A joint US Navy/Marine Corps “Proof of Concept” demonstration held off the coast of Southern California Nov. 18-20 put the largest force of F-35B Lightning II stealth STOVL strike fighters ever assembled at sea together by placing a full dozen planes from the “Wake Island Avengers” of VMFA-211, fleshed out by VX-23 and VMX-1 from Patuxent; along with a few MV-22B, AH-1Z and UH-1Ys aboard the USS America (LHA-6).
The F-35B Lightning II third developmental test phase (DT-III) evaluated the full spectrum of joint strike fighter measures of suitability and effectiveness in an at-sea environment.
161115-N-N0101-012 PACIFIC OCEAN (Nov. 14, 2016) Ordnance is prepared for an F-35B Lightning II short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft on the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6). This event marked the first live ordnance uploaded to the F-35B at sea.During the third and final F-35B developmental test phase (DT-III), the aircraft is undergoing envelope expansion via a series of launches and recoveries in various operating conditions such as high sea states and high winds. (U.S. Navy Photo/Released)
In preparation of DT-III load testing, America‘s Weapons Department assembled two types of smart bombs. The team assembled 72 laser-guided Guide Bomb Units (GBU) 12 and 40 satellite-guided GBU-32s for the first time in the ship’s short history.
America, the ultimate evolution of the 1970s Tarawa-class LHAs and 1980s LHD designs, looks a lot like an Essex-class fleet carrier from WWII. In fact, they are the same rough size (45,000-tons/844-feet for LHA vs. 36,380-tons/872-feet for CV) though the old school flattops were much faster, carried an immense array of topside armament, and could squeeze 100~ piston engine planes on their deck.
However, a dozen or so F-35Bs with 5th Generation carrier-strike capabilities, when the bugs are worked out, should prove much more capable than a few squadrons of Corsairs or Hellcats.
Also, there is always the prospect of adding a second squadron aboard, giving an LHA a full 24 aircraft, which isn’t too far-fetched, after all, it should be remembered that 20 AV-8Bs of VMA-331 operated from USS Nassau (LHA-4) in support of Operation Desert Storm, flying 240 combat sorties and dropping 900 bombs. Sure, the F-35 is heavier than the Harrier, but LHA-6 is optimized for aviation operations, whereas Nassau was not.
Such an ersatz carrier group, augmented by a few DDG/CG assets to screen it, could fill several expeditionary contingencies short of all-out war. For instance, recent limited air operations off Libya, non-combatant evacuation operations offshore of a country with a deteriorating security situation, keeping sea lanes open against an asymmetric threat, or enforcing a naval quarantine.
Besides the meaning for U.S. carrier forces, being able to add some LHAs as mini-flattops in a pinch, this month’s trials with a dozen F-35s at sea shows the Brits what they have to look forward to. Though the beautiful 70,000-ton HMS Queen Elizabeth is to commission next year, the RN Fleet Air Arm has no real fixed wing assets to put aboard her at this time.
Queen Elizabeth is capable of carrying up to 36 F-35s in her hangars, and while the current plan is for the carriers to deploy with an air wing of just 12 jets, this may take a while to pull off. The Brits, who intend to ultimately have as many as 138 joint RAF/RN F-35s, will only have their first operational squadron in late 2018 and just 24 operational frames in inventory in 2023. Indeed, USMC F-35Bs are expected to deploy on QE until the UK gets theirs fully fleshed out.
And the gentlemen from the UK were on-hand on America this week.
“As we all know, we can’t choose the battle and the location of the battle, so sometimes we have to go into rough seas with heavy swells, heave, roll, pitch, and crosswinds,” said Royal air force (RAF) Squadron Leader Andy Edgell, an F-35 test pilot embedded at the Pax River ITF. “The last couple of days we went and purposely found those nasty conditions and put the jets through those places, and the jet handled fantastically well. So now the external weapons testing should be able to give the fleet a clearance to carry weapons with the rough seas and rough conditions. We know the jet can handle it. A fleet clearance will come — then they can go forth and conduct battle in whatever environment.”
In the meantime, in 2017, an up-gunned Expeditionary Strike Group consisting of a three-DDG strong surface action group and a more traditional three-ship Amphibious Ready Group centered around USS Wasp (LHD-1) with an LPD and LSD in tow, will deploy with a squadron of Marine F-35Bs.
Welcome to the new Navy.
PACIFIC OCEAN — An F-35B Lightning II takes off from the flight deck of USS America (LHA 6) during the Lightning Carrier Proof of Concept Demonstration, November 19, 2016. The demonstration is the first shipboard Marine Corps F-35B integration demonstration alongside other Marine Corps Air Combat Element assets. (U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Cpl. Thor Larson/Released)
161120-N-VT045-0001 PACIFIC OCEAN (Nov. 19, 2016) Four F-35B Lightning II aircraft perform a flyover above the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) during the Lightning Carrier Proof of Concept Demonstration. The F-35B will eventually replace three Marine Corps aircraft; the AV-8B Harrier, F/A-18 Hornet and the EA-6B Prowler. (U.S. Navy photo by Andy Wolfe/Released)