The family and I traveled in Hampton Roads this week during New England school vacation. Our purpose was to tarry at delightful Colonial Williamsburg, one of my and Beth's haunts during the early 1990s (from my navy days and her William & Mary days). But getting there from the Maryland Eastern Shore, our point of origin, requires you to pass along the Naval Station Norfolk waterfront. That stretch of Interstate 64 always dredges up old memories. My old ship, the retired battleship Wisconsin, is now a museum in downtown Norfolk, her once and, apparently, final homeport. That makes me feel like a bit of a museum piece myself.
There's a serious point to this saunter down memory lane, and it relates to the imprecise use of ship types in public discourse. The op-ed bug bit me in late 2000 after reporters and other opinion makers took to describing the bomb attack on the destroyer Cole as an attack on an American "battleship," connoting a behemoth comparable to the Wisconsin and her sisters. This was grossly misleading, implying as it did that the assailants in Aden had pierced the foot-plus-thick armor sheathing a dreadnought's sides. Judging from the reports, they must have struck with uncanny force and resolve to tear a seventeen-foot gash in the Cole's hull. In fact, American destroyers are lightly armored. The Aden attack was less impressive than many commentators let on. (For the full argument see here) The upshot: battleship is not a generic term like warship.
Occasional sloppiness persists to this day. In a recent story on China's construction of amphibious warships, for instance, the usually redoubtable Reuters correspondent David Lague declares that the U.S. Navy "intends to deploy its own new amphibious assault vessels, the Littoral Combat Ships, to the 'maritime crossroads' of the Asia-Pacific theater, stationing them in Singapore and perhaps the Philippines."
Lague conflates two ship types, namely China's new landing platform dock, or LPD, and the Littoral Combat Ship, or LCS, an entirely new seaframe unique to the U.S. Navy. In so doing he implies that the U.S. and Chinese navies are massing amphibious striking power — manifest in embarked marines and their supporting air and sea arms — in the South China Sea. That sounds ominous, as though each side is gearing up for amphibious landings and counter-landings. Where's Sergeant John Stryker, USMC, (a.k.a. John Wayne) when you need him to scale Mount Suribachi?
Thankfully, the apocalypse isn't yet upon us. The People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has developed an LPD design, the Type 071, that is inspired by the LPDs operated by the U.S. Navy for many decades. Such a vessel can transport several hundred marines. It has a flight deck and hangar for an embarked helicopter detachment. Most strikingly, it can "ballast down." Much as a submarine deliberately takes seawater into its internal tanks to submerge and blows it out with compressed air to surface, an LPD can partially submerge its stern to flood its "well deck." Now afloat, landing craft can exit and enter the ship under their own power. Small wonder the LPD has long been a workhorse of the U.S. fleet. The progress of the PLAN's Type 071 LPD program is indeed worth monitoring as China's first modern "amphibs" take to the seas. They represent a significant capability.
The LCS, to channel "Monty Python's Flying Circus," is something completely different! This corvette-sized craft is roughly one-eighth the tonnage of America's latest LPDs, carries a far smaller complement, and lacks a well deck and other distinctive features. Most importantly, its missions bear little resemblance to the larger vessel's. LPDs land and support forces ashore; the LCS is a multimission craft. Once engineers perfect its interchangeable "mission modules," the ship will be able to hunt submarines, attack other surface ships, and clear mines, prosecuting one of these missions at a time. LPDs sport no such capabilities.
Once the much-discussed LCS contingent takes station in the South China Sea, it will likely carry out police duties like counterpiracy and counterproliferation — jobs for which amphibious assault ships like LPDs are ill-suited on a good day. There has been talk of eventually configuring some of the LCSs to carry small contingents of troops. But even if that transpires, the LCS will never play in the LPD's league. In short, never mistake one of these ship types for the other.
My parting advice is to cultivate a wary attitude toward labels that don't seem quite right. Professionals err. The fine folks at GlobalSecurity.org and the Federation of American Scientists maintain "DOD 101" websites that cover the rudiments of military hardware. You can usually clear up such misunderstandings with a few minutes' websurfing. Check 'em out.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College and co-editor of the forthcoming Strategy in the Second Nuclear Age: Power, Ambition, and the Ultimate Weapon. The views voiced here are his alone.