The Coming of the AMERICA Class Warship to the USN-USMC Blue-Green Team


2012-09-07 By Robbin Laird

When Ed Timperlake and I were commenting on the CNO’s recent piece in the USN Institute Proceedings on platforms and payloads, we underscored how some of the new assets fit into the CNO’s approach.

The CNO’s approach is reinforced by the kinds of platforms starting to come on line or in the pipeline. The FORD Class carriers are designed for upgradeability in terms of power, communications and eventual form, fit and function of weapons systems, some only found today in labs and test ranges. The AMERICA Class LHAs are designed to carry a new generation of aircraft, which are inherently upgradeable. The AMERICA Class warships are virtually the same size as France’s CHARLES DE GAULLE Class carriers.

And we also underscored that you do not build a new strategy for the century based on where you have been, but where you are going.  We underscored that what the CNO was doing was operating in the spirit of the Admiral’s who built the Navy that would eventually be crucial in the defeat of the Empire of Japan.

The President of the Naval War College overseeing these discussions [studying the complexities of British and German Fleet tactics during the Battle of Jutland in World War I] was none other than Admiral William S. Sims, who had already influenced King’s and Bill Halsey’s development of destroyer techniques, not to mention the convoy system. When Sims spread his war games fleet across the plotting board, he introduced aircraft carriers to the mix–even though Lexington and Saratoga were still months away from commissioning–and he argued that the aircraft carrier would replace the battleship as the navy’s capital ship. The reason was that carriers presented a 360-degree range of firepower via their aircraft that far outdistanced the radius of the battleships guns.

Sim’s fixation with a widening circle of projected power may have influenced Nimitz’s fellow classmate –both at Annapolis and now at the Naval War College – Commander Roscoe C. MacFall when he took his turn at the plotting board. Rather than placing his ships in long lines, MacFall arrayed his fleet in concentric circles around his capital ships – admittedly still battleships. The tactical advantage was that with a common pivot point in the center of the circle, all ships could turn together and remain in formation.

The Admirals by Walter R. Borneman, May 2012. (Page 131).

New warships like the FORD carriers and the AMERICA Class LHAs with the new aviation and C5ISR assets on board are anchors to shaping new capabilities and new approaches. 

I had a chance to discuss the AMERICA Class part of this transition with Col Brad Weisz, Deputy Commander, Expeditionary Strike Group 2.

Col Weisz took some time during a busy period while participating in PANAMAX 2012 to discuss the warship and its potential role.

Question: The USS AMERICA (LHA 6) is the first of class in a new aviation centered amphibious warship.  The ship has no well deck, although after the USS TRIPOLI (LHA 7), the second AMERICA Class ship that is built, the design is to be modified to include well deck space.  What does this ship bring to the table?

The amphibious assault ship USS America under construction in Pascagoula, Mississippi, June 2012 (Huntington Ingalls Industries)

Col Weisz: When coupled with their enablers, the AMERICA Class warships, known as amphibious assault ships, bring a significant aviation centric capability to the littoral fight; that is, increased aviation strike, increased C2, increased ISR, increased EW and increased assault support capabilities.  The removal of the well deck aboard the AMERICA Class ships provides for an extended hangar deck with two significantly wider high bay areas, each fitted with an overhead crane for aircraft maintenance.

These changes were required in order to operate the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter and MV-22B Osprey which are considerably larger than the aircraft they replace, the AV-8B Harrier and CH-46E.  The typical aircraft mix aboard the AMERICA Class is expected to be 12 x MV-22B Osprey medium-lift tilt-rotors, 6 x STOVL F-35B Lightning II fighter-attack aircraft, 4 x CH-53K heavy-lift helicopters, 7 x AH-1Z/UH-1Y attack-utility helicopters and 2 x Navy MH-60s for search and rescue.  In a sea control role, the AMERICA Class ship could carry as many as 20 x F-35Bs and 2 x MH-60s to serve as a small aircraft carrier as recently demonstrated by amphibious assault ship operations in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM in the USCENTCOM Area of Responsibility (AOR).

The AMERICA Class ship will provide a flexible, multi-mission platform with capabilities that cover the entire range of military operations (ROMO) from forward deployed crisis response to forcible entry operations.  They will also provide forward presence and power projection as an integral part of joint, interagency and multinational maritime expeditionary forces.  They will be able to operate for sustained periods in transit to and operations in an amphibious objective area (AOA) to include: embarking, transporting, controlling, inserting, sustaining and extracting elements of a Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF), and supporting landing forces by helicopters, tilt rotors and F-35Bs.

