U.S. Marine Corps F-35B stealth fighters could operate from South Korea's new amphibious ships, one Marine commander hinted.
Lt. Gen. Lewis Craparotta, the commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific, told reporters there's no reason vertical-landing F-35s couldn't operate from the South Korean navy's Dokdo and Marado assault ships.
Craparotta made his announcement while discussing the recent deployment from Hawaii to South Korea of 14 U.S. aircraft -- including four MV-22s, four CH-53s, four AH-1Zs and two UH-1Y transport helicopters -- for exercises South Korean marines.
Craparotta said his Marines' "readiness improves every time they come to train" with the South Koreans.
The 653-feet-long Dokdo, which entered service in 2007, is one of South Korea's largest warships. Sister ships Marado is under construction. Dokdo normally embarks an air wing composed of as many as 10 helicopters.
Craparotta's comment could expand the number of vessels the Marine Corps considers as candidate platforms for its expanding force of F-35s. The Marines are buying 340 F-35Bs to replace existing AV-8B jump jets and F/A-18 fighters.
The Marine F-35Bs primarily operate from land bases as well as from the U.S. Navy's nine Wasp- and America-class assault ships. The Corps also has proposed deploying F-35s on the United Kingdom's two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.
The former chief of the British defense staff, army general David Richards, in 2014 floated the idea of placing American F-35 on British flattops in order to buy time for the Royal Air Force to build up its own force of stealth fighters. "If we can catch up using American aircraft in the intervening period that would make good sense," Richards said.
In theory, any ship that operates AV-8s with some modification also could support F-35Bs. Spain and Italy both operate assault ships embarking AV-8s. Both countries
Besides including more ship types in its F-35 plans, the Marines also are experimenting with larger air wings. The assault ship USS Wasp in March 2019 deployed to the Indo-Pacific region with at least 10 F-35Bs aboard, four more than her normal complement.
The Corps has proposed embarking as many as 20 F-35s on an assault ship, compared to the roughly 40 strike fighters that one of the Navy's supercarriers normally carries. A assault ship with 20 F-35s should be able to sustain 40 sorties per day, the Marines estimated. A new Ford-class supercarrier, by contrast, is supposed to be able to sustain 160 sorties per day.
"You can still do a lot with a small air wing," Eric Wertheim, an independent naval analyst and author of Combat Fleets of the World, told The National Interest. "Especially when it contains advanced stealth aircraft like the F-35B."
But deploying wings of F-35s across more different kinds of ships is consistent with the Marines' concept of "distributed warfare," where forces spread out in order to avoid enemy attack then come together for offensive operations.
The American F-35s could operate alongside allied countries' own stealth fighters. Japan's cabinet on Dec. 18, 2018 approved a plan to modify the Japanese navy's two Izumo-class helicopter carriers to embark F-35B stealth fighters.
At the same time the Japanese cabinet approved the ship modifications, it also endorsed the purchase of 42 F-35Bs from builder Lockheed Martin at a cost of around $5 billion.
There have been reports that Seoul also wants to acquires its own F-35Bs. John Pike, a U.S. military analyst, told CNBC the F-35B would give the South Korean fleet an air-defense capability "that you wouldn't want to mess with."
The stealth fighter's downward-blasting lift jet can melt unprepared metal surfaces. To prepare its own ships for F-35 operations, the U.S. Navy added a special heat-resistant coating to the vessels' decks. The Izumos' flight decks also need a heat-resistant coating to protect them from the F-35B's lift fan.
It's unclear whether the Dokdo-class ships would need modifications to make them compatible with the F-35.