The United States employs the largest and most powerful fleet of aircraft carriers in the world, composed largely of the 100,000-plus-ton Nimitz-class and soon adding advanced Ford-class vessels to the operational mix. These ships provide the nation with its most potent force projection capabilities, and along with their accompanying strike groups, each represent more firepower than can be boasted by many entire nations.

The thing is, these ships aren’t the only vessels in Uncle Sam’s inventory capable of launching sorties of advanced fighters. America boasts an 11-carrier fleet because Nimitz- and Ford-class vessels are the only ones that fulfill the very specific definition of a carrier by U.S. law. By the standards of other nations, America actually fields between 19 and 24 aircraft carriers, depending on whose definition you’re keen to accept.

The other carriers you don’t often hear talked about don’t meet the established requirements to be considered a carrier under U.S. law for good reason: Congress has legally mandated the U.S. Navy to maintain a fleet of 11 carriers. If the legal definition of carrier was broadened to include any vessel that launched aircraft, it would be too easy to fleece the Navy’s carrier budget in lean times. By establishing a legal definition of carrier that precludes amphibious assault ships and similar flat tops, the Navy has ensured that it won’t ever be pressured into exchanging nuclear-powered super-carriers for far less capable, diesel-powered vessels that can launch aircraft.

America's secret aircraft carriers: The US can launch F-35s from more ships than you think
Nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65) (center) and amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) and USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) transit alongside each other in the Persian Gulf. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class N.C. Kaylor)

America’s “real” carriers offer far more than a floating airstrip to launch sorties from, including a diverse array of systems purpose-built to allow these massive vessels to launch a variety of offensive and defensive combat operations that can really be seen as a singular combat system. This system uses ship-based equipment and specialized aircraft to maximize the carrier’s force projection capabilities – from airborne early warning aircraft, to electronic warfare platforms, and missile defense capabilities. America’s carriers are self-contained systems built around air superiority and long-duration “blue water” operations.

To the less discerning eye, the 844-foot-long, 45,000-ton USS America sure looks like a carrier. So does the USS Wasp, at 843 feet and around 40,500 tons. While these ships may be dwarfed by their Nimitz- and Ford-class cousins, they’re really not much smaller than ships like the Royal Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, which is 920 feet long and displaces about 20,000 more tons. The America and Wasp, both the namesakes of their respective classes of vessel, weren’t built to do all of the things an aircraft carrier can do, but they can launch sorties of the most advanced fighter platform in the world, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

America's secret aircraft carriers: The US can launch F-35s from more ships than you think
The amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1) steams through the Mediterranean Sea Aug. 15, 2016. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Ryan G. Coleman)

The aforementioned USS Wasp, as a matter of fact, is currently deployed to the Pacific with ten F-35Bs on board. These short takeoff, vertical landing iterations of the Joint Strike Fighter are operated by the U.S. Marine Corps from the decks of these amphibious assault ships, making them perhaps the most combat-potent “non-carrier” aircraft carriers on the planet.

In a large-scale conflict, these smaller vessels could prove incredibly valuable, as Nimitz- and Ford-class ships prove to be the targets of choice for anti-ship missiles and shore defenses. While these ships do lack a great deal of the capability allotted by a full-fledged carrier strike group, they would offer a smaller, faster moving target with comparable combat capabilities under certain specific circumstances. With support from other ships in the fleet and even aircraft deployed from “real’ carriers elsewhere, that capability could be dramatically increased.

America’s super-carriers may get all the glory in the press, but if a fight starts in the Pacific, it may well be amphibious assault ships, traditionally relied on to support land-based force projection, that could shine as a potent delivery method for aircraft like the F-35. We may not call them carriers, but the targets turned to rubble by Marine Corps F-35Bs likely won’t be so discerning.