America has long relied on its fleet of Nimitz (and soon Ford) class super carriers to offer the nation’s defense apparatus its most potent form of force projection. With more than 60 aircraft and as many as 6,000 sailors on board, each carrier in the U.S. Navy’s stable is a force unto itself — but the massive size of these carriers can also make them vulnerable. Further, despite having more battle-ready carriers than any nation on the planet, America still only has 10 in-service carriers, with around half of that currently capable of deploying.
With interests in need of security all around the globe, five carriers just won’t cut it… fortunately for the United States, we actually have far more “aircraft carriers” than we let on — and that’s the very premise behind the Marine Corps‘ “Lightning Carrier” concept. If the U.S. were to count its aircraft carriers in the same way other nations do, our tally would actually be closer to 20.
When counting aircraft carriers, the United States uses exacting parameters regarding what can be considered a “true” carrier — and for good reason. Maintaining a fleet of 11 operational aircraft carriers is actually the law, as stated in 10 U.S. Code § 5062:
The naval combat forces of the Navy shall include not less than 11 operational aircraft carriers. For purposes of this subsection, an operational aircraft carrier includes an aircraft carrier that is temporarily unavailable for worldwide deployment due to routine or scheduled maintenance or repair.
So, if the Navy were to count just any vessel capable of deploying aircraft as a “carrier,” lawmakers could feasibly cut the carrier budget down to the bone without violating the letter of the law — leaving the United States with far less force projection capability. As a result, amphibious assault ships, like the Marine Corps‘ Wasp and America-class vessels, are not considered aircraft carriers at all, despite looking and acting an awful lot like one.
The USS America, shown above, is 844 feet long and displaces nearly 45,000 long tons. That is, admittedly, quite a bit smaller than America’s latest Ford-class carrier at 1,106 feet and 100,000 long tons but is pretty close to being able to fight in the same weight class as other nation’s carriers. France’s Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier is only about 14 feet longer than the America and notably weighs in at thousands of long tons less than the American non-carrier, amphibious assault ship.
These smaller aircraft-toting “non-carrier” vessels are sometimes referred to as helicopter carriers for good reason. With far less deck space than you’ll find on America’s real aircraft carriers, these vessels are better suited for launching helicopters that take off and land vertically than they are for traditional runway-requiring fighters like the Super Hornets and F-35C’s employed by the Navy. However, the Marine Corps is the only American branch of the Armed Forces to operate the vertical-landing, short takeoff F-35B.
“About nine months ago I was looking at … USS America, a terrific amphib ship, and said, you know what, why don’t we load this thing up with F-35 Bravos, put 20 F-35 Bravos on this, and make it quote/unquote a lightning carrier,” Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer said earlier this week.
The combination of these amphibious assault vessels and the most advanced fighter ever to take to the skies has made these ships far more potent than they ever could have been carrying Marine Corps helicopters alone. That’s exactly what the Corps’ is looking for in their “Lighting Carriers,” which derive their name from the F-35’s proper name — the F-35 Lighting II. Earlier this month, the USS America went on a two-week deployment with thirteen of these advanced fighters on its deck — a first for the Marine Corps and an important steppingstone toward making Lightning Carriers are facet of America’s military readiness around the world.
Using these smaller “carriers” to deploy F-35s in trouble spots would free up America’s large carriers for more significant operations against more formidable opponents, and in the event of a near-peer conflict with a nation like China, these vessels would also offer a greater number of targets to worry about for Chinese hypersonic anti-ship missile systems. These vessels, of course, can’t replace America’s carrier fleet — but that isn’t the point. The real idea is using existing assets in new ways to maximize the lethality of the force.
“I will tell you, we are augmenting the aircraft carrier with our ideas, such as this Lightning Carrier, 20 F-35 Bravos on a large-deck amphib,” Spencer said. “My cost performance there is tremendous. Does it have the same punch? No, it doesn’t, but it does have a very interesting sting to it.”
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