The US Navy’s trials in operating its landing helicopter assault (LHA) flattops as mini aircraft carriers, as seen with the America-class USS Tripoli earlier this year, could provide a “neat capability”, according to the commander of the US Seventh Fleet.

During trials with the USS Tripoli some 14 F-35B fifth generation stealth fighters were embarked onto the vessel, along with multiple rotary assets, to flesh out operational concepts in integrating such “assault carriers” into the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet, which is based in the western Pacific. The vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) nature of the F-35Bs enable the aircraft to operate from a variety of warships as they do not require the traditional catapult and wire recovery system.

Presenting during a Center for Strategic and International Studies event on 14 October, Vice Admiral Karl Thomas described the LHAs as a “versatile instrument” that could be re-roled depending on the makeup of the embarked air wing.

Thomas added that the service was “still in the experimentation phase” in determining how to integrate an assault carrier-configured LHA with the US Navy’s more conventional nuclear-powered Nimitz-class supercarriers deployed in the region.

Japan, a key regional ally for the US, is also exploring ways in which to integrate the F-35B fighter onto its Izumo-class helicopter destroyers, effectively helicopter carriers, which will see the vessels modified to enable the operation of the VTOL aircraft. The capability is expected to come online in the 2024 timeframe, returning Japan to the fixed-wing carrier aviation business.

The UK is also an operator of the F-35B from its Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, although displacing some 72,000 tons (full load) the type is far larger than either the Izumo class (27,000 tons full load) or the America-class LHA ships (45,000 tons full load).

Lessons from the Fitzgerald and John McCain

Vice Admiral Thomas said the US Seventh Fleet was looking to crew its vessels to 100% of requirement, although the service was running around “93-95% fit and full” at present.

Meanwhile, lessons learned from the accidents of the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers USS John McCain and USS Fitzgerald in August 2017 and June 2017 respectively, which resulted in a combined 17 fatalities in collisions with civilian vessels, meant that thorough crew certification was now required before deployment.

Thomas said crews would not be allowed “inside the first island chain” without having cleared the required ship operating certifications, due in part to the contested nature of the region as China seeks push its dominance ever further afield.

“We run our forces hard, no doubt about that,” said Thomas, adding that the South and East China Sea were “very challenging theatres”.