Light Aircraft Carriers: The U.S. Marines Might Have More F-35s Fighting from the Sea
The U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship USS Wasp in March 2019 deployed to the Indo-Pacific region with no fewer than 10 F-35B Lightning II stealth fighters on board. An assault ship usually embarks just six F-35s or older AV-8B Harrier jump jets. In sailing with nearly twice as many vertical-landing fighters than is normal for an assault ship, Wasp is helping to prove a concept the Marine Corps seriously has been mulling over for years now -- transforming amphibious ships into light aircraft carriers.
The U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship USS Wasp in March 2019 deployed to the Indo-Pacific region with no fewer than 10 F-35B Lightning II stealth fighters on board. An assault ship usually embarks just six F-35s or older AV-8B Harrier jump jets.
In sailing with nearly twice as many vertical-landing fighters than is normal for an assault ship, Wasp is helping to prove a concept the Marine Corps seriously has been mulling over for years now -- transforming amphibious ships into light aircraft carriers.
It's an idea that's gaining credibility as the Navy considers cutting the number of large carriers in the fleet.
For years the normal air wing for the Navy's eight Wasp-class assault ships has included around 10 MV-22 tiltrotor transports, four AH-1Z attack helicopters, four UH-1Y light helicopters, five CH-53E heavylift helicopters and the six fighters, plus a couple of Navy MH-60s for search and rescue.
But the L-class Wasps were capable of trading helicopters for fighters. During the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, four assault ships each embarked up to 20 Harriers in order to contribute to the coalition air campaign.
"This is not the norm for an amphib," Senior Chief Aviation Boatswain's Mate Wynn Young, leading chief petty officer of USS Bonhomme Richard's air department, in 2003 told a Navy reporter. "Our air assets dictate that we operate more like a carrier."
As the Marines began replacing old AV-8Bs and other jets with "fifth-generation" F-35s, planners dusted off the "Harrier carrier" concept and rebranded it as the "Lightning carrier." Other naval experts simply refer to the Harrier and Lightning carriers as "light carriers."
"By 2025, the Marine Corps will operate 185 F-35Bs—enough to equip all seven L-Class ships," the Marines Corps explained in its 2017 aviation strategy. In fact, the Navy expects to operate at least 10 L-class ships, including the Wasps and three, newer America-class vessels. An assault ships displaces around 40,000 tons of water, making it slightly less than half as big by displacement as the Navy's 11 nuclear-powered supercarriers.
A Lightning carrier would embark between 16 and 20 F-35s, compared to the roughly 40 strike fighters that a supercarrier normally carries. A Lightning carrier 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.
"While the amphibious assault ship will never replace the aircraft carrier, it can be complementary, if employed in imaginative ways," the Corps stated. "A Lightning carrier, taking full advantage of the amphibious assault ship as a sea base, can provide the naval and joint force with significant access, collection and strike capabilities."
And a light carrier could help the Navy shift to a more survivable fleet design. Worrying over the increasing lethality of Chinese and Russian anti-ship missiles, in early 2019 the Navy proposed to decommission the supercarrier USS Harry S. Truman 25 years early in the 2020s, dropping the fleet of large flattops to 10 in the medium term and as few as nine in the long term.
A new Ford-class supercarrier costs around $13 billion. An America-class assault ships costs just $3 billion. A light carrier based on an amphibious ship "might be a low-risk, alternative pathway for the Navy to reduce carrier costs if such a variant were procured in greater numbers than the current carrier shipbuilding plan," California think-tank RAND explained in a 2017 report. "Our analysis suggests a two-to-one replacement."
But a supercarrier with its larger size and nuclear powerplant possesses endurance that a conventionally-powered assault ship never could match. Likewise, the bigger supercarriers can embark specialist aircraft such as radar-early-warning planes, radar-jamming planes and tanker drones that are too big for a light carrier to handle.
A light carrier "would not be a viable option for the eventual carrier force unless displaced capabilities were reassigned to new aircraft or platforms in the joint force, which would be costly," RAND pointed out.
The Marines already are planning to equip V-22s with aerial-refueling systems so that the tiltrotors can double as tankers for a Lightning carrier. But no one has proposed a radar-early-warning aircraft or jammer that would be suitable for an assault ship.
A broader compromise could involve the Navy slightly reducing its supercarrier fleet while the fleet more frequently operates assault ships as light carriers with larger numbers of F-35s. Indeed, that's what appears to be happening with Wasp's 2019 deployment.
"We might never need to employ this way -- and may not want to, based upon the need to employ our amphibious ships in a more traditional role -- but to not lean forward to develop this capability, to train and exercise with it, is to deny ourselves a force multiplier that highlights the agility and opportunity only the Navy-Marine Corps team can provide," the Marine Corps stated.
David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels War Fix, War Is Boring and Machete Squad.