Sunday, August 19, 2012

USS America LHA-6 - Is it still amphibious without a well-deck?

As the new USS America LHA-6 nears completion in Pascagoula, Mississippi, it becomes more and more apparent to even all that weren't previously paying attention, that the United States has effectively begun to field a new smaller sized class of aircraft carrier, similar to a class used in World War II that was known as an "escort" carrier. The namesake AMERICA previously had a storied 31 year tradition as a real aircraft carrier who served three tours in Vietnam, Operation El Dorado Canyon over Libya in 1986, and Operation Desert Storm over Iraq in 1991, and it's sort of a defamation of character of sots that it wasn't given a new Ford class carrier to bear it's name, rather than what has become a somewhat awkward vessel.

Really what it comes down to, the new USS America should not be an LHA, it should be a CVA - but that probably would have attracted too much attention in Congress.

USS America (LHA-6)
Almost as if those that be in Congress thought they could not only pull the wool over the sheep's eye of all the other lawmakers in Congress who don't know anything about defense, they continued to approve the funding of this new class even after the well deck was taken out. And of course they thought the American People (otherwise known as the taxpayers) wouldn't be able to smell the pork in the deal either, of course. 

The Navy may as well let a Marine aviator skipper the boat for the way the Navy capitulated to the Congress and Marine Corps when they let them get away with taking out the well deck.  (At least they got the Marines to agree that they wouldn't be operating F-35B's off their carriers.)

Why? Money, or rather more precisely: Funding.

The USS George H. Bush (CVN-77) cost a little over $6 billion to make. (Don't even ask how much the new CVN-21 Ford class carriers are going to cost once you weigh in the Research & Development costs.) The new two-ship America class, (and let's hope there will only be the two as the LHD is more capable and far less expensive,) the America will cost a little over $3 billion, and the LHA-7 USS Tripoli was just awarded by the Navy on 31 May, 2012 for $2.38 billion. link 

An LHD class ship similar to the USS Makin Island (LHD-8) costs around $750 million dollars.

Because this new class is essentially an aircraft carrier, it directly takes away from the Navy's argument for needing (even more) expensive, nuclear powered, full sized aircraft carriers. And the air wings that operate off of it. Why spend all that money on the new class of Ford carriers when you can spend half the price and get an aircraft carrier like this? To a salvo of Iranian anti-ship Mehrab missiles in the Straits of Hormuz, or Chinese Dong Feng DF-21D Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBM),why spend billions on CVN's when you can spend half the amount on a new LHA(R)?

USS Essex (LHD-2)
See what is missing in the picture of LHA-6 above? That's right, the LHD shown here to the left has a well deck that can be flooded so it can carry the landing craft (LCAC and LCU's) that bring all the Marines ground vehicles to shore. Remember what the purpose of the Marine Air Wing is? That's right - to support the Marine on the ground. Seems kind of the other way around in this regard.

What good is the Amphibious Readiness Group (ARG) if they can't get any vehicles to shore? How will a standard three ship ARG make up for loss of hull space for all their ground vehicles? Surely the answer isn't to add a fourth LPD or LPH to the ARG, that certainly would not be cost effective.

A typical Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) will float with three Gator-Navy ships comprised of either an LHD or LHA at the center, and two other supporting LPD's or LPH's, (in addition to of course, a standard Navy CG, DDG, FFG, and SSN that together form to comprise the entire Amphibious Squadron.) So if you take away the well deck on the largest of the three ships carrying the Marines ground equipment, where is all that going to go?

A typical 2,200 Marine MEU will in addition to the composite air element (ACE) aboard, carry 4 60+ ton M1A1 main battle tanks, up to 16 LAV's, up to 15 AAV's, a couple 16 ton D7 bulldozers, 60+ HUMVEE's, and 30 7-ton MTVR's. The Marine on the ground is supported by the vehicles on the ground, and they are supported by the Wing.

F-35B on USS Wasp (LHD-1) in October, 2011
I know the Corps needs more space to house their future F-35 fleet, because only 80 of the 420 link that they intend to buy will be Charlie variants optimized to operate off CVN's where all their F/A-18's Hornets presently do, but robbing Peter to pay Paul doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Make no mistake, the new America class of LHA's is literally the ship built around the F-35B.

Instead of those 80 F-35C's that they are going to use on CVN's anyways, they ought to save the money and just buy what the Navy is already using in the F/A-18F, which is perfectly suited for the FAC(A) role that the present Marine F/A-18D's utilize, (of whom because their range is so low, aren't even allow to deploy with the CVW's.) And those F/A-18F's could all be pre-wired so as to relatively easily be converted into EA-18G's, which again the Navy is readily replacing their EA-6B's with. But not the Marines, oh no. Solider on (or should we say Marine-on?) as the last sole operator of the type, and they are going to pay through the nose in hourly costs as opposed to solving a need, and saving money in the long run with a far less expensive to operate modern Super Hornet. 

USN F/A-18
Better yet, replacing all present Marine F-18's with Super Hornets like the Navy has, could have saved a lot of money, too. Replacing an AV-8B with an F-35B is great, but an F/A-18A/C with an F-35 is not as easy to justify. Remember, the F/A-18 was the loser (to the F-16) in the USAF's Lightweight Fighter (LWF) program in the late 1970's, which were both intended to offer a low-cost alternative to the expensive F-15 (and F-14's on the Navy's side.) Even taking inflation into account, replacing $20m-$25m legacy Hornets with $75m to $100m F-35's when they could otherwise get a great deal on F-18E/F's for $50m, is an awful Saudi Arabian-esque like gesture.

Save money and field a comparable (if not superior in many aspects) force at the same time? Sounds a little déjà vu considering the Marines went the opposite direction as well with the H-1 upgrade. MH-60S and AH-64D III's would have been vastly superior to the UH-1Y and AH-1Z's - and yet at the same time could have been done for far less money to boot. What a marvel concept that would be.


  1. FYI: you are confusing LPH and LSD. An LSD is what currently deploys, along with an LPD, with a big deck. An LPH is an Amphibious Helicopter Carrier, which is what the America class should be designated.

    1. It's all sorts of messed up right now with the new America class vessels being designated "LHA's." The Iwo Jima class LPH's were superseded by the Tarawa class LHA's, which were then superseded by the Wasp class LHD's; I've served both on LHD-3 and LPD-15. The fact that the amphibious well deck was entirely removed on the new America class "LHA's" means that technically, they are nothing more than a conventional aircraft carrier because there’s nothing amphibious about them anymore.

      CVL for "light aircraft carrier" was retired, CVHA for "aircraft carrier, helicopter assault" was retired in favor of the LH amphibious hull classification used on the LHA/LHD’s, and even CVA for "aircraft carrier, attack" was merged into CV back in 1975. If anything CV for “aircraft carrier” is really the only accurate term for this new class of vessel, but that would never have passed the Congress had it carried that designation.