The U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship USS America in 2019 has set sail across the Pacific region with no fewer than 13 U.S. Marine Corps F-35B stealth fighters aboard.
The current cruise represents the latest effort by the Navy and Marines to develop procedures and tactics for operating the Navy’s 10 assault ships as light carriers, each packing more aerial firepower than most of the world’s air forces.
As an earlier proof of concept, USS Wasp in March 2019 deployed to the Pacific region with no fewer than 10 F-35Bs aboard. America in May 2019 forward-deployed to Japan, freeing up Wasp to return to the United States for maintenance.
A Navy assault ship usually embarks just six F-35s or older AV-8B Harrier jump jets plus dozens of helicopters. The vessels can increase their fixed-wing component by reducing the number of helicopters. At a minimum, an assault ships needs just a pair of H-60 helicopters for search and rescue.
With 10 Wasp- and America-assault ships each carrying 20 or more F-35s plus another 10 Nimitz-class supercarriers (and new Ford-class supercarriers under construction), the United States possesses at least 20 aircraft carriers.
By comparison, China in late 2019 is preparing to commission its second flattop capable of carrying fixed-wing planes. The Chinese fleet aims eventually to field six large carriers.
The Royal Navy meanwhile is working up a two-carrier fleet. France, Russia and India each have one carrier. Italy and Spain both operate assault ships carrying Harrier jump jets. Japan and South Korea have announced plans to modify their own assault ships to be compatible with F-35Bs.
The carrier-disparity underscores the sheer size and power of the U.S. fleet.
The idea of a “Lightning carrier” has been years in the making. For years the normal air wing for the Navy's eight Wasp-class assault ships has included around 10 MV-22 tiltrotor transports, four AH-1Z attack helicopters, four UH-1Y light helicopters, five CH-53E heavylift helicopters and just six fighters, plus a couple of Navy H-60s for search and rescue.