The United States Navy (USN) could use its ‘Lightning Carriers’ that carry F-35 Lighting II stealth fighters against the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the Chinese military while defending Taiwan, latest reports quoted Vice Admiral Karl Thomas, the Commanding Officer of the 7th Fleet as saying.
The ‘Lightning Carrier’ concept envisages smaller carriers carrying the F-35 ‘B’ Short/Take-Off Vertical Landing (STOVL) variant in place of larger and more expensive supercarriers like the Gerald R. Ford that carry the F/A-18 jets.
While a lightning carrier carries only 20 aircraft against the 50 on a fleet carrier, American naval strategists claim it costs much less and is more versatile.
The EurAsian Times wrote about the lighting carrier concept in September last year.
The concept has also been adopted by the Royal Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF), which is expected to operate together with the USN.
It has been introduced exclusively for the western Pacific against the PLAN’s growing numerical and qualitative strength, besides thousands of its land-based ballistic and cruise missiles that can take out American and Japanese bases.
USN’s Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) Concept
The USN’s America-class amphibious Landing Helicopter Assault (LHA) ship USS Tripoli was chosen for the lightning carrier project carrying US Marine Corps F-35Bs. It is a part of the larger Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) concept.
“I will note that LHA with 14 F-35Bs is much more capable than either of the PRC’s current carriers, both from a sortie-creation perspective and just a sheer capability,” Thomas said.
Thomas had commented on a previous event hosted by the US Naval Institute (USNI) and the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS) in October. He also boasted about the concept’s “versatility,” where “one day (it is possible to have) F-35Bs on the flight deck (and) the next day you can have MV-22s, and you can be putting marines at the shore.”
Optimized to support rotary and fixed-wing operations, Tripoli carries twice the amount of fuel, 30% more aviation ordnance, and with an expanded hangar bay, more space to perform aircraft maintenance than its Wasp-class predecessors.
The DMO envisions two under-development programs: the USMC’s Force Design 2030 and the USN’s Ghost Fleet Overlord. FD-2030 involves Marine Expeditionary units undertaking long-range fires on Chinese shipping from islands controlled by friendly nations in the South China Sea.
Ghost Fleet Overlord is looking at incorporating smaller, unmanned, semi-autonomous vessels taking some routine tasks off larger destroyers and frigates, almost like loyal airborne wingmen. All these combined are intended to spread out, overwhelm, close in, and hit China inside its anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) bubble.
Lightning Carriers are a fundamental departure from the high-intensity strike operations affected by massive Sortie Generation Rates (SGR), sending up fighters one after the other from larger carriers.
According to a RAND Corporation study, high SGRs will be futile in today’s wars with competitors like Russia and China. They will keep American carriers at least 1,000 miles from their shores with their A2/AD carrier-killing weapons.
Second, under no conceivable political scenario will the US ever plan to launch a land invasion to occupy these countries, like Iraq or Afghanistan. High SGRs for supporting ground troops to rapidly capitulate enemy ground and air forces to invade any country will never be an eventuality.
And thirdly, neither have high SGRs ever been achieved in the first place. The Nimitz class has never seen its optimal highest SGR of 120 sorties in 12 hours, nor has it been found to be necessary.
Smaller carriers based on the America-class amphibious assault ships can carry up to 20 F-35B Joint Strike Fighters but lacks the catapults and arresting gear to accommodate other aircraft.
These are the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft, E-2D Hawkeye carrier command and control planes, and the upcoming MQ-25A Stingray aerial refueling tanker drone.
Lightning carriers are also primarily oriented towards a sea-control/sea-denial role. They are less likely to be useful in sustained offensive operations that bring about a strategic shift in the western Pacific’s three flashpoints – the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Strait, and the South China Sea (SCS).
Neither are USS Tripoli, JS Izumo, and JS Kaga as big as the Royal Navy’s HMS Queen Elizabeth. Elizabeth is a more capable ship displacing 65,000 tons and featuring a 280-meter flight deck.
Since US and Japanese ships are amphibious assault and helicopter carriers, they only have a flat deck with no ski-jump or catapult-based aircraft launching mechanism since vertical-take-off aircraft like the F-35B or helicopters can take off on their power.
But this also might impact their payload capacity. On the other hand, HMS Queen Elizabeth has a ski jump that will allow the F-35Bs to carry more ordnance. However, they also cost $3 billion, compared to Ford’s over $10 billion. Some maintain that ‘Lighting Carriers’ can be modified to operate these heavier aircraft and still cost less than half the Ford.
Another option suggested by experts is to continue developing the MQ-25 Stingray refueling drone program to carry at least 7000 liters of fuel to allow short-range jets like the F-35C and F-35B to make the 1,000-mile range within the A2/AD zones.
The F-35 can currently only fly between 800 and 900 kilometers. The Stingray could be converted into a long-range carrier-borne semi-stealth drone bomber and deep penetration strike aircraft.