Marines: The Three Amphibs

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June 27, 2007: When Spain recently landed the contract to build the two Canberra-class LHDs for Australia, it brought to the attention of many the fact that the United States was not the only country building large amphibious ships. The Spanish design, the Juan Carlos I class, beat out the French Mistral-class. These two classes are about the same size (about 25,000 tons) as the American San Antonio-class landing platform dock, and similar in function to the much larger (40,000 ton) American Wasp-class LHD. That said, they have a number of differences, each reflecting the needs and existing capabilities of the country that has purchased them.

In the case of the Canberra-class LHDs, the Spanish design was a little larger (27,000 tons), and also it was much more versatile, and it included a ski-jump aircraft deck on the bow. The Spanish version of this vessel will be able to carry up to 30 Harrier vertical take off jets. This means that Spain would have a second carrier to go with the smaller Principe de Asturias. Australia has not had a carrier since HMAS Melbourne was decommissioned in 1982. Now, they will have two "Harrier carriers", which could operate the new U.S. F-35B (which will be replacing a lot of Harriers).

The French Mistral-class vessel displaces 24,000 tons, carries 16 NH90 helicopters, and lacks any real capability to carry or operate V/STOL aircraft like the Harrier or F-35B. France, of course, has the carrier Charles De Gaulle, which operates up to 40 aircraft. In essence, if the French are going to need to kick the door in, they have a carrier with fixed-wing aircraft to provide air cover.

So, how do they compare with the American amphibious vessels? Well, these two classes come in about the size of a San Antonio-class LPD. That said, they fulfill a very different mission. The San Antonio-class vessels have more extensive electronics, and typically carry larger landing craft (like the LCAC air cushion landing craft). Its aviation facilities are limited to about four to six helicopters on the flight deck and the hangar. It might displace 25,000 tons, placing it in the same range as the Mistral and the Juan Carlos/Canberra classes, but it concentrates on getting troops ashore, not so much the aerial operations the other two classes support. All three classes carry about a battalion of marines.

A better ship for purposes of this comparison is the Wasp-class LHD. The Wasp-class LHD usually carries 6-8 Harriers, 12 CH-46s, 4-9 CH-53Es, 4 UH-1s, and 4 AH-1s. However, it was also designed to be capable of operating as a sea control ship with 20 Harriers and 6 SH-60 helicopters. The Wasp displaces about 40,000 tons, making it about 50% larger than the Spanish/Australian LHDs. The Wasp is designed to hold the air element of a Marine Expeditionary unit. Like the French Mistral-class LHDs, they do not have ski ramps. If they need significant air support, the United States will usually send a carrier, with four squadrons of F/A-18 Hornets and F/A-18E/F Super Hornets to provide backup.

Ultimately, each of these ships fulfills the needs of their respective countries. The American and French LHDs are designed to work with carriers, thus they are able to focus more on transporting troops and maximizing the number of helicopters that can be operated. The Spanish and Australian vessels are multi-mission because they are the only carriers those navies will have for the foreseeable future. - Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)

 


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