010, construction of the ESDs began in 2011 and was completed in 2014. Fitting out and sea trials were completed in less than a year. The EDSs performed as expected but the ESB design was much more effective. The ESD ships were retired, but kept in reserve just in case there is a national emergency and more ESB type ships are needed in a hurry.

By 2016 the first of the improved ESB ships was completed and in service by 2017. The first ESB began construction in 2013 with the second one doing the same in 2016. In mid-2019 the United States Navy ordered two more ESB with a sixth expected to receive approval by 2023. At that point the navy would have eight ESB type ships, with the first two in reserve. The ESBs are built to commercial (not military) ship standards and use mixed military and civilian crews. They can be equipped with defensive (anti-missile) systems. Current costs are about $510 million each.

This trend reached its goal in late 2016 when the U.S. Navy received the USNS Lewis B. Puller, which was the first of three ESB ships. The “ESB” is part of a recent trend and stands for Expeditionary Mobile Base. This design was previously known as MLP (Mobile Landing Platform) or AFSB (Afloat Forward Staging Base). The current ESB is a 78,000 ton ship that is basically a modified oil tanker. The flight deck can handle the heavy (33 ton) CH-53 transport helicopters as well as the MV-22 tilt rotor aircraft. A structure on the hanger deck contains mine-clearing gear used by the helicopters (like four mine-clearing sleds towed by the helicopters). The hanger deck carries boats and unmanned surface and underwater vehicles weighing up to 11 tons (the max that the cranes can handle.) The ESB crew consists of 101 navy personnel and 44 civilians. There are accommodations for an additional 298 personnel (commandos, marines, specialists of any sort). There are plans to add a gym and other facilities for troops. The flight deck can also operate many types of UAVs. There is a lot of cargo space for supplies and fuel. The ship is highly automated and before conversion only needed a crew of 34 civilians.

The first two ESBs were called ESDs and were half the size of the other five ESBs in service or under construction. The first of these smaller ESD type ESBs was completed in 2013 as ESD-1 Montford Point. ESD stood for Expeditionary Transfer Dock (formerly T-MLP) ships. Montford Point successfully completed its sea trials and entered service in early 2014. The second ESD (ESD-2 John Glenn) followed. Instead of building more of this design the navy switched to a different (but larger and similar) design; ESB. Originally the navy sought to use the ESD design as floating bases to support commando type operations ashore. The ESDs are 34,500-ton vessels that, in effect, serve as seagoing piers for situations where there is no friendly port handy. Each is 239 meters (785 feet) long and has up to 2,322 square meters (25,000 square feet) of deck space for storage of vehicles and aircraft.

The ESD looks like a container ship with the main deck lowered to approximately the height of a dock. On the side of the ESD are mooring fenders (so cargo ships can, literally, tie up like at a dock). The T-ESD also has ramps for getting cargo from ships or a dock. Cargo would be transferred to landing craft or LCAC (air-cushion high speed landing craft which can carry 60 tons of cargo). The ESD can also partially submerge itself so that its deck is underwater. Landing craft can then move over the deck and the ESD can bring its deck back out of the water so the landing craft can be loaded. T-ESDs are to each carry three LCACs. You could not base helicopters on the ESD and that was a major reason for switching to the larger ESB variants. These can carry helicopters and MV-22 tilt-rotor aircraft. The navy considered increasing the fire resistance of part of the deck so that the ESB could also handle vertical takeoff F-35B. This was not done because of the expense and the fact that existing (LPD/LHD) amphibious ships could handle the F-35B. The ESB supplemented the LPD/LPH type ships as well as providing seagoing bases for special operations forces or marines doing similar work. In effect it expanded the navy amphibious ship fleet with cheaper, but larger, ESB ships to handle longer-term logistical support of troops ashore.

The ESB concept had been studied for several decades because of the successful use of amphibious assault ships and even aircraft carriers as bases and support ships for special operations ashore. The ESB design began to emerge in 2006 as a vessel built using a modification of existing commercial ships.

At the same time USS Ponce, a 17,000-ton Austin class amphibious ship, that was due to retire (after 47 years in service), was rapidly (five months) converted from LPD-15 to AFSB-15. LPDs are amphibious ships with a dock in the rear for small boats. AFSB-15 was now a support ship for mine-clearing mainly, but also disaster relief or supporting commando operations. Normally these LPDs carry a reinforced battalion of marines, plus six CH-46 helicopters and 39 landing craft (24 of them AAV infantry fighting vehicles). LPD-15 normally has a crew of 420, plus space for 900 marines and vehicles or cargo. The shipyard conversion saw a lot of berthing spaces for the marines converted to work areas (for headquarters or training). Since the converted ship got by with half as many crew, the crew quarters were remodeled to make them roomier and more comfortable. The modified Ponce was equipped to support smaller mine-clearing ships and helicopters as well as serving as a floating base for MH-53 mine clearing helicopters. There is also more communications gear and special equipment, like UAVs and UUVs (unmanned submarines the size of torpedoes used for finding mines). The ESBs could do all that and more

China, like the United States after World War II, is now the largest commercial ship builder in the world and used this to quickly develop an increasingly formidable amphibious warfare capability that is optimized for regional operations, in contrast to the American need for amphib forces that operate globally. China has taken advantage of this to develop some smaller and cheaper amphibious support ships. The latest example appeared in 2015 as the Donghaidao ESB (Expeditionary Mobile Base) type amphibious support ship. The Chinese ESB is 175.5 meters (576 feet) long and displaces about 20,000-tons. That makes the Donghaidao half the size as the first ESB/ESD introduced in 2014 by the U.S. Navy. Both ESB designs do the same thing. The Chinese one is smaller and more suitable for Chinese needs.

 


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