2014-08-08 By Robbin Laird
The USS America is the largest amphibious ship ever built by the United States.
The ship has been built at the Huntington Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi and departed mid-July for its trip to its initial home part at San Diego, California and then will be commissioned in San Francisco in mid-October 2014.
A number of innovations have been built in from the beginning. This is the first large deck amphibious ship that does not have a well deck for launching amphibious infantry vehicles, which has been a focus of controversy, so much so that a well deck will be added in the third variant of the USS America class. According to NavSea, the next variant of the USS America will be designed to enable the aviation work flow aboard the current variant to be largely maintained.
The well deck has been removed to change the capability of the ship to support airborne amphibious assault, and given the innovations generated in recent years by the USMC in such capabilities, and those already in train with the coming of the F-35B, the ship is a key part of changing how the USN and USMC team can do amphibious assault from the sea.
One innovation is simply how it is built.
Large deck carriers can be built in only a quite long period and are built in dry docks, which are large and expensive to build. The USS America can be built by factory methods and around 70% put together before it goes to the dry dock. This allows the numbers of this type of ship to be built up over time, using innovative production methods.
In an interview with Captain Chris Mercer, Program Manager USS America, the design of the ship and innovation was the focus of attention.
We have our partner design agents in Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) who joined with us to design the ship specifically for that synergy of the MV22 and joint strike fighter through air ship integration work.
That’s how we arrived at the design that we have for the Flight 0 ships America and Tripoli, which is LHA-7… inside the ship, we’ve got plenty of margins to bring in those C5ISR systems into our command and control spaces, and electronic suite spaces.
Certainly we have designed plenty of footprint for the various types of antennas they might need.
A major change in the ship can be seen below the flight deck, and these changes are what allow the assault force enabled by new USMC aviation capabilities to operate at greater range and ops tempo.
The ship has three synergistic decks, which work together to support flight deck operations.
Unlike a traditional large deck amphibious ship where maintenance has to be done topside, maintenance is done in a hangar deck below the flight deck.
And below that deck is the intermediate area, where large workspaces exist to support operations with weapons, logistics and sustainment activities.
The ship’s skipper in an interview aboard his ship in June 2014 underscored that the enhanced workflow of the crew working the Marines will allow the ship to generate greater operational tempo than a traditional amphibious ship.
And the ship will be able to operate much further from the objective area due to the capabilities of the Ospreys and combined with the F-35Bs will have the ability to insert force over much greater distance than a traditional amphibious ship.
He also emphasized the overall impact on and the ability to live off a cluster of innovations.
“I’m pretty excited to see the innovative approaches and ideas AMERICA facilitates with regard to amphibious ops and warfighting in general.”
The captain himself is part of the innovative process. The Captain is an experienced CRUDES officer. For those of us not raised in the USN, this means an officer with Cruiser-Destroyer surface fleet background.
And for Navy folks he would be described as a “black shoe” as opposed to a “brown shoe.” Again for those of us who have not served in the USN this refers coming from the surface ship community rather than the aviation community.
As Ed Timperlake has underscored: it is important to remember that Admiral Halsey, when he went into the hospital before the Battle of Midway recommended that his surface ship Commander (a “black shoe” in Navy parlance) Admiral Spruance take command of Task Force 16, the USS Enterprise and USS Hornet battle group. Admiral Nimitz CINCPAC, a submariner, accepted Halsey’s recommendation. He leaned on the ability of Spruance to maneuver the ships, to attack and withdraw as a key element of operational dominance.
With regard to enabling innovation, this ship addresses a key gap in the fleet.
A key limitation facing the 21st century assault force is sustainability and operational tempo.
The USS America has been built to provide both for the tiltrotar enabled assault force.
There is space to maintain and sustain the Osprey and the other aviation assets, and prepares for the coming of the F-35B as the ISR C2 asset taking the assault force to another level of capability.
