Meet America's New 'Assault Ship' Armed with F-35s (And Much More)

November 22, 2019 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: F-35MarinesNavyChinaTechnologyAmerica-Class

Meet America's New 'Assault Ship' Armed with F-35s (And Much More)

Firing deck-mounted guns, intercepting enemy cruise missiles, launching F-35B Joint Strike Fighters and using Osprey tiltrotor aircraft to attack behind enemy lines -- are all mission possibilities envisioned for the Navy’s fast-progressing second big-deck America-class amphibious assault ship, the future USS Tripoli. 

(Washington, D.C.) Firing deck-mounted guns, intercepting enemy cruise missiles, launching F-35B Joint Strike Fighters and using Osprey tiltrotor aircraft to attack behind enemy lines -- are all mission possibilities envisioned for the Navy’s fast-progressing second big-deck America-class amphibious assault ship, the future USS Tripoli (LHA 7).

The new ship just completed its acceptance trials in the Gulf of Mexico, a series of exercises intended to prepare the amphib for deployment by assessing its propulsion, communication, navigation, weapons systems and aviation platforms, a Navy statement said.

“You have a work-up cycle where you do various exercises and training to prepare for deployment,” a Navy official told Warrior.

The first America-class amphib, the USS America, has been operational for a while now. The America-class amphibs are engineered to carry Marine Corps attack units, F-35B Short-Take-Off-and-Landing Joint Strike Fighters, Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, CH-53 Super Stallions and UH-1Y Huey helicopters.

Designed as aviation-centric amphibs, the first two America class ships do not have well-deck for amphibious vehicles but rather are engineered with a larger hangar for aircraft, increased storage for parts and support equipment and additional aviation fuel capacity to support a higher op tempo. The third America-class ship, the now under construction LHA 8, will bring back the well deck for amphibious operations.

“The ability to embark Joint Strike Fighters and MV-22 Osprey enable this versatile platform to increase the lethality of our expeditionary warfighters.” Tom Rivers, amphibious warfare program manager for Program Executive Office Ships,“ said in a Navy report.

Progress with the Tripoli aligns with the Navy's fast-evolving modern amphibious attack warfare strategy which envisions big-deck, F-35 and Osprey-armed amphibs as host-platforms launching air support for amphibious attack -- reaching enemy targets with safer stand-off distance, conducting forward reconnaissance and at times operating small fleets of amphibious assets.

Since potential adversaries now have longer-range weapons, better sensors, targeting technologies and computers with faster processing speeds, amphibious forces approaching the shore may need to disperse in order to make it harder for enemy forces to target them. Therefore, the notion of an air-powered, disaggregated, yet interwoven attack force, less vulnerable to enemy fire, could be launched to hit “multiple landing points” to exploit enemy defenses.

Execution of this new strategy is, depending upon the threat, also reliant upon 5th-generation aircraft; the Corp F-35B, now operational as part of Marine Corps Air Ground Task Forces aboard the USS Wasp and USS Essex, is intended to provide close-air support to advancing attacks, use its sensors to perform forward reconnaissance and launch strikes itself. The success of an amphibious attack needs, or even requires, air supremacy. Extending this logic, an F-35 would be positioned to address enemy air-to-air and airborne air-to-surface threats such as drones, fighter jets or even incoming anti-ship missiles and ballistic missiles. The idea would be to use the F-35 in tandem with surveillance drones and other nodes to find and destroy land-based enemy defenses, clearing the way for a land assault.

A deck-launched Osprey impacts assault strategy as well, bringing new dimensions to air-sea-ground attack. Using its ability to transport Marines, cargo, weapons and communications gear, an Osprey could conduct what’s called Mounted Vertical Maneuver wherein small unit transport into and “drop” behind enemy lines. This could include deploying high-risk, clandestine surveillance teams, adding communications nodes in preparation for attack or even staging small, pinpointed ambuses on critical enemy assets, supply lines, ammunition storage or other key targets.

