The USS America, CVN-78 and HMS Queen Elizabeth: Crafting Capabilities for 21st Century Operations


2015-05-09 By Robbin F. Laird

In the famous opening lines of Charles Dickens Tale of Two Cities, he noted that “it was the best of times; its was the worst of times.”

So it is for aircraft carriers. The critics of aircraft carriers focus on their vulnerability and the rise of capabilities such as the DF-21 Chinese “carrier killer” missiles; yet new carriers are emerging tailored for 21st century operations.

It is clear that the USN, the USMC, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy are all pursuing new carrier programs designed to thrive, not just survive in 21st century operations.

I have had the rare opportunity to be aboard all three of the new carriers: the 52,000 ton USS America, which is the amphibious assault ship ever built; the 100,000 ton CVN-78 (or the USS Gerald Ford to non US Navy folks) and the 65,000 ton HMS Queen Elizabeth.

The ships have several twenty-first century technologies in common.

Notably, the construction of vastly improved command and control (C2) capabilities, and capabilities to work with networked forces in a distributed operational environment is a key one.

The ships will have a 40 plus service life (although combat has its own logic), and will host significant transformation with regard to the combat assets carried aboard.

But each ship is built around significant airpower modernizations.

The USS America will host the Ospreys (including refueling Ospreys), F-35Bs, and the CH-53K (which can carry externally three times the load of the CH-53E); CVN-78 will see the new Hawkeye, the F-35C, and UCAS aboard her; and the HMS Queen Elizabeth is built around the F-35B as well as new airborne command capabilities.

And the Ford and the Queen Elizabeth have advanced electric power generation capabilities to take on board directed energy weapons as those capabilities evolve. Both ships have significant communications capabilities (with miles of fiber optic cable built in) and reconfigurable C2 workstations to allow for operations against the ROMO or Range of Military Operations.

For Carriers are very good at providing capabilities across the spectrum of operations, and the presence required for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief is a critical part of building the engagements crucial for enhanced deterrence as well.

The three carriers all provide basing flexibility and the capability to operate with both sea control as well land attack functionalities.

And the logistical integrity of the carriers is crucial as well, which allows for operate from the sea without having to set up land bases for which to operate.

And as ISIS demonstrated, capturing equipment left behind, can fuel capabilities of the very adversaries which you want to defeat; something which sea basing can minimize.

And the carriers are born in the context of the connectivity revolution whereby distributed operations and enhanced capability to operate as an integrated force allows the carriers to leverage the strike capabilities of subsurface, and surface assets as well as land-based air as well.

Of course, each ship is different and will contribute differently to US and allied forces operating in the battlespace. And working to more effectively integrate those three carriers is a work in progress but given the close working relationships of the USMC, the USN, the RAF and the RN, innovations demonstrated in one class of ship will become part of the operational environment for all of them.

The USS America: Reinventing Amphibious Assault

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 2014 for its trip to its initial home part at San Diego, California and then was commissioned in San Francisco in mid-October 2014. It is now undergoing its final trials and preparing to enter the fleet.

The USMC is the only tiltrotar-enabled assault force in the world.

(Japan is now buying 17 Ospreys and will work with the USN/USMC team to integrate Ospreys into the Japanese Self Defense Force).

The USS America has been built to facilitate this capability and will be augmented as the F-35B is added to the Ospreys, and helicopters already operating from the ship and as unmanned vehicles become a regular operational element as well.

The Osprey has obviously been a game changer, where today, the basic three ship formation used by the Amphibious Ready Group-Marine Expeditionary Unit can “disaggregate” and operate over a three-ship distributed 1,000-mile operational area. Having the communications and ISR to operate over a greater area, and to have sustainment for a disaggregated fleet is a major challenge facing the future of the USN-USMC team.

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.

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.

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.

The Coming of CVN-78: Redefining the Large-Deck Carrier

The coming of the USS Gerald R. Ford sets in motion a very different type of large-deck carrier.  The hull form of the Ford is a tribute to the very successful Nimitz-class hull design. That is where the comparisons basically end.

