Earlier this month, the USS Wasp headed into the South China Sea carrying an experimental configuration of Marine Corps F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters. These light carriers – dubbed Lightning Carriers – could enhance the Navy’s overall firepower while potentially freeing up “supercarriers” to concentrate on higher-end threats by taking over lower-end conflicts.
“We are seeing a fleet experiment going on right now,” said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and naval-affairs expert, of the Lightning Carrier concept, according to a report by Business Insider.
As part of the ongoing Balikatan exercises with the Philippines, the USS Wasp was deployed with a 10 F-35s at a minimum, far more than the amphibious assault ship would typically carry. The ship was also recently spotting near the Scarborough Shoal, a territory within the South China Sea that is hotly contested.
“With each new exercise, we learn more about [the F-35Bs] capabilities as the newest fighter jet in our inventory, and how to best utilize them and integrate them with other platforms,” said a Marine Corps spokesperson.
In November 2016, the Marine Corps used the USS America to demonstrate the Lightning carrier concept, loading 12 F-35Bs onto the craft. The USS America is part of the newest class of amphibious assault ships and was designed to function as a light aircraft carrier.
“The experiments led to the realization that this is an option,” said Bryan Clark, a former special assistant to the chief of naval operations and naval-affairs expert.
“I think the Marine Corps may be realizing that this is the best use of their large amphibious assault ships,” he continued. “I think you are going to see more and more deployments like that.”
“While the amphibious assault ship will never replace the aircraft carrier,” said the Marine Corps, “it can be complementary if employed in imaginative ways.”
“A Lightning Carrier, taking full advantage of the amphibious assault ship as a sea base, can provide the naval and joint force with significant access, collection and strike capabilities,” the Marine Corps added.
In theory, an America-class vessel could carry 16 to 20 F-35s as well as a rotary refueling aircraft.