The entire strategic and conceptual shift is also informed by an increased “sea-basing” focus. Aviation-centric amphibs, potentially operating in a command and control capacity with smaller multi-mission vessels, could launch attack operations as sovereign entities at safer distances. Senior Navy officials have explained that larger “host-ships” would operate as “seaports, hospitals, logistics warehouses and sea-bases for maneuver forces.”

Big-deck amphibs like the America class, in particular, are engineered with expansive medical care facilities such as “hospital beds and an operating room,” a Navy official explained to Warrior.

A 2014 paper from the Marine Corps Association, the professional journal of the US Marine Corps, points to sea-basing as a foundation upon which the Navy will shift away from traditional amphibious warfare.

“Seabased operations enable Marines to conduct highly mobile, specialized, small unit, amphibious landings by stealth from over the horizon at multiple undefended locations of our own choosing,” the paper writes.

In effect, future “ship-to-shore” amphibious attacks will look nothing like the more linear, aggregated Iwo Jima assault. A Naval War College essay on this topic both predicts and reinforces this thinking.

“The basic requirements of amphibious assault, long held to be vital to success, may no longer be attainable. Unlike the Pacific landings of World War II amphibious objective areas could prove impossible to isolate,” the paper, called “Blitzkrieg From the Sea: Maneuver Warfare and Amphibious Operations,” states. (Richard Moore, 1983)

The essay, written in the 80s during the height of the Cold War, seems to anticipate future threats from major-power adversaries. Interestingly, drawing from some elements of a Cold War mentality, the essay foreshadows current “great-power” competition strategy for the Navy as it transitions from more than a decade of counterinsurgency to a new threat environment. In fact, when discussing its now-underway “distributed lethality” strategy, Navy leaders often refer to this need to return its focus upon heavily fortified littoral defenses and open, blue-water warfare against a near-peer adversary - as having some roots in the Cold War era.

Dispersed approaches, using air-ground coordination and forward positioned surveillance nodes, can increasingly use synchronized assault tactics, pinpointing advantageous areas of attack. Not only can this, as the essay indicates, exploit enemy weakness, but it also brings the advantage of avoiding more condensed or closely-configured approaches far more vulnerable to long-range enemy sensors and weapons. Having an advanced air power such as an F-35B, which can bring a heavier load of attack firepower, helps enable this identified need to bring assault forces across a wide-range of attack locations. None of this, while intended to destroy technologically sophisticated enemies, removes major risks; Russian and Chinese weapons, including emerging 5th-generation fighters, DF-26 anti-ship missiles claimed to reach 900-miles and rapidly-emerging weapons such as drones, lasers and railguns are a variety of systems of concern.

The America Class

Technical adjustments were made to the flight deck of the USS America to enable the ship to withstand the heat generated by the take-off and landing of the F-35B; these changes are also built into the future USS Tripoli.

The flight deck modifications to the USS America and entailed adding intercostal structural members underneath flight deck landing spots numbers 7 and 9, Navy officials explained. These adjusted landing spots better enable closely timed cyclic flight operations without overstressing the flight deck, Navy developers explained.

LHA 7 incorporates gas turbine propulsion plant, zonal electrical distribution, and fuel-efficient electric auxiliary propulsion systems first installed on USS Makin Island (LHD 8).

The USS Tripoli is designed with the high-tech Navy ship-based computing network called Consolidated Afloat Network and Enterprise Services, or CANES. Overall, the USS Tripoli is 844-feet long and 106-feet wide with a weight of more than 44,000 tons. A fuel-efficient gas turbine propulsion system brings the ship’s speed up to more than 20 knots, a previous Huntington Ingalls statement said.

The Tripoli carries 1,204 and 1,871 troops, meaning the ship is engineered to carry a Marine Expeditionary Unit, the statement added.

America class ships are outfitted with a group of technologies called a Ship Self Defense System. This includes two Rolling Aircraft Missile RIM-116 Mk 49 launchers; two Raytheon 20mm Phalanx CIWS mounts; and seven twin .50 cal. machine guns.

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.