Yesterday, as part of San Francisco's Fleet Week festivities, the US Navy had a high-profile commissioning ceremony for the USS America LHA-6, the fourth US Navy ship to bear the name and the first in a new class of amphibious assault ships that are really more like aircraft carriers, yet somehow, compromised as both.
Although her maiden voyage — a delivery cruise from Louisiana to her home port in San Diego — went well, the America Class remains a controversial defense program that is tied directly to two of the most controversial defense programs of all time. Those being V-22 Osprey and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The America Class, although based largely on the final Wasp Class vessel, USS Makin Island LHD-8, and slightly larger by displacement, greatly differs from it and recent big deck 'amphib' designs of last few decades in one major way. Recent big deck amphibious assault ships, such as the Tarawa and Wasp Classes, are as much floating docks as they are aircraft carriers, with huge hangar-like floodable garages located on their sterns. These "well decks" are where everything from small boats to massive Land Craft Air Cushion hovercraft operate from. The new America Class on the other hand was designed without this key feature, instead her focus will be on aviation, specifically the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter and the MV-22B Osprey.
Many have argued that this aviation focus basically makes the America Class strictly an aircraft carrier. This is true to some extent, although the Wasp and Tarawa Classes that came before her were also larger than the vast majority of 'aircraft carriers' operating around the world, but their well decks and large parking garage like cargo spaces were clearly a differentiating factor. One thing is certain, the USS America is all about vertical envelopment of the enemy, and will largely leave the surface logistics and sea-born assault aspects of Marine expeditionary warfare to her San Antonio Class, Whidbey Island Class, Harpers Ferry Class, and Austin Class cousins when operating as the centerpiece of an Expeditionary Strike Group.
There is no doubt that leaving the well deck off the America Class takes a lot of the multi-role flexibility out of the what has become the Pentagon's floating multi-tools of expeditionary combat. Yet times do change, and being able to storm and hold beaches may not be as relevant as it once was. Instead, the America Class is more about striking deeper into enemy territory via the Marine's Ospreys and F-35Bs, although the Wasp Class can also operate these aircraft. This strange conundrum has left many military analysts puzzled as to the reasoning behind giving up the America Class's true amphibious capabilities just to hold more munitions, jet fuel and provide more hangar space for aviation assets.
This focus on higher tempo aviation operations based around the USMC's two new core aviation technologies, once again the Osprey and the Joint Strike Fighter, becomes even more questionable seeing as the deck of the USS America may not be able to handle the heat expelled by these aircraft during continuous operations. If this handicap cannot be wholly remedied, it will result in the USS America, a ship designed primarily for heavy F-35 and MV-22 ops, to have caps put on how many aircraft operations it can handle in a given period of time. This is seen as unacceptable by many considering the ship has already paid the price of its well deck in exchange for the ability to support high tempo air operations, which it now may not be able to actually handle.
Supposedly, the next ship in the class, the USS Tripoli, will have a modified deck that will be able to take full advantage of the ship's enhanced aviation centric design. Still that means the USS America is basically a contradiction of its own design goals, and a four plus billion dollar ship that is handicapped from the day it's commissioned. Additionally, even though the Navy and industry says the USS Tripoli will have a revised deck that can take the F-35B and MV-22s aggressive heat, the same thing was said about the Wasp Class before the F-35B matured, and again about the USS America, so the American taxpayer and war fighter has to take it on faith that this issue will actually be solved with the Tripoli. That still will leave eight other amphibious flattops that are susceptible to deck heating issues, so it will take many decades to rid the fleet of this problem unless a robust and cost-effective modification can be made to their flight decks.
Other critics of the well-deck lacking America Class say that the US Navy's nuclear carriers are the service's dedicated aviation-centric capital ships, and see the 'gator navy's' encroachment in on this capability via the F-35B, and especially the aviation-centric America Class, as a threat. In a time of budgetary austerity rife with calls to cut the Navy's super-expensive nuclear carrier force, this may be true as the America Class can carry over 20 F-35Bs in a fixed-wing fighter centric carrier configuration, although this is really nothing new as past amphibious flattops have been used as "Harrier Carriers" multiple times in the past.
What is different with the USS America and her Aviation Combat Element (ACE) are the capabilities that the F-35B brings to these ships, which for the very first time are on par with anything the Navy's super carriers embark. In the past, the close air support focused and subsonic AV-8B Harrier was not seen as an analogue for the faster, larger and more complex fighter aircraft that dominated a nuclear carrier's air wing. Still, major steps will have to be taken and money will have to be invested to get the most out of this new and potentially game-changing capability.
Apparently the whole well deck-lacking USS America controversy is not lost entirely on the US Navy. The America Class, at least in its aviation-centric, non-well deck format, will have a short run of only two ships. America Class ships following LHA-8 USS Tripoli will be designed with a well deck, which will result in a smaller island structure, reduced hangar space and less storage for jet fuel and munitions.
When you add it all up, the USS America, like so many other major military programs of the last decade or so, has an identity crisis. Is it an aircraft carrier or is it a true multi-role amphibious assault ship as we have become accustomed to? Was there a real need to mess with this winning capabilities equation in first place, and if so, should this have been done after designers fully understood the deck heating issues related to the exact aircraft the ship was custom built to support?
At this point, only time will tell if the USS America will truly be worthy of her name.
By the numbers:
- Length: 844 feet (257.3 meters)
- Beam: 106 feet (32.3 meters)
- Displacement: Approximately 44,971 long tons full load (45,695 metric tons)
- Speed: 20+ knots
- Crew: 1,059 (65 officers)
- Load: 1,687 troops (plus 184 surge)
- Two RAM launchers
- Two NATO Sea Sparrow Launchers (with Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM))
- Two 20mm Phalanx CIWS mounts
- Seven twin .50 cal. machine guns
- F-35B Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) STOVL aircraft
- MV-22 Osprey VTOL tilt rotors
- CH-53E Sea Stallion helicopters
- UH-1Y Huey helicopters
- AH-1Z Super Cobra helicopters
- MH-60S Seahawk helicopters
- Typical load will be 12 MV-22, 6 F-35B, 4 CH-53K, 4 AH-1Z, 3 UH-1Y and a pair o of Navy MH-60 Seakhawks. In F-35B carrier configuration she will carry 20 F-35Bs and a pair of MH-6 Seahawks. Embarked aircraft numbers can be increased during surge periods.
Photos via DoD and Ingalls Shipyards
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com