The F-35 and the Coming of the USS America

By Robbin Laird

The F-35 Bravo was made for maneuver warfare. It is a short take-off and vertical landing a (STOVL), supersonic combat aircraft which has built-in integrated combat capabilities, ability to provide ISR or C2 to the insertion force and can integrate through low latency systems with U.S. or allied F-35s operating in an area of interest.

The role of the F-35 in shaping the USMC role in the maritime kill web force was highlighted by Maj Brian Hansell, MAWTS-1 F-35 Division Head, in a 2020 interview: “By being an expeditionary, forward-based service, we’re effectively extending the bounds of the kill web for the entire joint and coalition force.”

The F-35 is not just another combat asset, but at the heart of empowering an expeditionary kill web-enabled and enabling force.

On the one hand, the F-35 leads the wolfpack. This was a concept which Secretary Wynne highlighted when I worked for him in DoD. His perspective then is now reality and one which empowers an expeditionary force.

As Maj. Hansell put it in the 2020 interview: “During every course, we are lucky to have one of the lead software design engineers for the F-35 come out as a guest lecturer to teach our students the intricacies of data fusion. During one of these lectures, a student asked the engineer to compare the design methodology of the F-35 Lightning II to that of the F-22 Raptor.

“I like this anecdote because it is really insightful into how the F-35 fights. To paraphrase, this engineer explained that “the F-22 was designed to be the most lethal single-ship air dominance fighter ever designed. Period. The F-35, however, was able to leverage that experience to create a multi-role fighter designed from its very inception to hunt as a pack.”

The capability of the F-35s to hunt as a pack and through its communications, navigation and identification (CNI) system and data fusion capabilities, the pack can work as one. The integration of the F-35 into the Marine Corps and its ability to work with joint and coalition F-35s provides significant reach for F-35 empowered mobile bases afloat or ashore.[1]

Simply put, the F-35 does not tactically operate as a single aircraft.

It hunts as a network-enabled, cooperative four-ship fighting a fused picture, and was designed to do so from the very beginning.

As Maj Hansell noted: “We hunt as a pack. Future upgrades may look to expand the size of the pack.”

The hunt concept and the configuration of the wolfpack is important not just in terms of understanding how the wolfpack can empower the ground insertion force with a mobile kill web capability but also in terms of configuration of aircraft on the seabase working both sea control and support to what then becomes a land base insertion force.

The F-35 wolfpack has reach through its unique C2 and data fusion links into the joint and coalition force F-35s with which it can link and work. And given the global enterprise, the coalition and joint partners are working seamlessly because of common TTP or Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures.

As Maj Hansell put it: “From the very beginning we write a tactics manual that is distributed to every country that buys the F-35. This means that if I need to integrate with a coalition F-35 partner, I know they understand how to employ this aircraft, because they’re studying and practicing and training in the same manner that we are. And because we know how to integrate so well, we can distribute well in the extended battlespace as well. I’m completely integrated with the allied force into one seamless kill web via the F-35 as a global force enabler.”

With the changing capabilities of strategic adversaries, sea control cannot be assumed but must be established.

With the coming of the F-35 to the amphibious force, the role of that force in sea control is expanding and when worked with large deck carriers can expand the capabilities of the afloat force’s ability to establish and exercise sea control.

With the coming of the USS America Class LHA, the large deck amphibious ship with its F-35s onboard is no longer a greyhound bus, but a significant contributor to sea control as well.

As Major Hansell noted: “The LHA and LHD can plug and play into the sea control concept. It’s absolutely something you would want for a sea control mission.

“There is tremendous flexibility to either supplement the traditional Carrier Strike Group capability with that of an Expeditionary Strike Group, or even to combine an ESG alongside a CSG to mass combat capability into something like an expeditionary strike force. This provides the Navy-Marine Corps team with enhanced flexibility and lethality on the kill web chessboard.”

The USS America is the largest amphibious ship ever built by the United States.

The USS America class is a key part of changing how an amphibious task force can operate. It is designed from the ground up to support the aviation assets which allow combat ships to deal with the tyranny of distance in the Pacific. It can operate as the flagship of a very diverse amphibious task force complimentary to a large deck carrier as well.

The USS America is designed to support the full gamut of USMC aviation and can be configured with a significant F-35B and Osprey force and has been dubbed as a “Lighting Carrier” when it would operate in that role.

The ship can hold up to 20 F-35Bs. Ospreys could 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 move from.

Alternatively, the F-35B could operate for ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance). Understandably, all U.S. assets area already networked through satellites.