The fuel capacity of the ship is interesting as well in terms of operations. The ship has more than double the fuel capacity of a traditional LHA. Obviously, such capacity is important for organic operations, but to support forces ashore or for humanitarian assistance or disaster relief operations, having deployed fuel is a huge advantage to support operations as well.
The ship is part of a cluster of innovations, which the USN-USMC team is bringing to amphibious operations. The ship begin its service life with Ospreys onboard, and the USMC as the only tiltrotar enabled force in the world is re-inventing ways to do long distance rapid force insertion.
The range and speed of the Osprey and the pairings with the KC-130J have led to the formation of a radical innovation, namely the SP-MAGTF-CR. And with it the ability to operate a great distances, the force can influence events more rapidly and with more agility than hitherto.
For example, in late December 2013, an SP-MAGTF embarked from Spain for South Sudan on a noncombat evacuation mission (NEO). 160 Marines and Sailors from the Special Force Marine Air Ground Task Force Crisis Response were flown by 2 KC-130s Hercules and 4 MV-22B Ospreys from Spain where they are temporarily based to Djibouti and then Uganda.
With 3,400 nautical miles (flying distance from Denver to Honolulu) this was the longest-range insert ever performed by this force thanks to its self-deployable capability.
The range and speed of the Osprey have generated pressures to shape new ways to empower the Ground Combat Element (GCE) coming off of the Ospreys. The GCE coming off the Osprey is not the same as coming off of a rotorcraft; the force needs to think differently and operate differently to maximize mission effectiveness.
As the Marines have focused upon ways to take small group insertion forces over greater distance to perform NEO and other combat operations, a key problem has been how to rethink the role of empowering the Marines in the back of the Ospreys with much greater situational awareness during the flight. When a ground combat force enters the back of an Osprey and flies several hours as opposed to minutes to the objective area, how best to do the mission planning on the fly?
To answer this question, the leadership of the Infantry Officer Course at Quantico has been working with VMX-22 to think through the problem and to engage in several exercises to shape the way ahead.
The ground-air integration built into the USMC is a significant facilitator for change as new aviation assets are added. But the change will not happen without significant engagement of ground force leaders.
Marines Infantry Units have been experimenting over the past few months with ways to shape new ways to connect the Ground Combat Element (GCE) within an insertion mission. The approach has been to deploy the GCE over a tiltrotor-enabled distance and to insert the force with situational awareness, which can enhance mission success. The connectivity technologies being worked on and refined by the Marines are providing an important compliment to the flexibility of the Osprey itself in terms of the ability to operate very flexibly in terms of approaches and departures from a landing zone.
Experiments over the past 15 months with new ways to connect the GCE within an insertion mission will lead to a deployed capability with Marine Expeditionary Units and Special Purpose MAGTFs focused on crisis response missions. These units, then, can subsequently use the initial capability and drive further innovation.
The USS America is the seabase from which tiltrotar innovation receives a significant boost and the newly enabled GCE will operate, with an ability to sustain and support the force at much greater distance from the objective area, if needed.
With the coming of the F-35B to the USS America, the tiltrotar-enabled force adds significant capability.
This can work a couple of different ways.
The ship can hold more than 20 F-35Bs, but more likely when F-35Bs are being featured would have a 16 F-35B flying with 4 Osprey combinations. The Ospreys would be used to carry fuel and or weapons, so that the F-35B can move to the mission and operate in a distributed base. This is what the Marines refer to as shaping distributed STOVL ops for the F-35B within which a sea base is a key lily pad from which the plane could operate or could move from.
Alternatively, the F-35B could operate as the ISR, C2 and strike asset to work with the rest of the assault force. The beauty of the F-35B for the Marines is that it allows them to operate off of an amphibious ship with a plane which can do C2 or provide forward leaning ISR. And in a recent experiment where the Marines assaulted San Clemente Island in an exercise, the Marines began to sketch out a new way to think about Close Air Support.
