For years now, the United States has planned to build as many as eleven new America-class amphibious assault ships. These warships would deploy the F-35B and transport tanks, Marines and Amphibious Combat Vehicles (ACVs) from ship to shore. They would also be able to conduct seabasing missions, operate fleets of drone boats and perform a growing sphere of humanitarian aid missions.
Following the now-completed first two aviation-centric America-class amphibious assault ships, the Navy is already well underway building its third, a ship bringing back the well deck for amphibious attack. Along with supporting fifth-generation aircraft and launching a new ACV, the America class will also introduce new iterations of command-and-control technology intended to potentially operate in tandem with large numbers of surface, undersea and air drones.
Moving into the future, amphibious assault ships are increasingly being viewed as alternative air-attack platforms or even somewhat analogous to a smaller, more-mobile “mini-carrier.” The arrival of the Marine Corps Short Take Off and Landing F-35B drives much of this, as amphibious assault ships have historically been without anything close to fifth-generation air support, and the new America-class brings new dimensions of air and surface combat possibilities. On one of its key deployments several years ago, the USS America operated with as many as thirteen F-35Bs at one time, introducing a measure of close-air support options, surveillance, targeting and sensor networking and an ability to conduct longer air-launched mission sorties to attack hostile areas.
America-class ships can transport up to 3,000 sailors and marines, including elements of a Marine Expeditionary Unit, or MEU, designed for amphibious warfare. Amphibious technology on board the ship can include up to sixty HMMWs, Light Armored Vehicles, mortars, artillery and smaller Internally Transportable Vehicles, or ITVs, configured to drive into the back of an Osprey, Navy and Marine Corps officials described.
In total, America-Class amphibious assault ships are configured to house as many as thirty-one aircraft including the MV-22 Osprey, CH-53 Super Stallion, AH-1Z Super Cobra, UH-1Y Huey, F-35B Short-take-off-and-landing Joint Strike Fighter and the MH-60 Sea Hawk helicopter. America class ships are also outfitted with 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.
The growing roles, expanded weaponry and increased functionality of the America-class may have likely informed the current debate and analysis regarding whether the Navy should build new smaller, more mobile variants of aircraft carriers, or simply continue with the Ford-class as is. Certainly, amphibious assault ships are less of a target than carriers in terms of being smaller, more maneuverable and faster, yet carriers are often supported or protected by cruisers and destroyers in carrier strike groups.
Much of this might help explain why the Navy’s recently unveiled thirty-year shipbuilding plan is its call for a full-scale “doubling” of its fleet of amphibious assault ships, a move that suggests the Navy expects ship-to-shore operations and major maritime attacks to figure prominently in coming years. The plan stipulates that its fleet of amphibious assault ships will increase from thirty-one in 2022 to sixty-two by 2050.
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.