The other new onboard asset will be Sikorsky’s CH-53K, which will be backbone for an airborne amphibious strike force. It 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.

These elements constitute a true enabler for a 21st century amphibious assault force or more broadly sea control and sea denial force extending into the littorals.

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.

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.

In an interview which we did in 2014 with the ship’s first Capt. Robert Hall, the CO highlighted some of the ship’s capabilities:

“The ship has several capabilities, which allow us to stay on station longer than a traditional LHA and to much better support the Ospreys and the F-35Bs which will be the hallmark of USMC aviation to enable long range amphibious assault. These aircraft are larger than their predecessors.

“They need more space for maintenance and this ship provides it. We have two high-hat areas to support the maintenance, one of them located behind the aft flight deck elevator to allow movement through the hangar. We have significantly greater capacity to store spare parts, ordnance, and fuel as well. We can carry more than twice as much JP-5 than a traditional LHA.”

The ship has three synergistic decks, which allow for a significant enhancement of the logistical or sustainment punch of the amphibious strike force.

According to Capt. Hall: “I like the synergistic description. The flight deck is about the size of a legacy LHA.

“But that is where the comparison ends. By removing the well deck, we have a hangar deck with significant capacity to both repair aircraft and to move them to the flight deck to enhance ops tempo. With the Ospreys, we will be able to get the Marines into an objective area rapidly and at significant distances. And when the F-35B comes, the support to the amphibious strike force is significantly enhanced.

“And we will be able to operate at much greater range from the objective area. With the concern about littoral defenses, this ship allows us the option to operate offshore to affect events in the littoral. This is a major advantage for a 21st century USN-USMC team in meeting the challenges of 21st century littoral operations.

“The USS America will provide a significant boost to the ability to both maintain and to provide operational tempo to support the force.”

And in an additional interview in 2014 with Maj David Schreiner, the ship integration officer within Headquarters USMC Aviation, working the synergy among the three decks will be crucial to shaping the workflow to support operational tempo.

“Your next aircraft for the flight deck can be positioned down below for a quick elevator run thereby enabling a larger volume of flights off the deck. You could then work into the deck cycle and elevator run to bring up those extra aircraft as a way not only to provide backups but to provide extra sorties for the flight deck.

“Synergy and enhanced workflow are really the two outcomes which come from a ship designed for 21st century assault assets. Instead of having to do all the maintenance topside you have the spaces down below from the heavy maintenance with the use of upright cranes and the work centers that are collocated right on the hangar bay with the supporting equipment work centers, the control work centers, and just below it on the intermediate deck below.

“You have all your supply centers and then you have your intermediate level maintenance as well for that sensitive calibration, for the more complex repairs. This creates a cycle or synergy where you have supervisors that the work centers are collocated with the maintenance that’s being done on the hangar.

“You have maintenance actions being produced. They are brought in; they are logged into the system, they are evaluated, they can go downstairs, and they can either be fixed on the spot, calibrated, the part could be reworked or the supply system being right there, a new part in the supply could be issued back up, turned. There will be very little waste of time between different parts of the ship all supervised, brought back up, and repaired on the plane.”

Clearly, this workflow is a work in progress as the crew and the Marines shape ways to work the decks to optimize what can come off the flight deck.

And most assuredly the F-35 has arrived and with it the capability for a seabase like the USS America to integrate with other allied F-35s in the Pacific and expand both the reach of the sea base as well as providing significant operational flexibility to a land-based force of F-35s as well.

And we are now seeing the promise of the LHA-6 realized in operations.

In the U.S. Navy video below released on February 7, 2022, “Noble Fusion demonstrates that Navy and Marine Corps forward-deployed stand-in naval expeditionary forces can rapidly aggregate Marine Expeditionary Unit/Amphibious Ready Group teams at sea, along with a carrier strike group, as well as other joint force elements and allies, in order to conduct lethal sea-denial operations, seize key maritime terrain, guarantee freedom of movement, and create advantage for U.S., partner and allied forces.

“Naval Expeditionary forces conduct training throughout the year, in the Indo-Pacific, to maintain readiness.”

[1] “The F-35, CNI Evolution, and Evolving the Combat Force,” Second Line of Defense (December 4, 2019), The F-35 and 21st Century Defence: Shaping a Way Ahead (Second Line of Defense, 2016).

Featured Photo: PHILIPPINE SEA (Feb. 4, 2022) ) An F-35B Lightning II fighter aircraft from the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) lands on the flight deck of the forward-deployed amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) during joint exercise Noble Fusion. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Theodore C. Lee)