By Kris Osborn
The Navy and Marine Corps are making fast progress with a series of extensive preparations on board amphibious assault ships in order to ensure that their flight decks, sensors and weapons systems can accommodate the first ever deployment of the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter slated for 2018.
The Marine Corps short-take-off-and-landing variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35B, will be the first ever fifth-generation aircraft in the world to deploy when they serve on board several amphibs in 2018, Marine Corps and Navy leaders told Scout Warrior.
The technological modifications are already complete on the USS Wasp, an operational Navy amphib; they are now underway aboard the USS America and USS Essex while also being built into the USS Tripoli, Navy officials said.
“We have one ship that is fully modified (USS Wasp). LHA 6 (USS America) has received many of the upgrades and is receiving the rest of the upgrades now. USS Essex upgrades are beginning in 2016 and we will phase the other LHD (Navy amphibs) through these modifications in coming years,” Maj. Gen. Christopher Owens, Director of Expeditionary Warfare, told Scout Warrior in an interview.
Navy engineers and shipbuilders are doing extensive work on board the USS America, the lead ship in a series of 11 planned America-class big-deck amphibs. The USS America, or LHA 6, was commissioned by the Navy October of 2014 and has completed a trail period known as “post-shakedown availability” and gone on missions to South America to connect with key allies. The ship is slated for full operational deployment with the F-35B in the future.
The USS America will undergo a series of intense modifications in order to ensure that the weapons and sensors and synchronized with the Joint Strike Fighter and that flight deck can withstand the heat of the F-35B vertical take-offs-and-landings.
Navy engineers are installing a new heat-resistant thermally sprayed non-skid, which is designed to prevent long-term heat damage to the flight deck and underlying structure, adding intercostal structural members below landing spots seven and nine. This reduces stress on flight deck, and integrating the flight deck with support equipment, sensors and weapons.
“With the added structure, these two landing spots will provide the capability to perform closely timed cyclic flight operations with the F-35B without overstressing the flight deck,” a Navy official said.
Also, some of the modifications may involve re-adjusting some of the ship’s antennas in order to allow for a clear flight path for the JSF.
Once operational on Navy amphibs, the F-35B will conduct a wide range of missions to include support for amphibious ship-to-shore operations, ground operations, close-air support and what’s called “suppression of enemy air defenses,” Marine Corps spokeswoman Capt. Sarah Burns told Scout Warrior in an interview.
At the same time, the advanced sensor suite and computers on the Joint Strike Fighter will allow for a greater range of missions compared to traditional fighter jets, Burns explained.
“The F-35B will also be used as a C2 (Command and Control), limited offensive and defensive counter air, air interdiction, assault support escort and armed reconnaissance,” she added.
Some of these sensors include the F-35s Distributed Aperture System, which places 360-degrees worth of cameras around the aircraft, and a high tech targeting sensor called EOTS, or Electro-Optical Targeting System. The aircraft’s computers also allow for something called “sensor fusion,” a technology which integrates information from a host of different sensors on-board a single screen for pilots to view.
Sensors, combat systems, radars and weaponry on board amphibs are also being upgraded to better integrate with the F-35.
America-Class Amphibious Assault Ships
Much of the effort with the USS America is going inside the ship and dropping lighting and ventilation and piping wiring and everything down far enough so new material can be installed and welded in place, senior Navy officials said.
The second America-class big-deck amphib, the USS Tripoli (LHA 7), is now being engineered with the needed F-35B modifications built in from the start. The USS Tripoli will deliver to the Navy in 2019.
The LHA 7 (USS Tripoli) design will incorporate a high-tech Navy ship-based computing network called Consolidated Afloat Network and Enterprise Services, or CANES, Leonard said. Overall, the USS Tripoli will be 844-feet long and 106-feet wide and have a weight of more than 44,000 tons. A fuel-efficient gas turbine propulsion system will bring the ship’s speed up to more than 20 knots, a Huntington Ingalls statement said.
The ship will be able to carry a crew of 1,204 and 1,871 troops, meaning the ship is being engineered to carry a Marine Expeditionary Unit, the statement added.
America class ships are outfitted with a group of technologies called a Ship Self Defense System. This includes two Rolling Aircraft Missile RIM-116 Mk 49 launchers; two Raytheon 20mm Phalanx CIWS mounts; and seven twin .50 cal. machine guns, Navy officials said.
Unlike previous amphibious assault ships, the first two America-class big deck amphibs are being built without a well deck in order to optimize the platform for aviation assets such as the MV-22 Osprey and F-35B. The ship is configured with more deck and hangar space for aircraft and is designed to maximize the technological advantages provided by the F-35B and Osprey
One of these strategic advantages, among other things, is described as vertical maneuver – the ability to use the range and speed of the Osprey to forward project mobile units deep into hostile territory possibly behind enemy lines, Navy and Marine Corps units have described.
The third America-class amphib, called LHA 8, will feature the return of the well deck.
F-35B Will Change Tactics and Procedures on Amphibs
Part of the challenge to F-35B integration is recognizing how its technologies will change concepts of operations, tactics and procedures; the F-35B is a very different aircraft than the Harrier jets it is replacing, Navy officials said.
Harrier jets, which also have the ability to conduct vertical take-off-and-landings, are multi-role jets primarily designed for light attack missions – such as quickly flying over land locations where Marines are forward deployed and providing close air support.
While the F-35B can perform these missions as well, the new Joint Strike Fighter brings a wide range of new sensors, weaponry and aviation technology to the Corps.
The C5I (command, control, communications, computers, collaboration) requirements for the F-35B will be very different than how the Navy operated the Harrier.
Navy officials also said the service is upgrading the seeker on various ship defensive systems such as the Rolling Air Frame missile and NATO Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile to an active seeker.