In effect, the new carrier is built to provide an infrastructure for 21st century warfighting, not just for the U.S. Navy, but for the joint and coalition force as well.

The ship is designed to operate more effectively with an evolving airwing, which will change over the 50+ year life of the carrier.

It has as well significantly greater C2 capabilities so that the carrier can play an expanded role in evolving 21st century U.S. and alliance distributed operations which will be central to U.S. warfighting capabilities going forward. The significant increase in electric power generation, three times greater than Nimitz, is designed to allow the electronic systems associated with defense, attack and C2 to grow over time.

A number of the changes associated with the ship are quite visible: the new launching and recovery systems, the weapons handling system and many other improvements. But central to rethinking the role of the carrier is the revolution in C2 underway. The super computers onboard the ship, with the power to support them as well as having significant power available for system cooling along with the deployment of future laser weapons is a crucial baseline for building out of C2 capabilities.

The next generation in active sensor technology in the dual band radars provides a solid foundation, not simply for the organic defense and strikes capability of the carrier, but for the battle fleet as a whole. Significant increase in bandwidth is a fundamental requirement for an expanded C2 capability at sea which can support land, sea and air operations. And the unique rapidly reconfigurable command suites on board allow for C2 to be provided for joint or coalition partners in a manner appropriate to the mission set.

In an interview with Captain John Meier, the skipper of CVN-78, on January 9, 2015 highlighted a number of innovations, two of which are the new launch system and the second is the new weaponization systems and pit stop approach to operating aircraft.

The first involves the shift from steam catapults to an electronic system or EMALS. “The EMALs system we will visit on board the ship and will allow us to provide for an ability to launch aircraft more smoothly and with less wear and tear on the airplanes and the pilots. Coupled with the new advanced arresting gear, we will be able to launch and recover a variety of types of aircraft, including future designs that haven’t been developed.”

The second is the change in weaponization, including anticipating fielded directory energy weapons, put particularly a new weapons loading capability. “You have a great capacity for diversity of weapons, and the advanced weapon elevators themselves are located on the ship to facilitate faster movement and loading of the weapons.  That’s the underlying principle of the advanced weapon elevators. The elevators carry more weight and they go faster, twice the speed and twice the weight essentially of the legacy weapons elevators.

They’re located in the flight deck, which puts them positionally where the crew will spend a lot less time from an ergonomics perspective pushing the ordnance around. The ordnance comes up right near the aircraft and facilitates more efficient weapons loading.”

With the weapons coming directly to the flight deck, combat jets will be loaded in “pit stops” aboard the deck and then launched from the EMALs system, allowing for better capability to arm and launch combat aircraft more rapidly.

And with the coming of the F-35 C, the head of Naval Air Warfare, Rear Admiral Manazir noted in an interview done after the visit to the Ford:

“Reach not range is a key aspect of looking at the carrier airwing and its ability to work with joint and coalition forces.

This is clearly enhanced with the F-35. The carrier has a core ability to operate organically but its real impact comes from its synergy with the joint and coalition force, which will only go up as the global F-35 fleet emerges. And this will get better with the coming of the USS Ford.  What the Ford does is it optimizes the things that we think are the most important.”

HMS Queen Elizabeth: Reinventing the Large Deck Carrier

The Brits invented carrier warfare; and in many ways with their new 65,000 ton carrier they are reinventing the large deck carrier and providing something of a hybrid between the USS America and CVN-78. The flight deck is impressive and is about 90% of the size of the Nimitz class and has a very wide deck upon which operations can be generated.

When I stood at the end of the ski jump and looked down at the flight deck, its width was significant. And I learned that the flight deck was built by Laird Shipbuilding (unfortunately no relation!).

This ship is designed to operate F-35Bs, which means that the RAF and the RN will drive every bit of innovation out of the aircraft to provide C2, ISR and strike capabilities. And given the F-35B enabled USS America, it is no surprise to learn that their working relationship with the USN-USMC team is close. And the Brits will train with the Marines along with other international partners that will fly the F-35B at Beaufort Marine Corps Air Station in North Carolina.

Walking the ship takes time, but several innovations one sees aboard the Ford can be found aboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth: significant energy generation, significant C2 capabilities, very large rooms for reconfigurable C2 suites for operations across the ROMO, as well as well designed work areas for the F-35B crews which will handle the operations and data generated by the F-35 to the fleet.

It is a ship designed to transform both the RAF and the RN for it will integrate significantly with the surface and subsurface fleet and the land-based air for the RAF.

To take an example, with RAF jets operating from Cyprus or in the Middle East, the HMS Queen Elizabeth can mesh its air assets with the land based assets and the command center directing the air operations could be on the ship, on land at an operating base, or in the air, even in the new tankers.

It is a ship designed to be part of the transformation not just of the Royal Navy but for the Royal Air Force as well as the Typhoons take over Tornado missions and the F-35 comes into the force concurrently. And it is a transformation where joint integration of land and sea based forces will be featured.

The HMS Queen Elizabeth in common with CVN-78 has a new way to load weapons and to configure the weapons loads to enhance the safety and speed of the weaponization process.

The weapons are brought to either end of the deck to be loaded onto the combat aircraft; and the mechanism for loading and moving the weapons can provide for a mix and match capacity to push the proper loads to the particular aircraft for the missions of the day. In fact, the system aboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth can prepare those loads the night before the early morning missions.

Another aspect in common between these two carriers is innovations in the islands controlling the ship compared to the Nimitz class. For the Ford class, this means moving the island back on the flight deck and opening up more flight space and providing for a cleaner flight deck, a change which when working with the new launch system will provide the flight operations to work more effectively aboard the flight deck.

For HMS Queen Elizabeth, there are two islands onboard the ship.

This is due to the fact that it is not a nuclear carrier and the exhausts for the engines exit on two parts of the flight deck; and there is an island incorporating those exit points. One island is used to operate the ship; and the second runs flight deck operations.

And in a crisis, either island can perform both tasks, but visiting the two islands it is clear that the designers have focused on ways to enhance the work flow for the two different tasks, namely running the ship and operating the aircraft aboard the flight deck.


Despite the critics, new carriers are being built.

They are designed to work more effectively in an integrated operational space and can provide both defense and offense to the joint and coalition force.

They are key elements of the distributed force, one which is forging a 21st century approach to offense-defense enterprise and able to operate across the spectrum of military operations.

We can only see the glimmer of the future, but the paths to the future are clear and one pathway is through the reinvention of the large deck carrier.

The author would like to thank Ed Timperlake for his assistance, insights and contributions in the work underlying this piece.

The Slideshows:

The first slideshow:

The USS America is optimized for aviation operations.

The three-deck set up provides a significant upgrade in the ability to support an aviation supported assault force.

Indeed, the USMC as the only tiltrotar-enabled assault force in the world, now has a ship well designed both to operate and maintain the core asset to insert and support the Ground Combat Element at significant distances of operations.

Credit: USS America:Summer 2014

  • In the first photo, a U.S. Navy aviation boatswain’s mate (handling) directs an MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft carrying Marines assigned to Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force South to land on the flight deck of the newly commissioned amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) in the Caribbean Sea following bilateral training with Colombian service members July 19, 2014.
  • In the second, third and fourth photos, U.S. Marines assigned to Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force South return to the newly commissioned amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) in the Caribbean Sea following bilateral training with Colombian service members July 19, 2014. The America embarked on a mission to conduct training engagements with partner nations throughout the Americas before reporting to its new homeport of San Diego. The America was set to be ceremoniously commissioned Oct. 11, 2014.
  • In the fifth photo, a tilt-rotor MV-22 Osprey, assigned to the “Argonauts” of Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron (VMX) 22, takes off from the flight deck of future amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) during flight operations.
  • In the sixth photo, an Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Handler) directs a pilot to an MH-60S Seahawk helicopter, assigned to the “Blackjacks” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 21, in preparation for flight operations aboard the future amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6).
  • In the seventh photo, an MH-60S Seahawk helicopter, assigned to the “Blackjacks” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 21, takes off from the flight deck of future amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) during flight operations.
  • In the eighth photo, an Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Handler) directs a tilt-rotor MV-22 Osprey, assigned to the “Argonauts” of Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron (VMX) 22, to take off from the flight deck of future amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) during flight operations.
  • In the 9th  and 10th photos, Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Handling) 1st Class Kenny Vida, flight deck leading petty officer aboard future amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6), observes an MH-60S Seahawk helicopter as it takes off.
  • In the 11th photo, Sailors assigned to future amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) chock and chain an MH-60S Seahawk helicopter after it lands during flight quarters.
  • In the 12th 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).
  • In the 13th photo, Aviation Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Jeff Acevedo, left, assigned to Air Department’s V-3 division, directs his tractor driver, Airman Robert Johnson, while moving MV-22 Osprey in the hangar bay aboard future amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6).
  • In the 14th photo, Aviation Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Jeff Acevedo, left,  directs Aviation Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Jeff Acevedo, both assigned to Air Department’s V-3 division, while moving an MV-22 Osprey in the hangar bay aboard future amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6).
  • In the 15th photo, Sailors assigned to the “Blackjacks” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 21, embarked aboard future amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6), perform preventive maintenance on aircraft tie-down chains in the ship’s hangar bay.
  • In the final photo, Aviation Structural Mechanic 2nd Class Reginald Gilmore, assigned to the “Blackjacks” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 21, embarked aboard future amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6), performs routine maintenance on an MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter in the ship’s hangar bay.

The second slideshow:

 The photos in the slideshow were shot during the visit to CVN-78 on January 9, 2015 and are credited to Second Line of Defense.

  • The second photo shows Captain Meier in his stateroom aboard the ship.  The third photo shows the captain and Construction superintendent Hicks near an EMALs catapult, and was shot after Hicks had explained to us in detail the nature of the EMALS and arrested landing gear system and its projected impact on operations.
  • The fourth and fifth photos are external shots of the USS Ford prior to boarding the ship.
  • The sixth shot is a view from the bridge of the significantly expanded launch area aboard the deck.  Moving the island as well as removing one aviation elevator from the deck have facilitated the expanded flight deck.
  • Photos 7-9, provide views of the island including the new radar locations.
  • The tenth photo shows the flight deck.
  • The 11th photo shows a station for providing jet fuel.
  • The 12th through 15th photo shows a finished area of the ship, namely the galley.  Even though there will be 600 less sailors aboard the ship, the galley will serve a large crew.
  • The final two shots are of the hanger aboard the ship.

The third slideshow:

At the end of March 2015, Second Line of Defense visited HMS Queen Elizabeth in Scotland. 

These photos were shot during the visit by the RN/RAF team and are credited to them.

  •  The first photo shows the ski jump on the flight deck for the F-35B.  The second photo is of the ski jump and a shot of the Hood Dock from which HMS Hood left to go after Bismarck and to which HMS Prince of Wales returned after the Bismarck was sunk.
  •  The third photo is shot from the ski jump and looks down at the entire flight deck.
  •  The fourth photo shows Robbin Laird with one of the HMS Queen Elizabeth team at the end of the flight deck.
  •  The fifth photo shows several members of the team who provided the tour of the ship.
  •  The sixth, seventh and eighth photos show the islands aboard the flight deck.
  •  The ninth photo provides another shot of the flight deck; the tenth photo is a shot of the reconfigurable C2 spaces aboard the ship;; the eleventh photo shows the massive crane used in the course of construction.
  •  And the final photo shows those who provided the tour for whom more than thanks are due for providing insights into a key element of evolving air and sea power.