The US Marines’ China-fighting, island hopping Q Ship plan is in trouble

US Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS) missiles firing during joint drills in Shoalwater Bay, Australia, in 2023. The US Marines plan to use these and other long-range weapons in an island-hopping campaign in the event of war with China
US Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS) missiles firing during joint drills in Shoalwater Bay, Australia, in 2023. The US Marines plan to use these and other long-range weapons in an island-hopping campaign in the event of war with China - Andrew Leeson/AFP via Getty

The US Marine Corps has a new island-hopping strategy for a possible war with China. But the strategy requires a new ship – an easy-to-hide medium landing ship that’s cheap enough for the US Navy to buy quickly and in large numbers.

But the Medium Landing Ship – or LSM in Navy parlance – is two years behind schedule, and costs are rising. The delays and increasing cost aren’t isolated problems – they’re endemic to the whole portfolio of Navy shipbuilding programs as the Pentagon grapples with serious labor issues.

Right now the Americans are struggling to acquire any warships, even the simplest and cheapest ones. And that could jeopardize the Marines’ Pacific war strategy.

The Medium Landing Ship shouldn’t have been so difficult to build. The requirements the Marines hashed out with the Navy, shortly after then Marine commandant General David Berger announced the Corps’ new island-hopping strategy five years ago, weren’t terribly ambitious.

The Medium Landing Ship would be just 200 to 400 feet long with a loading ramp, a helicopter pad, a few light guns for self-defence and space for 70 crew, a platoon of 50 Marines as well as 650 tons of weapons and supplies. It would sail for 3,500 miles at 14 knots and, with its innocuous appearance, be very difficult to pick out from among civilian sea traffic – the key to its stealth and survival in waters near China without heavy Navy protection. Like the Q-ships of the World Wars, LSMs are intended to carry out their mission by disguising themselves as merchant vessels.

The idea is for the LSMs to land Marines on remote islands inside the so-called “first island chain” stretching from the Philippines to Japan. The Marines would launch drones and missiles to hound Chinese warships, using their island bases as unsinkable weapons platforms – and then climb back aboard their landing ships and depart before the Chinese could arrive in force.

The plan, as recently as 2023, was for the Navy to buy at least 18 and as many as 35 Medium Landing Ships for $150 million apiece starting that year. Instead, keel-laying for the first ship has slipped to 2025 at the earliest – and the cost could rise to $400 million per ship. Inflation accounts for some of the price boost, but the design is a factor, too. The Navy is leaning toward the larger version of the vessel.

The price could inflate or deflate before workers cut the first steel, according to a recent report from the US Congressional Budget Office.

“For example, if the Navy made changes to the design of the ships that made them more equivalent to amphibious warfare ships than to commercial ships, then the LSMs could cost between $475 million and $600 million each,” the CBO explained.

“Conversely” the CBO added, “ships built to largely unimproved commercial standards could cost $110 million to $140 million each.”

Don’t count on the latter happening. The Navy – indeed, the whole US military – almost always goes with the heavier, more bespoke version of a weapon system. Indeed, that tendency to complicate designs is one of the reasons for delays in other warship programs.

So expect those new landing ships to arrive late and over-budget. If construction really does begin in 2025, the first vessel could commission into service in 2029 – a full decade after the Marines committed to their new island-hopping strategy.

If there’s an upside for the Marines, it’s that the situation could’ve been worse. For years, the Navy and Marines tussled over the shape of the future US fleet. The Marines have always said they need around three dozen big amphibious ships – 800-foot big deck helicopter carriers and 700-foot transports, not 400-foot Medium Landing Ships – for landing Marine battalions in large-scale operations.

The Navy for its part has always felt that the big amphibious ships could not survive without protective escort warships in a battle against heavily armed enemies such as China: and it doesn’t have such escorts available for so many amphibs. The Navy also dislikes having to supply the crews for ships which are essentially platforms for Marine aircraft and landing forces. It has long pushed back against the Marines’ often successful efforts to get amphibious ships forced through by politicians in Washington.

Following a bitter bureaucratic debate, in 2022 the two services finally settled on a new minimum fleet size for the amphibious force: 31 big ships plus at least 18 Medium Landing Ships.

Better late than never for such an important capability, right?