Replacing the five original LHAs was an urgent requirement; the ships were old, had been worked hard, and had reached the end of their operational lives. When the first of the replacement ships was designed, a number of key decisions that seemed logical at the time have since become questionable. Of these, the most controversial has been the deletion of the well deck and the resulting reliance on aircraft to carry out the ships’ missions. In reality, the new ships were LPHs rather than LHAs.
The problems with the new design became apparent as experience with the ships grew. They centered around one undeniable and insoluble issue: the ships could not land heavy armor over a beach. As was found at Tarawa, Iwo Jima, and Omaha Beach, heavy armor is essential if the Marines are going to solidify their beachhead at anything close to an acceptable cost.
The logic behind the decision to build the LHA-6 class was that amphibious operations were so dependent on air capability that it was a worthwhile trade-off to eliminate the docking bay and replace it with additional munitions and fuel storage. The potential capability of the F-35B was held to reinforce this perception. However, the essential political problem with the new design had already raised its head. The ships looked like aircraft carriers and operated in much the same way as aircraft carriers. Inevitably, pressure to count the ships against the U.S. Navy total of (then) 12 carriers was mounting.
Operations and politics combined to enforce the decision to redesign the LHA-6 class to incorporate a docking bay. This essentially meant redesigning the aft end of the ship. Through some deft design work, a docking bay capable of handling two LCACs was included at the cost of some aviation fuel and munitions capacity and a minor impact on accommodations for troops. The LHA-8 would be a much more effective ship than the LHA-6 at more or less the same size and cost.
So, where does this leave the dock-less LHA-6 and LHA-7? They are oddities with no real home in the fleet, they are politically awkward ships that pose a potential threat to CVNs, and they are too expensive to decommission early. Perhaps they could be sold to an allied nation that needs two light aircraft carriers – sorry, two amphibious assault ships.
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