The U.S. Navy is now surging ahead with its 3rd America-class amphibious assault ship designed to support new concepts of amphibious assault moving into the future. There is an increased need for new concepts of operation involving the greater use of unmanned systems and the need to project 5th-generation air power from the ocean.
The original concept for the America-class amphibious assault ship was to leverage the range and capacity of aviation assets such as the F-35B and Osprey tiltrotor to project power from the sea in support of air-sea attack operations.
The first two America class ships, the USS America and USS Tripoli, were built without a well-deck to fully optimize air assets; the Osprey operates with a 450 nautical miles combat radius and can transport Marines, weapons and equipment behind enemy lines for Mounted Vertical Maneuver operations.
Similar to the first-in-class USS America, the USS Tripoli has been engineered with a specific F-35 and Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft-oriented aviation configuration with extra hangar space, additional fuel storage, and other key provisions intended to enable amphibious air-attack platforms. A report from Naval Sea Systems Command says the ship’s “design features an enlarged hangar deck, aviation maintenance facilities realignment and expansion, a significant increase in available stowage for parts and support equipment, and increased aviation fuel capacity.”
While the third America-class amphibious assault ship, the now under construction USS Bougainville, brings back the classic well-deck characteristic of many big-deck amphibious assault ships, the first two seem clearly intended to optimize the increased ranges and amphibious attack variables introduced by the arrival of the F-35B fighter jet. The USS America, for instance, has already deployed carrying more than thirteen F-35Bs. Preparing for the F-35 fighter took some special engineering in recent years. Navy developers made special structural adjustments and added special coating materials to the USS Tripoli’s flight deck to mitigate potential heat damage caused by the F-35B’s vertical takeoff and landing capabilities. The arrival of the F-35B in terms of 5th-generation air power projection from amphibs offers new tactical possibilities to increase range and conduct air operations from the sea with much greater effectiveness.
The America-class ships were engineered for an ability to conduct dispersed amphibious assault operations across a wider envelope with increased use of networking, unmanned-manned teaming and 5th-generation air support. The growing number of unmanned systems, and the increasing levels of autonomy with which they operate, can enable the America-class ships to operate as “host ships’ ‘ or “mother ships” supporting a large number of unnamed system coordinating mission details. The big-deck amphibs can perform command and control in support of dispersed groups of surface, undersea and air unmanned platforms to support multi-domain operations.
An ability to perform mission command functions in support of a group of dispersed, yet securely networked fleet of drones gives the big-deck America-class amphibs a range of new options. Controlling a groups manned and unmanned drones dispatched from the ship, the America-class amphibs can test the perimeter of enemy defenses, conduct forward reconnaissance while sailors at safer stand-off distances.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.