Marines: New Class of USMC Aircraft Carriers

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June 5, 2007: The U.S. is building a new class of LHAs. Currently only known by its hull number, LHA-6, this vessel is a variant of the USS Makin Island, itself a variant of the baseline Wasp-class amphibious assault ship. Why is the Navy returning to the LHA designation used by the Tarawa-class vessels. as opposed to the LHD designation used by the Wasp-class, which this ship is based on? Simple - the LHA-6 is going to be focused more on supporting the air group for a Marine Expeditionary Unit.

In fact, unlike the Tarawa-class LHAs and Wasp-class LHDs, the LHA-6 will have no water level well deck for landing craft, making it a helicopter landing platform ship, like the 1960s vintage Iwo Jima-class. So, why not just build more baseline Wasp-class ships, which only cost about $800 million each? That is about a third of the cost - and it leads to the natural question of whether the Navy would be better off with three baseline Wasp-class LHDs or even sticking with the Makin Island variant - which only costs about 63 percent what LHA-6 will cost (meaning three LHDs like the Makin Island can be built for the price of one LHA-6).

The answer is that the air groups of the Marine Expeditionary Units are undergoing a major change - and the ships that carry them need to evolve to properly support them. At the present time, the amphibious ships tend to carry 12 CH-46 troop transport helicopters, 4 AH-1 attack helicopters, 2-4 UH-1 helicopters, 4 CH-53E heavy-lift choppers, and 6-8 AV-8B+ Harrier multi-role VSTOL aircraft. This is planned to change to 12 V-22s, 8 AH-1s, 10 F-35s, 4 CH-53Ks, and 4 Navy CH-60 helicopters. In both cases, actual air combat elements (the term for the reinforced squadron deployed on these vessels) may vary depending on the mission. The LHA-6 is being built with these new aircraft, tilt-rotors, and helicopters in mind.

This major shift in the air group - including a 66% increase in the number of fixed-wing VSTOL aircraft - makes these vessels much more capable. The LHA-6 continues the evolution of the Marine amphibious assault ships into more of a small 50,000-ton catapult-less carrier than an amphibious assault ship. To put the size and capabilities of these ships into perspective, the British Invincible-class carriers, the Spanish Principe de Asturias, and the Italian Giuseppe Garibaldi and Andrea Doria all range in the 15,000 to 25,000 ton range and carry maybe half or two-thirds of the aircraft and helicopters that the LHA-6 or the Tarawa-class and Wasp-class vessels will carry. Already, the Wasp and Tarawa-class vessels were seen as being capable of a sea-control mission, usually carrying twenty Harriers and six to eight SH-60 anti-submarine helicopters.

It is these ships that probably demonstrate not only the present supremacy of the U.S. Navy over potential rivals. In essence, with the seven Wasp-class LHDs and the three Tarawa-class LHAs in service, the United States Navy has another ten aircraft carriers - most of which are already capable of fielding an air group slightly smaller than that planned for the British Queen Elizabeth-class carriers. With United States plans to eventually have eight Wasp-class LHDs and at least four of the LHA-6 class vessels, this force is a very potent carrier fleet in its own right. Even though they are much slower (37 kilometers per hour vs. over 48 for the Queen Elizabeth class), they are still more than capable of doing things like protecting convoys, hunting submarines, or handling a small crisis like evacuating an embassy or hitting a terrorist camp. That leaves the carriers free to go on the offensive.

In essence, the United States has the two most powerful carrier fleets in the world. The good news is that they are becoming more powerful. Already, the United States Navy can dominate any major or minor conflict around the world. That dominance will increase with the LHA-6 and the other ships of that class. - Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)

 


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