US Navy’s Newest Amphibious Assault Ship. Dead End Or Breakthrough?

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Written and produced by SF Team: Brian Kalman, Daniel Deiss, Edwin Watson

The USS America LHA-6 successfully completed combat systems ship qualification trials (CSSQT) on February 3rd, in preparation for its first overseas deployment at the head of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit/Amphibious Ready Group (MEU/ARG).The vessel went to sea several times in January to conduct training exercises in the run-up to its future deployment, testing different mixes of aviation assets to be fielded on the new class of ship. The USS America is classified as a Landing Helicopter Assault (LHA), and lacks a well deck to launch and recover LCACs or AAVs. The U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps have to determine exactly how to best utilize the new vessel as an integrated component of an MEU/ARG.

There was no small amount of controversy over the new vessel when it was first proposed. Many senior officers in the USMC argued that an amphibious assault ship meant to head an MEU/ARG must have amphibious assault capability. Without a well deck, the new LHA cannot launch and recover marines via LCAC hovercraft, LCU landing craft or AAVs, and thus it possesses no inherent amphibious capability. This renders the vessel less flexible than a Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) of comparable size, such as the USS Wasp Class. This new class of LHA will use the added space traditionally taken up by a well deck and heavy vehicle stowage for increased aircraft hangar space, and storage for aviation maintenance and fuel. The America will allow for the accommodation of an Air Combat Element (ACE) that is larger in number and of a different mixture of aircraft than a traditional MEU/ARG.

In apparent recognition of the need to remedy the lack of flexibility inherent in the current design, and to bring the America class back in line with the traditional USMC mission, only the USS America LHA-6 and the USS Tripoli LHA-7, which is currently under construction, will be built absent a well deck. Although larger in dimensions and displacement, the remaining six vessels planned will be brought more in line with the USS Makin Island LHD-8 from which it was originally based; however, their well deck will be smaller in size. In order to make up for the lack of amphibious capability of the USS America, the smaller amphibious vessels comprising the MEU/ARG will have to bear the responsibility of transporting the heavy equipment that marines may need to bring to any potential fight. Although equipped with some internal cargo and vehicle stowage space, the America can only discharge vehicles and stores while docked at a prepared shore facility. Lessons learned from the first overseas deployment of the vessel later this year, may result in the decision to add one additional LPD to any MEU/ARG fielding an LHA to bring amphibious strength up to an acceptable standard, or mandating that the LHAs must only be added to a traditional MEU/ARG if the mission calls for supplemental aviation capability.

The controversy surrounding the USS America LHA-6 and USS Tripoli LHA-7 is only exacerbated when considering the aviation elements that the vessel was designed to employ. The flight deck, internal hangars and elevators were designed to accommodate the V-22 Osprey and the F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. Both aircraft have been the source of controversy for a multitude of reasons. Both aircraft programs have incurred massive cost overruns, have failed to perform as promised, and in the case of the Osprey, have achieved an infamous safety record. A total of 36 fatalities are associated with the aircraft, although 30 of these occurred in incidents and crashes prior to the aircraft becoming operational in 2007. After almost two decades of development, which incurred a cost overrun of 40% more than originally budgeted, the V-22 Osprey costs approximately $100 million USD per aircraft. By contrast, an MH-60S Seahawk or CH-53 Sea Stallion each costs roughly $28 million USD per unit; however, the V-22 achieves three to four times the range of either traditional rotary wing aircraft and can carry a far larger payload than the MH-60S.

The controversy surrounding the F-35 JSF is well known. The cost overruns, faulty systems, and poor performance of this $1.3 trillion USD and climbing aircraft program are embarrassing enough; however, flight testing of both the V-22 and the F-35 on the flight deck of the USS America have revealed that the deck may not be strong enough to withstand the high heat unleashed by their engines during continuous flight operations. This shortcoming will have to be remedied by strengthening the America’s flight deck and reengineering the flight decks of all following vessels in class, adding significant cost. The AV-8B Harrier, used by the USMC for over 30 years, has one Rolls Royce F-402-RR-408 vectored thrust turbofan that produces 23,500 lbf. of thrust. The F-35B Lightning II uses the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine, which can produce a maximum of 50,000 lbf. of thrust. The aircraft uses approximately 40,000 lbf. of thrust when taking off vertically.

