LHA(R) LHD Plug Plus

The amphibious fleet is organized for forward presence into twelve ARGs (which in turn become part of Expeditionary Strike Groups), each with three ships. The centerpiece of the ARG is a Wasp-class or Tarawa-class amphibious assault ship. The five ships of the Tarawa class general-purpose amphibious assault ships (LHA) reach the end of their expected service lives at the rate of one per year from 2011 to 2015. LHD 8 will replace one of these LHAs, leaving the LHA(R) program to replace the last four Tarawa-class LHAs.

The LHA 1 class is a multi purpose amphibious assault ship delivered to the Navy in the 1970's. The design merged the flight deck of an LPH and the vehicle and well deck of an LPD. The design allowed the use of helicopters and landing craft to conduct amphibious assaults. As technology evolved, new amphibious assault systems have been introduced into service (e.g. LCAC) which required the modification of the LHA design, resulting in the LHD 1 Class.

In March 2001, the Navy and Joint Staff approved and validated the LHA(R) Mission Need Statement. The office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics authorized Milestone "A" Acquisition status for the program, as well as its entry into the concept exploration phase in July 2001.

The mission of the LHA Replacement (R) Program is a spiral development ship construction program designed to: provide a functional replacement for the LHA 1 Class ships which will reach the end of their extended service lives in consecutive years beginning in FY 11; ensure that the Amphibious Fleet remains capable of Expeditionary Strike Warfare in support of the Navy and Marine Corps Global CONOPS well into the 21st. Century; and provide for an affordable and sustainable amphibious ship development program. LHA(R) ships will provide forward presence and power projection as an integral part of Joint, interagency, and mult-national maritime expeditionary forces.

Under Department of Defense guidance, the Navy conducted an analysis of alternatives (AoA) study to determine the best method of replacing the four remaining LHAs. This study, completed in the summer of 2002, evaluated the following alternatives: a repeat LHD-8 with evolutionary modifications, a modified LHD-8 (77 feet longer and 10 feet wider), upgraded to enhance its ability to operate the larger and more capable new-generation amphibious systems, and new ship designs spanning a wide range of size and capability.

As of early 2002, Northrop Grumman, which had sought to position itself as a RMA firm, had expressed a preference for modifying Ingalls' Wasp-class amphibious ships rather than developing a new design for the LHA Replacement (LHA-R).

The Navy and Marine Corps Service leadership determined the LHD Plug Plus to be the most suitable choice based on cost, capability and schedule. The first ship was scheduled for an FY 2008 contract award and delivery in the 2013-2014 time frame, with the following ships in the class being acquired every 3 years. This extended procurement and construction schedule would result in the last Tarawa class LHA being retired in 2022, seven years past its 35-year expected service life.

By December 2002 a slightly longer and wider version of the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship was one of three designs under consideration as a "sea base" to replace four aging LHA-class "big deck" amphibious ships by 2015. A second alternative would be to continue building additional units of the Wasp class, with some improvements on the legacy design without enlarging the ship to make room for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the MV-22. The third alternative would be an all-new design, with room for both new planes, including deck space to launch helicopters and conventional aircraft simultaneously. At about $3 billion per ship, the "plug plus" would be more expensive than the existing Wasp design, but cheaper than the $4 billion needed for a completely new design. The new design ship would feature a dual tram design, with the command and control island amidships and center deck, allowing concurrent rotary wing and fixed-wing flight operations. The result would be a ship with two flight decks.

The "LHD plug plus" would be 77 feet longer and have a flight deck 10 feet wider than that of the Wasp class. The extra room would accommodate about twenty F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, along with an assortment of helicopters and MV-22 tilt-rotor aircraft. The "plug plus" name referred to the addition of two hull sections, one 21 feet long, the other 56 feet long, to the current LHD design. In essence, the new ship would extend the LHD's hangar bay forward; the displaced shops and spaces, along with expanded cargo and ammunition magazines, would be relocated to space freed up by closing the well deck. The 22% increase over the Wasp-class would provide room for the F-35 and the MV-22, both of which are larger than the aircraft they replace. The new ships would carry an assortment of landing craft and more than 1,800 Marines.

LHA(X) would feature expanded aviation capabilities, such as the ability to carry between 20 and 25 short takeoff, vertical landing versions of the multi-service, multinational F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) under development by Lockheed Martin. This would be a major increase in capability and durability from the legacy LHA force that can only accommodate about a half dozen Boeing (BA) AV-8B Harrier II strike aircraft.

As of early 2003 the Marine Corps supported a modified LHD-8 ("Plug Plus") ship design in FY 2007 to replace existing LHA class ships. The Corps, through Analysis of Alternatives and ongoing studies, evaluated the adequacy of the R&D and SCN funding for the development of ships for the LHA follow-on replacements. The overall age of the amphibious fleet is also a concern as it is 25% older than the average of all other Navy ships.

As of early 2004 the LHA(R) 1 was planned as a modified LHD 8 Variant (Plug Plus with increased length and beam) and a repeat of the warfare system of LHD 8, with a new MFR/VSR based warfare system targeted for LHA(R) 2. New systems, such as the MV-22, AAAV, and the JSF were in development and, in order to fully integrate these systems, a ship with greater flight deck capability and improved stability was required. Future programs such as the CH-53E and AH-1Z replacement aircraft would further stress current ship designs. To facilitate new USMC operational doctrine, such as Operational Maneuver From the Sea, Ship to Objective Maneuver, and Seabased logistics, operational requirements would be modified for these improved capabilities.

The typical deck-spotting factor for aircraft on a big-deck amphibious assault ship like the LHA or LHD is based on the CH-46 medium helicopter, which has a spotting factor of 1.0 with its blades folded. The MV-22, with its blades folded, has a spotting factor of 2.22. The AV-8B has a spotting factor of 1.53; the JSF has a spotting factor of 2.05. When built, the LHD was credited with a spotting-factor rating of forty-five (i.e., CH-46 equivalents). To account for the MH-60 helicopters normally carried as well as flight deck gear, the current spotting factor used for LHDs is forty-two.

LHA(R) 1 configuration is Analysis of Alternatives Concept LHD Modified Repeat (Plug Plus), without radar cross section reduction, and with repeat of LHD 8 warfare system with fact of life changes. Resources for comprehensive manpower optimization were not funded within current program requirements as reflected in this project.

LHA(R) 2 studies supported the design requirements to meet the operational requirements for LHA(R) 2. In FY2005 funding commenced identifying impacts and design issues for (1) integration of the MFR/VSR based warfare system targeted for LHA(R) 2, (2) ship system and structure changes required for full integration of new fielded systems such as MV-22 and AAAV and other replacement/new craft to be developed such as JSF and Heavy Lift LCAC, and (3) other changes required for the ship to meet operational requirements.

This design reportedly would have cost an estimated $3.7 billion to procure, including $800 million in design and engineering costs. The Navy announced in 2004 that it intended to drop the plug-plus design in favor of a less expensive design based on the existing Wasp class hull.

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