It is Not Just a New Ship: It is the Launch Point for a New Era


2012-10-30 by Robbin Laird

It is not often that a new ship of the line is christened.  And when it is, thoughts of how it might be used, where it might operate and how it might make new naval history are part of the excitement.

This was clearly evident at the christening of the USS America, the fourth ship of that name, in Pascagoula, Mississippi on October 20th.

This ship is not only the lead ship in a new class but will integrate the newest aviation of the USMC-USN team aboard a single operational platform at sea.

It will operate F-35 Bravos, Ospreys and CH-53Ks in the years to come.  And the first ship will operate out of San Diego, and be part of the Pacific century.

It also is a representative of the contribution of the Gulf Coast to American military capability.  The Ingalls shipyard is the heart of USN shipbuilding, now and has been for many years.

Not far away, F-35 Bravos are being prepared for action in Eglin AFB.  And in a confluence of events, two new F-35Bs landed at Eglin – one British and one USMC – the day before the christening.

Although called an LHA, it is not.  Rather than being a Landing Helicopter Assault ship, it is flagship for 21st century operations.  And these operations will be shaped by the need to operate at greater distance, and to strike with aircraft with significantly greater capability than the aircraft they are replacing.

The Osprey and the F-35 Bravo can operate at greater distance, speed and lethality than what they are replacing.  The 360-degree aircraft – the F-35B – will provide along with its sister assets a change as big as that for which Admiral Sims and Admiral Halsey planned for with the introduction of the original aircraft carriers prior to World War II.

Indeed, this ship is the size of the US aircraft carriers operating at the end of WW II.  And as the ship’s sponsor – Lynne Pace, the wife of the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs – put it to the veterans of the last USS America – a large deck carrier:

“I know you (the crew of the former USS America) would love the name to go to an aircraft carrier, but this ship is mini-aircraft carrier.”

The ship is optimized to operate the new aviation assets.  In an exclusive interview with the ship’s captain, a Tom Selleck look alike, Captain Robert Hall, Jr., underscored the change:

We are aviation centric large deck amphibious ship designed without a well deck but operate in a fleet, which can deliver amphibious vehicles.  The ship has been designed to support this next generation of aircraft, which is larger and also we need to support greater sortie generation rates of which the F-35 is capable. The ship has been designed to have space to perform maintenance for the aircraft and to provide for extra fuel to support aviation. We will have room for much greater amount of ordinance and storage of parts as well.

The ship and its aviation capabilities will provide the joint force commander with a powerful new tool.

And for those missing the well deck, it is useful to go back to lessons learned at the big Bold Alligator 2012 exercise.  In a prelude to the USS America, the USN-USMC team operated 16 harriers off of a large deck amphib.  This is not a normal con-ops for the ship, but in anticipation of where they are going with the USS America, they exercised the option.

What did they find? 

You can launch vehicles close to shore or launch your combat aircraft, which requires launching at greater distance from the shore.  The point is clear: when you have platforms and weapons able to operate at much greater distance, that is what you want to do.  And because DOD has decided the USMC can not have the amphibious vehicles able to be launched at much greater distance, they will have to use other ships to launch such vehicles.

Although interesting in itself, the USS America is not an in itself asset.  It is part of a global process of change on several dimensions.

First, the ship is part of a broader allied effort.  Allies are building ships of similar types and purposes and various other ships, which can work well with the USS America class.  The Queen Elizabeth class and Giuseppe Garibaldi (551) will operate F-35 Bravos and are similarly sized to the America.

UK, F-35 and Strategy

Other sea based platforms such as the Australians are building or the Spanish or French operate are important as well.  The French Mistral is being looked at a platform on which the Osprey could land as well.

Second, the USS Ford is being developed synergistically with the USS America class.  According to NAVSEA officers and designers, the workflow for the USS America involving the F-35 is being discussed regularly with the Ford officers and designers.  There is a cross-fertilization going on between the two new large aircraft surface assets as significant as when Sims and Halsey rethought the battleship navy moving to the carrier navy.

Third, the C5ISR aboard the USS America and USS Ford are radically different from legacy ships.  And as the F-35 as a core F5ISR or Tron Warfare asset is deployed the synergy between shipboard C5ISR and airborne C5ISR will be radially rethought.  And this will affect as well what the Brits and Italians will do moving forward.

As the Vice-CNO Admiral Mark Ferguson, a surface warrior, underscored at the christening: “When America joins the fleet, we’ll be a stronger, more flexible, and a better Marine Corps team. We need this ship.”

An earlier version of this piece appeared on AOL Defense.