Scheduled to be delivered to the U.S. Navy in late 2013, the USS AMERICA (LHA 6) will eventually replace the USS PELELIU (LHA 5) which is currently operating with the Third Fleet Commander (C3F) on the West Coast.  The USS PELELIU is the last of the TARAWA Class amphibious assault ships (LHAs); she was commissioned on 3 May 1980 and was named for the Battle of Peleliu of World War II.

USS TRIPOLI (LHA 7) is scheduled to be delivered to the U.S. Navy in late 2018.  She will be the third U.S. Navy ship to bear the name “TRIPOLI.”  This name commemorates the capture of Derna in 1805 by a small force of U.S. Marines and approximately 370 soldiers from 11 other nationalities.  The battle, later memorialized in the Marines’ Hymn with the line “to the shores of Tripoli,” brought about a successful conclusion to the combined operations of the First Barbary War.

In short, the AMERICA Class warships will help shape and transform U.S. amphibious force capabilities from a Greyhouse Bus mentality to a lethal, long-range, deep penetration ship-to-objective maneuver (STOM) strike capability.

Question: What is the size of the AMERICA Class ship?

Col Weisz:  The AMERICA Class ships are about 844 feet long with a beam of about 106 feet.  With a displacement of approximately 45,000 long tons, the AMERICA Class ships are similar in size to the fixed-wing aircraft carriers of other countries such as France, China, India and Russia.  Basically, the USS AMERICA is a modified-repeat of the USS MAKIN ISLAND (LHD 8), an improved version of the WASP Class amphibious assault ship (LHD).

Both AMERICA and TRIPOLI will have an increased aviation capacity to include an enlarged hangar deck, realignment and expansion of the aviation maintenance facilities, a significant increase in available stowage for parts and support equipment, and increased JP-5 aviation fuel capacity.

The AMERICA and TRIPOLI will use the same gas turbine propulsion plant, zonal electrical distribution and electric auxiliary systems designed and built for the USS MAKIN ISLAND, replacing the maintenance intensive steam plants of earlier ships. This unique auxiliary propulsion system is designed primarily for fuel efficiency.

Question: And the LHAs after 6 and 7 will have a well deck?

Col Weisz: Yes, but it is not planned to be the same size of the well deck that was built into the WASP Class amphibious assault ships (LHDs 1-8).  The WASP Class warships can embark three LCACs (Landing Craft Air Cushion Vehicle) or two LCUs (Landing Craft Utility) in their well deck.  LHA 8 is currently being designed to be able to embark two LCACs or one LCU; again, due to a smaller well deck than that of the WASP Class LHDs.  A blue-green study was conducted by OPNAV-HQMC and validated that the smaller well deck of LHA 8 could still easily support the rapid build-up of landing forces ashore.

Question: With the launching of a more aviation capable ship and by putting on the MV-22 Osprey and the F-35B, you have the potential to shape some innovative CONOPS for distributed operations of the sort we talked about during Exercise BOLD ALLIGATOR 2012?

Col Weisz: Absolutely.  The AMERICA Class ship, enabled with the F-35B JSF and MV-22B Osprey, significantly increases your ability to conduct over-the-horizon (OTH) ship-to-objective maneuver operations.  With the ability to project Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs) directly to critical operational objectives located deep inland while simultaneously dislocating our adversaries both in space and in time, the AMERICA Class ship is an immediate game changer.  Amphibious forces will now be able to project power more swiftly than ever before, they will be able to not only “kick down the door” that the enemy’s defense’s present, they will also be able to “get a foot in the door”, and preclude him from effectively integrating his anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) defenses into the scenario.

Question: One of the dynamics of change going forward with this ship and its interaction with the F-35B is re-shaping C5ISR and understanding that this is an open ended process of innovation.  The C5ISR suite on the initial ship will certainly be modified over time as folks begin to understand how it could lead operations and as they begin to focus on the C5ISR capabilities of an F-35B aboard the ship.  This sets up a dynamic situation of synergy to forge new capabilities and new developments over time.

Col Weisz:  That is a great way of looking at the situation.  The F-35 Bravo will bring significant capability in the C5ISR arena.  We are only beginning to realize the extent of its great enabling capabilities.