The USS America will have to prove that it is not a dead-end in naval design. As the premier fighting force of the U.S. military services, and true to the unofficial motto, “Improve, Adapt and Overcome”, the USMC will work with any assets at their disposal. They will most likely excel, but until the vessel is proven in an actual military or humanitarian operation, the efficacy of such a design will be hard to determine. A return to a more balanced and flexible LHA design with the completion of USS Bougainville LHA-8, will eventually give the U.S. Navy and USMC a chance to compare the two vessels, put them both through their paces, and decide if the USS America was worth her $3.4 billion USD price tag.

The wisdom of providing a very specialized platform to carry U.S. Marines, who train to excel at all forms of warfare, whether by land, sea, or air, is questionable. The USMC has proven the most resistant of all U.S. military branches to misguided Department of Defense mandated changes in recent decades, and will undoubtedly continue to resist changes that they deem counterproductive to the Corps and their mission. In the meantime, they will do the best job they can with the tools they have been given.

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  • Barba_Papa

    This shows that it is never a good thing to base your ship design solely on the intended airwing it will carry. This is a problem that all VSTOL carriers have. Once that aircraft becomes outdated/too old/obsolete you can only replace it with another VSTOL aircraft. In the case of the Harrier a reasonably cheap aircraft already existed so it seemed like a good idea to come up with the Harrier carrier concept. Until the time came to replace the Harrier, and they had to start from scratch. The Royal Navy in particular will be screwed because of the shortsighed decision to go for the F-35B, when they could have gone CTOL instead. In for a penny, screwed for a pound. Had they gone for a catobar configuration they could have chosen for a navalized Typhoon, the French Rafale, the F/A-18 Super Hornet or the F-35C. They could have shopped around for the best deal. Now their only option is the F-35B at whatever price Lockheed Martin will decide to screw them over.

    In a for a penny, screwed for a pound also applies to the USMC and USN, because now they also have to thrown in a LPD so the MEU will still be able to land its heavy equipment. A testament to the obsession of the USMC to have its own carrier born aviation and not be reliant on the carriers of the USN. Like the battle of Guadalcanal is going to repeat itself.

    • Red Tick Alert

      I don’t agree with this “Had they gone for a catobar configuration they could have chosen for a navalised Typhoon, the French Rafale, the F/A-18 Super Hornet or the F-35C. ” but the rest is spot on – my head is saying we should have made / modified and upgraded the Harrier – the Typoon is OK, the Rafale is excellent but not on carriers and the F/A-18 is well past is sell by date…… as for the F-35 anything….. nope.

      • Rocco

        I don’t agree with anything you just said.

        • Red Tick Alert

          OK – cheers

          • Rocco

            Figured

    • Rocco

      Your first sentence kind of contradicts the rest of your post.if you read my post it’s what I think is good for us based on my experience & what we need. I personally don’t care for the way LHA-8 is looking!!

  • Vlad TheSkewerer

    Why I bet in China you had project 1.3 trillion and climbing in the red you would suffer the embarrassment of one to the back of the head in a sports stadium, after you went on tour with an embarrassing sign around your neck.

  • MeMadMax

    Since I left the navy back in 2004, it has steadily gone downhill, particularly after 2008 and the obama admin commencing the dismantling of the navy and building it back up into a social justice warrior at sea….

    Anyways.

    It is clear that the powers that be, which are many, are wiping away HARD LEARNED LESSONS of WW2 in favor of a computer running windows 10(LOL!).

    Water and Electricity don’t mix(hint: Ford Class)…

    Unproven Gee Wiz technology being pushed by the war industry(in order to make a HUGE buck) will get people KILLED….