Operating from the training base in Twentynine Palms and landing on San Clemente Island off of California, approximately 100 students from the Infantry Officer Course in Quantico flew aboard Ospreys the simulated test area to eliminate cruise missile threats and take back an airfield from enemy forces.
The exercise was conducted by the Infantry Officer Course paired with VMX-22 and the Ospreys were accompanied by a specially configured Osprey with an airborne communication gateway with a Wi-Fi network that linked the tables carried by the squads riding in the Ospreys.
The Cat Bird, the F-35 surrogate sensor aircraft, which operated its sensor sent real time information about the objective area to the Marines in route to the objective area. The information shared was maps and images as well as text messaging among the ground force element aboard the Ospreys.
The F-35s went in and provided the capability to eliminate the ground missile threats and allowed a distributed company to be inserted to do their job. In other words, the Osprey carried the force; the F-35 surrogate providing the cover which could insert the force more effectively. Such an approach has NOTHING to do with the classic thinking of how a rotorcraft force would approach the challenge of ground force insertion into air enabled contested areas.
In other words, the F-35 working with an Osprey-enabled insertion force operating off of the USS American could well re-define the meaning of Close Air Support (CAS). The F-35 could enter the objective area prior to the arrival of the combat landing team or CLT, push data back to the incoming force, and then provide fire support, “kinetic” and “non-kinetic,” C2 and ISR support during the insertion and operation.
The other new aviation, which will fly off of the USS America, is the CH-53K, which is the replacement for the CH-53E. Although less sexy than an Osprey or a JSF, the K is a backbone element for an airborne amphibious strike force. The CH-53K will be able to carry three times the load external to itself than can a CH-53E and has many operational improvements, such as a fly by wire system.
In short, when one looks at the outside of the USS America and sees a flight deck roughly the size of its predecessors, one would totally miss the point of how this ship fits into USN-USMC innovation.
Looking under the decks, understanding how a radical change in the workflow, enabling and operating with 21st century USMC strike and insertion assets, is how to understand the ship and its impact.
It is an enabler of 21st century amphibious assault operations and not simply an upgrade on the past
08/03/2014: CARIBBEAN SEA (July 19, 2014) A tilt-rotor MV-22 Osprey prepares to land aboard the future amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6).
America is traveling through the U.S. Southern Command and U.S. 4th Fleet area of responsibility on her maiden transit
Credit:USS America: July 31, 2014
In the second photo, the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) pulls into Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for a scheduled port visit July 21, 2014. The ship is embarked on a mission to conduct training engagements with partner nations throughout the Americas before reporting to its new home port of San Diego. The America is to be ceremoniously commissioned Oct. 11, 2014.
In the third photo, Marines assigned to Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force South load onto a tilt-rotor MV-22 Osprey on the flight deck of future amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) to participate in bilateral training exercises with Colombia’s military.America is the first ship of its class, replacing the Tarawa-class of amphibious assault ships. As the next generation “big-deck” amphibious assault ship, America is optimized for aviation, capable of supporting current and future aircraft such as the Osprey and F-35B Joint Strike Fighter
In the fourth photo, an MH-60S Seahawk takes off from the flight deck of future amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) to participate in bilateral training exercises with Colombia’s military.
In the fifth photo, from right, U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly, the commander of U.S. Southern Command, escorts Colombian Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Pinzon Bueno and U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker aboard the newly commissioned amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) July 17, 2014, in Cartagena, Colombia.
In the sixth photo, Aviation Ordnanceman Airman Charles Hill, assigned to the future amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6), fires a .50-caliber machine gun during a sustainment shoot. The crew conducts routine, live-fire courses to maintain qualifications and improve proficiency. America is currently traveling through the U.S. Southern Command and U.S. 4th Fleet area of responsibility on her maiden transit, “America visits the Americas.”
