Marine Corps vertical take-off F-35Bs are launching on long-range strike missions from U.S. Navy amphibious assault ships, traveling hundreds of miles to operate above and attack hostile territory from the ocean.
The jets have been taking off from the USS Makin Island in the Arabian Gulf to execute “long-range strike” operations in support of ongoing airstrikes in Operation Inherent Resolve, and also operating from the USS America in the East China Sea. Both of these scenarios further fortify the evolving tactical concept that amphibs, now armed with the F-35B, can project power from the sea in an impactful and decisive fashion previously not possible.
Prior to the arrival of the F-35B, amphibious assault ships operated Harrier jets, Ospreys and helicopters, along with ship-to-shore amphibious vehicles, landing craft and other platforms which, while useful, could not perform the missions an F-35 can. Therefore, the arrival of the F-35 is impacting tactics and concepts of operation (CONOPS) for Navy amphibious assault ships which some see as increasingly taking on a carrier-type of power projection ocean attack role. The deck launched long range strike capabilities of an F-35, coupled with its long-range, drone-like sensors, can perform forward reconnaissance and attack missions simply not possible prior to its arrival. As part of this equation, the F-35 can also provide close air support for Marine Corps Expeditionary units conducting ship-to-shore amphibious assault in ways that change operational tactics.
All of this of course introduces the question of whether amphibs or “amphib-like” light carriers could be a wave of the future because they can move more quickly, be more agile and present a less vulnerable target to well-known long-range anti-ship missiles described as “carrier killers.” There is much debate when it comes to the extent to which Chinese DF-26 anti-ship missiles, able to launch precision strikes at ranges out to 2,000 miles could destroy, disable or simply stop carriers from operating in ranges necessary for air strikes, yet is also seems clear that smaller, lighter and potentially faster platforms able to project long-range strike power from the sea might be less vulnerable than large carriers.
Many maintain that carriers are going nowhere soon, yet there are numerous ongoing Navy studies looking into the question as to whether future aircraft carriers should be engineered with new configurations better able to survive the fast-evolving current threat environment, while still retaining the ability to launch massive attacks from the ocean. Long-range strike missions for the F-35B, launched from amphibious assault ships, figure prominently as part of this equation, to be sure. Perhaps using F-35B-armed amphibious assault ships can offer a bridge into a future where new smaller, faster, lighter aircraft carrier configurations are able to accomplish the crucial power-projection mission at lower risk? Certainly, these ongoing long-range strike missions suggest that amphibious assault ships can function in this capacity, and they can carry a sufficient number of F-35s. The USS America, for example, has completed deployments with as many as thirteen operational F-35s.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University