    Thats is all, carry on…

  • Rocco

    There is no problem with this ship in its current configuration!! We need what I consider fast attack carriers that doesn’t have the bourdon of carring extra weight of L-Cats etc. Back in the day 4 Essex class carriers became the 1st LHA’s .I think both types are apparent. Not that the F-35B is going away but the ship can carry a multitude of vertical aircraft in the future. A carrier like this can serve to compliment larger carriers. I can go on but A lighting Carrier sounds good to me. It’s cheaper to deploy & more Mobile than a LHD. Fast strike should be the only thing it should specialize in.

    • Jesus

      This is supposed to be an amphibious ship, not a carrier. How do you deploy heavy weapons when you airlift marines inland?
      If this ship operates like a carrier, it will need escorts for protection, and the airlifted troops will be lightly armed and of irrelevance if facing a peer power that deploys sophisticated antiaicraft defenses, long range anti ship missiles, and powerful armor that would throw the airlifted troops back into the sea.
      Again, the deficiency of the range for the F35 in contrast to long range anti ship missiles, is supposed going to be solved by aerial tankers that will refuel these short range aircraft.

      • Rocco

        The ship will always have escorts!! As any other type amphibious ship.no ship travels alone.i don’t know what to tell you. So what if it’s a carrier!!

        • Ted

          Correct, They do not work alone. So what if two HLD have no lCAC abilities the other ten wasp class do. The next six America class will. The ability to carry and recover larger numbers of strike aircraft will be well worth it. In the effort to trounce and tarnish everything the american military produces only reflects on the overall worth of information posted here. It is nice to see posts of value that are thought out and not ignorant fan boy cliches.

          • Rocco

            You mean LHA! Lol. Thanks for the compliment Ted.I normally follow Breaking Defense. Just think how great the America class would be if it was 900′ long.

  • GreatDanas

    We the DANES small but powerfull, we make BEST quality in the WORLD, we are BEST rest is FAKE. (Japan ok) THE GREATEST small but GREAT !
    we just the small BEST -HDMS Peter Willemoes the BEST ship IN the world, belive me this ship is
    the best, the greatest , the most high tech, its the best , the best of
    the best, the rest is FAKE , we got HOLE 3 and more we build.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vbb3mCFE0_Q DELETED !! NATIONAL GEO .- MOST ADVANCED in da wolrd-
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PWo55k_ECak

    WE DANES also hate ! the muslim

  • GreatDanas

    We the DANES small but powerfull, we make BEST quality in the WORLD, we
    are BEST rest is FAKE. (Japan ok) THE GREATEST small but GREAT !
    we just the small BEST -HDMS Peter Willemoes the BEST ship IN the world, belive me this ship is
    the best, the greatest , the most high tech, its the best , the best of
    the best, the rest is FAKE

  • ddearborn

    Hmmm

    Basically this ship is a gigantic step backwards in terms of its overall capabilities. (not technology which is grossly over complicated and will fail under even moderate actual combat conditions)Think back to the Russian and Chinese in the late 1980’s. The Marines wanted their own “carrier” separates separate from the Navy. In order to get that they had to compromise to the point that basically it offers all the disadvantages of both types and little in the way of advantages. It is a perfect example of cold war ego’s, corruption and incompetence that the US Military is now famous for. Having been distracted and essentially bankrupted by 16 years of totally useless wars for Israel in the Middle East, the US conventional Defense posture is relatively speaking currently at its weakest in comparison to potential existing advisories since 1940. We are being set up for a fall……..

  • Scott Miller

    This is a repeat problem on this site with English phonology. The English is overall excellent, but the word “corps” is a French word and is pronounced “кор,” even though it seems to be spelled “корпс.” the word pronounced “корпс” would be spelled “corpse” in English. Although the two words, “corps” and “corpse” have the same etymological root, they convey very different meanings in English, and this error should be avoided.