IN APRIL, the U.S. Navy demonstrated the combat capabilities of the “lightning ship” concept. The drill was attended by 16 F-35В aircraft of the 13th Marine Air Group (MAG) of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing and four more from the 1st Marine Operational Squadron tests and evaluations (VMX-1 test squadron and VMFA 211 and 225 combat squadrons). The aircraft made sorties from the landing ship USS Tripoli at the highest possible pace. The concept of a lightning ship is in implementation, and the U.S. Navy is now working on its improvement, honing the skills of interaction between the fleet, aviation and marines.
The exercise is the culmination of the Lightning Carrier Concept (LCC) – a combination of a larger number of F-35Bs and America class or Wasp-class ships to create small aircraft carriers.
A manual published under the authorship of the commandant of the US Marine Corps, General David H. Berger, says that the tests have shown that, if necessary, it is possible to very quickly, deploy a Marine Corps aviation regiment, which will provide cover for the landing operation.
The April test follows a series of previous exercises. In November 2016, the USS America of the same class sailed from California with twelve F-35Bs on board. This exercise was groundbreaking in the LCC concept, as the following year, the idea of LCC appeared in an official document called the 2017 Marine Aviation Plan.
Two years later, the USS Wasp of the same class hosted ten F-35B aircraft in training with the Philippine Armed Forces around Scarborough Atoll in the South China Sea. Previously, the highest number of F-35B aircraft (13) was carried again by the USS America in October 2019. Shortly after the exercise, the then Secretary of the U.S. Navy Robert Spencer spoke about the possibility of a further increase to 20 F-35B aircraft.
The Lightning Carrier Concept
At the core of the LCC is the idea of deploying 16 to 20 F-35B aircraft on USMC attack vessels. These vessels carried only six to eight jets (F-35B or Harrier). The increased number of F-35Bs will be complemented by four MV-22 Osprey convertibles, which will be responsible for inflight refuelling.
So far, refuelling between MV-22 and F-35B has been tested on the ground. It will proceed to flight tests later. The MV-22 carries 5,400 kilograms of fuel in the internal tanks, and the refuelling system in the cargo space holds another 4,500 kg of fuel. Osprey can supply F-35B fuel from both fuel systems, but it can hold up to 5,900 kilograms of fuel. It will probably be necessary to set aside one Osprey to refuel one F-35B.
LCC is not a permanent transformation of a landing craft into small aircraft carriers but a temporary replacement of an aircraft component that takes several days. These ships can be deployed with UH-1Y Venom helicopters, CH-53K King Stallion and MV-22 convertibles for humanitarian operations or natural disasters.
In general, the LCC is a response to China’s revisionist policy. In response to the Chinese naval boom, USMC Commander General David Berger said: “China has moved to the sea and has a large number of long-range weapons systems. Without these two factors, the United States would continue to dominate the entire Pacific. I believe in LCC because we have to become unpredictable at the tactical and operational level.” According to Berger, unpredictability lies precisely in the possibility of a relatively rapid change of units carried.
For the first time, the phrase “Lightning Carrier” officially appeared in the aforementioned 2017 Marine Aviation Plan, which states that as early as 2025, the USMC will have 185 F-35B aircraft at its disposal. This number will be enough to equip (then) seven landing craft. Lightning Carrier’s task will be to complement classic aircraft carriers and act independently as a floating naval base capable of providing support to USMC units practising the so-called Island-Hopping strategy.
Smaller F-35B carriers may take over some of the tasks of aircraft carriers in the future and replace them, for example, in lower-intensity conflicts. Large aircraft carriers like Gerald R. Ford and Nimitz will thus save their capabilities and operating hours and focus on high-intensity conflicts with Russia and China.
The concept of a small aircraft carrier builds on the previous practice of vessels called the “Harrier Carrier”. As early as the 1990s, 20 AV-8 Harriers were deployed on the Tarawa Class USS Nassau in preparation for Operation Desert Storm. During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Wasp-class USS Batan and USS Bonhomme carried up to 24 AV-8 Harriers.
The most suitable class for this concept is the America landing craft class. The Wasp-class of the previous generation is not ideal for long-term operations of a large number of aircraft. It will require significant adjustments and modernization. The USS America does not have a wet dock, which, unlike the Wasp-class, allows it to carry more fuel, spare parts and ammunition for more aircraft.
Despite this, the U.S. Navy intends to modernize at least one Wasp-class ship. In 2020, it signed a $ 200 million contract with BAE Systems, covering regular hull maintenance, modernization of communications and combat systems, and modifications to carry up to 15 F-35B aircraft for the USS Boxer. It is not yet clear whether the USMC is still counting on the Wasp-class or if it is an upgrade to make the USS Boxer a test vessel.
The USMC currently has eight Wasp-class vessels and two America-class vessels. The third America class ship, the USS Bougainville, is under construction, and a fourth piece is ordered.
However, the LLC also has its drawbacks, mainly due to the absence of interceptors and catapults on board America-class ships, making it impossible to deploy E-2D Hawkeye early warning aircraft, EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft or MQ-25A Stingray drones.
Their absence means a limited ability of F-35B aircraft to operate independently. By 2030, however, according to Richard Spencer, the USMC will receive a drone designed to perform the tasks of the E-2D Hawkeye. The F-35B can be fitted with electronic warfare (E.B.) systems. The U.S. is developing a special E.B. container for the F-35B. Nevertheless, it will be not comparable with the capabilities of a pair of F-35C and EA-18G Growler taking off from a classic aircraft carrier.
Some USMC officials have called for more significant deployment of San Antonio-class vessels as the mother ships of the Marine Air-to-Ground Task Force (MAGTF). This class has a more modern command and control system than the Wasp and America classes. Some have said that the F-35B should become the means around which the entire MAGTF and the LCC idea should be built.