In the final photo, Aviation Electronics Technician 3rd Class Trevor Vindelov, assigned to the “Blackjacks” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 21, performs a corrosion inspection on a MH-60S Seahawk helicopter in the hangar bay of future amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6).
By MC1 John Scorza, USS America (LHA 6) Public Affairs
COVENAS, Colombia (NNS) — Sailors and Marines assigned to the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force (SPMAGTF) South debarked the future USS America (LHA 6) to begin a three-day bilateral exercise with Colombian Marines, at the International Center for Amphibious Training located in Covenas, Colombia July 16.
Unlike other ships making their maiden voyage, the amphibious assault ship America embarked Marine units to immediately begin amphibious operations.
After only five days at sea, America sent 39 Marines to the flight deck to embark two MV-22 Osprey, assigned to the “Spartans” of Marine Operational and Test Evaluation Squadron (VMX) 22, beginning their transit to Covenas, Colombia to participate in training evolutions with the Colombian marine corps, or Infanteria de Marina de Colombia.
The engagement provided an opportunity for information exchanges and training with the partner nation of Colombia, enhancing interoperability and building on a partnership that fosters regional security in the U.S. Southern Command area of responsibility.
“The main purpose for the visit was to continue to develop the relationship between the Infanteria De Marina and the U.S. Marine Corps,” said Marine Capt. Blaine Barby, SPMAGTF South ground combat element commander. “The Colombians have a significant marine corps, and Colombia is a significant partner in our counter-narcotic operations. It is absolutely critical that we maintain a good relationship between our [militaries].”
The U.S. Marine element split into four groups during the training, which encompassed information exchanges in medical combat casualties, improvised explosive devices (IED), hand-to-hand combat, and live-fire, small arms weapons shoots.
Simultaneously, training began in all four areas. According to Colombian Lt. Col. Juan Camilo Franco Palacios, commander of the International Center of Amphibious Training, the IED information exchange was one of the most important stations and said with the war in Afghanistan drawing down, Colombia has become the highest area of IED concentration in the world.
Colombia is currently at war with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), a terrorist organization funded by kidnapping for ransom, illegal mining, extortion, and the production and distribution of illegal drugs. The two have been at war for 50 years.
Palacios and his team began the information exchange by conveying their problems, showing the various types of IEDs they encountered and discussing the FARC’s tactics.
“The Colombian IED problem is very significant,” said Barby. “I think one of their biggest problems is the lack of IED personnel overall. All of their marines are cross-trained on counter-IED tactics, but the country is big. It’s a thick jungle, and they can’t always get IED technicians to the site of an IED. So, often times when they find one, they are forced to detonate it and are unable to gather any information on it.”
After listening and evaluating the Colombian marines’ experiences, the U.S. Marines discussed the tactics they encountered in Afghanistan and offered procedures to help counteract threats the Colombians’ face.
“One of the things that we brought to the table is expressing to them the importance of rendering the IED safe and learning from it. They understand the importance of it, but sometimes the actual application of implementing those procedures is the most challenging part,” said Barby.
America is currently traveling through the U.S. Southern Command and U.S. 4th Fleet area of responsibility on her maiden transit, “America Visits the Americas”. America is the first ship of its class, replacing the Tarawa-class of amphibious assault ships.
As the next generation “big-deck” amphibious assault ship, America is optimized for aviation, capable of supporting current and future aircraft such as the MV-22 Osprey and F-35B Joint Strik Fighter. The ship is scheduled to be ceremoniously commissioned Oct. 11 in San Francisco.
U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command / U.S. 4th Fleet and U.S. Marine Forces South support U.S. Southern Command’s joint and combined military operations by employing maritime forces in cooperative maritime security operations in order to maintain access, enhance interoperability, and build enduring partnerships in order to enhance regional security and promote peace, stability, and prosperity in the Caribbean, Central and South American regions.
With regard to Columbia and its fight against the FARC, see the following:
This article was first published by Front Line Defence, August 2014: