Remaking the Amphibious Task Force: Marines Onboard the USS America

By Todd Miller

“We’d always say ‘if its really a bad air to air (A2A) threat, get some additional jets up there, get some more capability.’ 

I have no pause or hesitation that this jet will dominate in an A2A environment, would dominate in a strike environment, dominate in a CAS environment, and would also do a very nice job in an electronic warfare realm as well.”

Marines. At their mention I suspect most think, “storming the beaches.”  Amphibious vehicles first in, troops storm ashore.  That capability still exists, but today there is a far greater capability, one that will provide a vexing challenge for any adversary.

Already transformed by the mobility of the Osprey, the F-35B offers a critical upgrade to the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) and amphibious assault.  The first wave is no longer limited to the beach or uncontested space, it can effectively reach locations 450 miles from the shipborne base – even in contested airspace.

What once came ashore like a wave, now comes as lightning strikes in a violent storm.

Marines on the beach, Marines from behind, and Marines within the adversary’s territory.  Marines striking swiftly with maximum effect to deal with high value targets, including terror cells – all with the stand alone capability to do so.

This is the “Aerial Amphibious Assault” Force, and these are the Marines of the 21st century battlespace.

It is a capability the US Marine Corps (USMC) has patiently and steadfastly build towards, and the pieces are coming together;

  • Integration with the US Navy LHA Class Amphibious Assault Carrier – The USS America & USS Tripoli (under construction). The LHA class offers enhanced dedicated support for Marine aviation assets.
  • MV-22B Osprey. The Osprey offers extended range and speed for troop insertion, as well as air to air refueling support.
  • Existing Attack Helicopters (UH-1Y Venom & AH-1Z Viper).
  • F-35B Lightning II. The F-35B replaces the AV-8B, F/A-18 Hornet & EA-6B Prowler. The aircraft offers exceptional performance Air to Air (A2A), Air to Ground (A2G), Close Air Support (CAS), Electronic Warfare (EW), Command, Control, Communications and Computers (C4), Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) all with the capability to operate stealthily within contested areas.
  • CH-53K “King Stallion” When introduced (2019) the CH-53K will provide nearly 3x the heavy lift capability of the CH-53E.

The USS America (LHA-6) a maritime base, provides unrivaled flexibility. 

Park it where you want in international waters.  Forward deploy it to a region for any contingency, and a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) is at the ready.  The LHA platform is ideal for military operations involving troop insertion, (anti-terrorism activities) where the objective is to infiltrate, accomplish the mission and leave no boots behind on the ground.

The LHA offers the flexibility to adjust mix from heavy jet (F-35B) to heavy tiltrotor (MV-22B) or rotor wing. Utilizing the MV-22B and the F-35B, the USMC can effectively insert troops 450 miles from the ship in under 2 hours.

The platform offers the flexibility to work together with additional amphibious assault carriers (LHD) when amphibious vehicles are desired, as well as with the support of the USN Supercarrier.

Not a replacement for either, the LHA provides flexibility for the military to tailor a force most suitable for the mission at hand.

Second Line of Defense and a handful of gathered journalists recently had the opportunity to visit with Lt. General Jon “Dog” Davis, USMC Deputy Commandant for Aviation, and Col. George “Sack” Rowell,  Commanding Officer of VMX-1 (Marine Operational Test & Evaluation Squadron).

The visit took place after DT-III, during a “Proof of Concept” demonstration on the USS America, November 18-20, 2016.

General Davis, can you describe the tactical implications of the USS America with F-35B, MV-22B & other Marine aviation assets?

The MV-22 is an incredible platform, it can go a long way at a high rate of speed, it can receive air refueling, and it can be configured to provide air refueling. 

It can move Marines, and (configured) it can pass fuel to other MV-22’s or F-35s.  That is a tremendous capability for the Marines and the Naval services. 

These ships are designed for amphibious operations, MAGTF operations with the standard mix of Marine units that will go out (Marine Expeditionary Units – MEU), but occasionally we need to configure this to be jet heavy or helicopter heavy.  In this case, this is a jet heavy deck.  We could take up to 20 F-35Bs onboard, we put 12 on this time. 

This is a 5th Gen strike capability that the nation does not currently have from a sea base.  It is a tremendous capability.  We had Vice Admiral Rowden (Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, Commander Naval Surface Forces) onboard today. 

One of the things we did as part of this test was the AEGIS integration with the F-35B.  That’s a big deal.   That’s a big deal for our Nation, our Navy and our Marine Corps. 

The Marine Corps is a force that fights across the range of the military operations, and this could be something that a combatant commander, or a fleet commander decides that we need to be able to do for a time. 

Like we did during Operation Iraqi Freedom, where I think we had 4 decks loaded up with Harriers.  We sailed over with helicopters on board and then flew Harriers in and flew off those ships because that was the best way for us to operate.

Practically speaking, what is the operational range from ship of the F-35B/MV-22B tandem?

Unrefueled you could do 450 miles, refueled, you could do more.  MV-22s are an incredible platform for assault, delivering Marines or for getting Special Operations forces where they need to go.  The F-35B is a very nice complement to get that MV-22 into a contested area. 

If I was a bad guy I would hate the MV-22.  If you hate the MV-22 you want to try and go after it, and the F-35 will create the conditions for the success of the MV-22. 

It will sanitize a target area, go after target defenses, provide close air support for the assault force in the objective area and then help bring them back home, utilizing A2A, A2G, situational awareness and electronic warfare. 

We think we have a real winner in the combination of platforms out there, but it is not just about F-35Bs & MV-22s.  We have attack helicopters, UH-1Y, AH-1Z, CH-53Es and soon we’ll have the CH-53Ks. 

The most important part of all is the young marines that are supported by a ride in those aircraft and get supported by these weapons systems.

The F-35 weaves a lot of things together that we have not had in a long time.  EW for our MEUs which we’ve never had before in this kind of capability; a very, very high end air defense and counter air capability; and an all-weather ground attack CAS system that allows us to provide CAS in virtually any environment out there. 

We are very pleased with what we are seeing.  And this is a beautiful new ship.  It’s my first time on the America, and I am very impressed with the ship, and I am really impressed with the sailors, and their attitude.  The Marines are beaming, and the sailors are also very happy.

We’re talking about deployments in 2018, would you feel confident if you had to deploy to a CENTCOM AOR Firebase?

I’d do it tomorrow. Tomorrow.

The squadron commander (CO) of VMFA-211 is chomping at the bit, he would deploy them, so would the CO of VMFA-121.  They are ready. These airplanes are highly capable and ready to go.  

We have a commitment to move to Japan with VMFA-121.  As Marines we live up to our promises. 

We have promised to take 5th Gen capability to Japan, so we’re doing that.  And we are going to do that in January.

We will deploy on timeline with these other capabilities unless something requires us to go sooner or faster.  They are ready.  They are ready.  The Marine Corps is busy right now, so I’m not trying to put anything else on anybody’s plate, nor is anyone else. 

But the nation has a 5th Gen capability that can operate from a sea base, and could do it tomorrow if need be.

As you debate how to tackle a contested area, and operate in a multi-domain environment, and highly dispersed units, it sounds as if the F-35 are they key to that, how?


We are operating on a sea base right now.  This is a great platform to operate from.  It makes the sea base more powerful, more potent. 

However, we can also move to FOBs, continue to operate, then back to the ship.  We have Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots out here watching this today, and that was their operational concept when I was an exchange officer with the RAF.  Going from a main base to what we call distributed operations all over. 

We have done that when in an A2/AD threat condition.  That is a tremendous capability for the Marine Corps today.

We bought this airplane so that we could better support the troops on the ground.  That means flying from whatever operating base is most advantageous from an operations perspective and threat perspective.  It might be the sea base, it might be a base ashore. 

The Marine Corp has units called the Marine Wing Support Squadrons (MWSS), they are the Marine Corps carriers ashore.  We have the Carrier at sea, and then we have these units that create operating bases ashore. 

We can move those around as need be to give us the extended reach and play if we don’t have a set base or a road to operate these airplanes.  Wherever you have enough road to land a C-130J and offload jet fuel, you can put F-35Bs to go operate for a period of time.

We just did the hot rearm, hot refuel with the F-35Bs.  We have been doing that with Harriers 12 years now, and we do it with F/A-18s.  We did it at WTI for the F-35Bs.  2 F-35s came in and landed, we never shut them down, we refueled, reloaded them with ordinance and took off in less than 20 mins.  That’s a significant capability.

We are not going to hot rearm on the ship during this exercise, but we are hot refueling.  We are always looking for ways to make things go a little bit faster. 

We did that in Afghanistan with our Harriers, for the Marjah operation. The Harriers took off out of Kandahar, got overhead Marjah, did their CAS. 

We built a small FOB called FOB Dwyer with one of the MWSSs very close to Marjah.  Once aircraft dropped their ordinance, they landed at FOB Dwyer, rearmed and refueled without shutting down and took off again in about 15 mins.  We made 12 Harriers look like 36 Harriers. 

Now we are doing it with the F-35s.

I understand the Marines are looking to accelerate full motion video capability.  When & Why (I believe it is scheduled for Block 4.3)? 

I do believe we found a way to bring it on faster than Block 4.3.  It’s one of the things we use (actually we were one of the pioneers for streaming video out of our lightning pods) for our guys on the ground.  Our forward air controllers (FACs) love using that. 

