The Marine Corps’s Lighting Carrier concept could change the way we fight wars, and they don’t even need any new ships to do it.
In recent months, there’s been a lot of discussion about America’s fleet of massive super-carriers, and the threat posed to them by rapidly developing hypersonic anti-ship platforms like China’s DF-ZF missile.
To boil a complex argument down to its most basic elements, some contend that carriers are simply too large a target to sail in the contested waters of a 21st century conflict. Now, with the next generation Ford-class carriers continuing to struggle with development delays and budget overages, those arguments are bolstered by concerns about the massive price tags associated with each of these vessels.
To give you a sense of just how expensive the U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford will be by the time it’s in service, its $14+ billion price tag will be nearly equal to that of Spain’s entire annual defense budget.
But doing away with carriers isn’t really an option either. For decades now, the United States has relied on carriers to serve as the nation’s most potent form of force projection. Each Nimitz class carrier has more aircraft and munitions than some entire nations, giving America the unique ability to park a full operational airbase just off the coast of any trouble spot on the planet.
Without carriers, America would have to transition toward the rapid deployment and redeployment of troops for deterrence operations, which might prove more effective in terms of dissuading potential opponents, but would also represent a massive economic and strategic undertaking to pull off. America’s military just isn’t built to land 4,000 ground troops anywhere on the planet as rapidly as it can redirect a carrier strike group.
America needs a way to close with contested shore lines to launch sorties against anti-ship weapons systems, but it can’t do it with aircraft carriers.
What is a “Lightning Carrier?”
“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 last year.
A Lightning Carrier is an amphibious assault ship that launches short-take off and vertical landing F-35B Joint Strike Fighters. Lockheed Martin produces three variants of the F-35: one built for carrier duty (F-35C), one built for traditional runways (F-35A), and one built to serve as a sort of jump-jet, not unlike the Harriers of old. However, unlike the Harrier, the F-35B doesn’t have enough vertical thrust to take off vertically with a full compliment of fuel and ordnance, but they are capable of taking off in a very short stretch of runway–which makes them uniquely suited for the flat topped amphibious assault ships the Marine Corps would use to deploy helicopters.
The Marine Corps currently has two aviation-centric amphibious assault ships in its fleet, and although the United States doesn’t count these hulking vessels as aircraft carriers, most other nations would. At 844 feet long, 106 feet wide, and a displacement of nearly 46,000 tons, the Marine Corp’s U.S.S. America is about the same size as France’s aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle.
What sets the USS America and its sister ship the USS Tripoli apart from other amphibious assault ships is the removal of a well deck from their design, providing a large space for aircraft maintenance and the storage of equipment and ordnance needed to support fighter operations.
Last year, the Marine Corps put this concept to the test, deploying 13 Marine Corps F-35Bs aboard the USS America. During that time, the Marines put the combination of advanced jets and the amphibious assault ship to the test, launching sortie after sortie to determine if the Lightning Carrier concept was feasible — and they found that it was.
“This was the deployment of the largest number of F-35s ever put to sea, and for two weeks we put sortie rates to the test, deck cycles to the test, and multi-ship control to the test, all while stressing the communication links and tactics that will make us successful in any combat environment, anywhere in the world, as a joint Navy-Marine Corps Team,” Lt. Col. John Dirk, the commanding officer of VMFA-122, told USNI News.
How can Lightning Carriers solve the problem?
“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. 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.” Spencer said.
The concept behind the Lightning Carrier is a simple one: leverage these vessels to bring an unprecedented offensive capability to high-tension areas. These vessels could serve in place of a carrier (despite lacking the airborne early warning capability carriers possess) and free up carriers for other roles. In a near-peer or peer-level conflict, these smaller vessels could support F-35s closer to shore, while leaving the larger carriers safely outside the range of anti-ship missiles. This would obviously still pose a great threat to the Lightning Carrier, but it would be a more acceptable risk than a $14 billion Ford class carrier.