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A “tool” of the US Navy that many forget are the Wasp and America class “mini aircraft carriers”. Perhaps when we think of the US Navy our mind goes to the large surface combatants like the Arleigh Burke, the Ticonderoga or the aircraft carriers like the Nimitz and now the Gerald R. Ford class, but we should not underestimate amphibious operations ships with the ability to use fighter jets.
Aircraft carriers of amphibious operations
The “dual use” of amphibious assault ships is not a doctrine that began with the use of Wasp or America but has existed in the Navy for many decades. The first ships in the role designed to initially carry helicopters were the Iwo Jima-class LPH (Landing Platform Helicopter).
They served in the Navy from 1961 to 2002 and were capable of carrying up to 25 helicopters while one ship of the class, the LPH-12 Inchon, was the testbed for intergrading AV-8 Harriers on it.
About a decade later, the Tarawa-class LHAs (Landing Helicopter Assault) began to enter service. They were better equipped to carry aircraft allowing a number of AV-8 Harriers to be carried and could also carry more helicopters than Iwo Jima Class ships. The ships of the class were fully retired by 2015.
The Navy now has two classes of amphibious assault ships capable of carrying combat aircraft, the Wasp-class LHD (Landing Helicopter Dock) and the America-class LHA (Landing Helicopter Assault).
Based on the LHA Tarawa, they were the first ships ready to support fighter aircraft from the start. The Wasps have a longer deck, with the overall length of the ship reaching 257 meters, but maintaining the same width. Two obvious differences between the two ships are the Wasp’s more “square” deck and its “shorter” bridge.
At the same time, the Wasps have a larger hangar as well as suitable maintenance facilities for fighter aircraft and have the ability to carry a larger amount of fuel for the aircraft that operate from it.
In total they can carry up to 42 helicopters and planes. On them usually is a “mix” of helicopters such as AH-1W/Z Super Cobra/Viper, CH-46 Sea Knight, CH-53 Sea Stallion, SH-60 Sea Hawk, UH-1N/Y Huey, MV-22B Osprey while they can operate up to 20 fighters, either AV-8 Harrier or F-35B.
The Wasp did not only have improvements related to their aviation facilities. They made use of LCAC landing aircraft while having a maximum transport capacity of 61 AAV-7s, of course for the needs of the Marines a “load” of 5 M1A1 Abrams tanks, 25 AAV-7s as well as the necessary number of accompanying trucks and other vehicles is more common.
Obviously, due to their high value, Wasps must also have the appropriate means of self-protection. These include, 2 Mk29 launchers (NSSM/ESSM), 2 RAM launchers, 3 Phalanx and 4 Mk28 RWS 25mm. At the same time, they have countermeasures, Flares and Chaff (SARBOC, AN/SLQ-49), torpedo countermeasures AN/SLQ-25 as well as the electronic warfare (ECM) suite AN/SLQ-32.
The America class ships are the most modern amphibious assault ships in the Navy. Like the Wasp, they were designed from the start based on specifications to be able to host AV-8s as well as F-35Bs.
They entered service in 2014, replacing LHA Tarawa Class. They have an even greater displacement, of 45,000 tons, surpassing even some “classic” aircraft carriers.
The design was based on a modified Wasp-class ship, the USS Makin Island, with the goal of having even larger infrastructure for hosting and maintaining aircraft. This was done by “removing” the space (well-deck) from which the amphibious AAV-7 and LCAC operate.
This limits the first two ships (Block 0) of the class, LHA-6 America and LHA-7 Tripoli, to air insertion operations only, mainly using the OV-22 Osprey and CH-53 King Stalion. For the next ships (Block 1), LHA-8 Bougainville, LHA-9 Fellujah as well as the next ships to follow, the well-deck will be “installed” again.
One of the reasons why it was decided to install the well-deck back on the ships was based on the lessons learned from the Marines’ intervention in Lebanon where it was judged that the use of only aerial means left them exposed.
At the same time, for the Block 1s, to compensate for the further reduction of space below the deck for the aircraft, the space available on the ship’s deck was increased by 20%.
For Block 0s a typical airwing might include 12 Ospreys, 6 F-35Bs, 4 CH-53s, 2 MH-60s, 3-4 AH-1s and as many UH-1s. Obviously depending on the mission the ship’s airwing can be modified accordingly, one example being the extensive use of fighters, allowing up to 20 F-35Bs to operate from LHA America.
Finally, their weaponry is similar to that of the Wasp. They have 2 Mk29 (NSSM/ESSM), 2 RAM, 2 Phalanx as well as 3 Mk28 RWS of 25mm. They also have the AN/SLQ-32 electronic warfare suite, as well as Nulka countermeasures.
The value of Wasp and America
The value of ships of both classes cannot be understated for the US Navy. Both are capable of landing a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) in a hostile environment as well as supporting this force with aircraft that will operate from the ship itself.
Even during amphibious operations, the number of “only” 8 F-35Bs available should not be underestimated, while in the “Lightning Carrier” configuration, the ability to operate with 20 F-35Bs, roughly a squadron of 5th generation fighters, makes them serious threat under almost any circumstances.