The Navy’s newest assault ship, christened on Saturday, has several major design changes that allow it and its upcoming sister ship to act as small aircraft carriers should the Navy and Marines need that ability.
Danger Room describes how the USS America and USS Tripoli will not have the usual well decks for launching amphibious assaults on beaches. The space normally used for the well deck has been converted to extra hangar space and aviation fuel storage.
By investing a combined $6 billion in America and Tripoli, the Navy and Marines are betting that future warfare will involve more aerial combat and fewer potential beach assaults.
It’s not a totally reckless wager, but it does involve some risk. With the America class, the Pentagon is taking a chance on air power and, more to point, on the Marines’ version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. When America‘s sister ship Tripoli enters service in 2018, the Navy will (in essence) possess 13 carriers — these two smaller, newer models, plus 11 of the big, nuclear-powered variety. That’s up from the 11 nuke flattops in today’s fleet.
Commensurately, the number of old-school assault ships will drop by two.
The sailing branch’s other assault ships — currently numbering nine — can also support dozens of helicopters plus a handful of Harrier jump jets apiece. But they lack the facilities for sustained flight ops, meaning they’re more assault ships than classic carriers. The older vessels are built around cavernous “well decks” — in essence, giant swimming pools that open to the sea through the ships’ sterns, allowing them to launch and recover landing craft, hovercraft, swimming vehicles and river boats. These small craft are the primary means of moving Marines onto shore, complemented by helicopters and V-22 tiltrotors taking off from the flight deck.
America and Tripoli don’t have well decks. In their place, the newer ships possess extra hangar space, bigger tanks for aviation fuel and larger weapons magazines. These facilities allow America and her sister to operate, for days on end, as many as 30 fixed-wing planes including today’s Harriers plus the F-35B stealth jump jet that’s still in testing. “It is, for all intents and purposes, a light aircraft carrier,” Navy Capt. Jerry Hendrix wrote of America. But the new ship and her sister can still send Marines ashore in helicopters and V-22s.