The U.S. Marine Corps has recently been experimenting with using its America and Wasp class amphibious assault ships as smaller aircraft carriers that can launch sorties of short takeoff/vertical landing F-35Bs. Now, with the Navy struggling to keep its carrier fleet operational amid maintenance issues and the additional delays to the deployment of the USS Gerald R. Ford, the Navy is considering leaning on the Lightning Carrier concept until they can get their full sized carrier program back on track.
“I have a demand for carriers right now that I can’t fulfill. The combatant commanders want carriers,” Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer said. “My job is to see how I can fulfill that requirement the best I can.”
A full of half of the Navy’s ten operational aircraft carriers cannot currently deploy due to maintenance or repair issues, and it now looks as though the Ford will be operational a full three years behind schedule. However, combat operations for the U.S. military have not dwindled. In fact, some have already postulated that the Pentagon has increased troop deployments in Saudi Arabia over concerns about America’s inability to maintain a carrier presence in the region, though officials have dismissed these claims. The USS Abraham Lincoln Nimitz class aircraft carrier is set to leave the region sometime this year, but its replacement, the USS Harry S. Truman will no longer come to relieve it, as the Truman is down with issues with its electrical systems.
“[Defense] Secretary Esper informed Saudi Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Muhammad bin Salman this morning of the additional troop deployment to assure and enhance the defense of Saudi Arabia,” said Chief Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman in a statement earlier this month. “Taken together with other deployments, this constitutes an additional 3,000 forces that have been extended or authorized within the last month.”
“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.”
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 nations’ 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.
“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 month.
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. With successful tests like the one of the America, it now seems likely that this premise may see at least some limited use in the near future.