I think they’ll also like the other capabilities of this airplane too like the Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) map through the clouds.  The full motion video does not provide that at all right now, it’s really streaming video (not full motion video).  Bottom line, if the customer wants it, we try and provide it.  I believe it may be implemented for Block 4.1 or 4.2.

Can we discuss the AEGIS integration & practical effects? 

I wish I had my Navy counterpart here, Admiral Rowden was very excited about it.  It was a Navy idea. Col. Rowell (Col. George “Sack” Rowell, VMX-1 Commanding Officer) will you address AEGIS integration?

Rowell; The first experience took place 2 months ago with the “AEGIS” at White Sands (Desert Ship).  An F-35 targeted a cruise missile surrogate and provided the targeting data to the AEGIS platform.  What AEGIS really brings is a weapons payload.  

The General just talked about hot loading the aircraft with weapons.  AEGIS cruisers bring a weapons payload, that just could not fit on an airplane.

We are talking about dozens and dozens of missiles. SM-6s that can be targeted by airborne platforms at a much greater distance than they could independently target.

Does this fit in with distributed lethality?

Absolutely.  The F-35 digitally sent the targeting data through to the AEGIS using multi-function advanced datalink (MADL) and the AEGIS shot – and that was a live shoot, a live SM-6 came out of White Sands and destroyed the target. 

Are there any other aircraft that can do that?

No, nothing else (using MADL) can do that.  The Navy has AEGIS cruisers all over.  We establish data links with local cruisers.  DT-III did everything shy of shooting the missile, established the data link, passed the data, and validated the data.

Davis; The F-35 & AEGIS are a great Naval integration story, there is a lot of potential, a lot of excitement.  Not a Harrier, or Hornet, this is a totally a new and different capability.  The MV-22 was a disruptive technology and it changed our assumptions about how we are going to operate an assault platform from a sea base.  It also changed drastically what we do ashore.  

This jet will do that for us as well, and I am proud of the Marine Corps for being up front and leading this thing.  And if you had enough real estate to put as many aircraft as possible on a ship like this, there are conditions and situations where you would want to do that.   

I think its primary mode will be as an amphibious ship loaded with our typical MEU capability.  But there are times we would want to load up like this (jet heavy).

This ship would normally carry 1500 Marines, with a surge capacity of 1800.  Two battalion of Marines,  Americas most potent weapon, the Marine Rifleman.

Can you discuss the big Picture deployment to Japan?  How does tomorrows demo fit in with it?

We are investigating the right mix of assets on the ship to support the MEU.  Is it 6 or 8 F-35Bs?  We want a solid deployment, move out to Japan and establish normal operations as a 5th Gen platform in the Pacific Region.  We’ve been planning for this for a long time. 

I want to send F-35s to Japan and have them operate as successfully as we do in Yuma, AZ & Beaufort, SC and extend this 5th Gen capability for our forces in the Asia Pacific.  I think its tailor made for that region. 

It has an incredible capability, it’s got great sensors, great weapons, great radars, great agility, great flexibility, and its tailor made for a dynamic region like the Asia Pacific. 

Our Harriers have a set amount of capability, and we’ve been deploying our MEUs with Harriers but the Harrier is not as combat capable as an F-35.  I mean for the full range of military operations.  We’d always say “if its really a bad air to air (A2A) threat, get some additional jets up there, get some more capability.”  

I have no pause or hesitation that this jet will dominate in an A2A environment, would dominate in a strike environment, dominate in a CAS environment, and would also do a very nice job in an electronic warfare realm as well.  And I think that we talk about higher threat systems out there.

We do a good job escorting our assault support platforms, with our attack helicopters.  But our jets do helicopter escort as well and I think the F-35B is going to be one of those escort platforms that we are going to rely on for MV-22s, certainly for going into contested areas.

Can you provide an overview of the mission tomorrow, and the message it sends? 

We are doing MV-22 escort with a six ship F-35B strike. Bottom line going into a contested environment, set the MV-22s down, deliver a notional group of Marines. 

Airplanes are dedicated to the escort mission and strikes, some A2A and A2G.  So we are practicing what we will perform for the MEU of the future.

With those final comments the interview came to an end, yet the picture was clear;

The integration of the F-35B with the MAGTF changes everything.

We wish to thank Lt. General Jon “Dog” Davis, USMC Deputy Commandant for Aviation;  USMC VMX-1 Commanding Officer, Col. George “Sack” Rowell and Sylvia Pierson, Brandi Schiff, JSF/JPO PA; Capt. Sarah Burns and 1st Lt. Maida Zheng, USMC PAOs.

This article was first published on December 4, 2016.

The photo is credited to Todd Miller and shows an F-35B of USMC VMFA-211 performs vertical landing on the USS America (LHA-6) during integrated USN/USMC “proof of concept” exercise November 19, 2016.