Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Exceptionalism of America

The USS America has been commissioned as a new type of amphibious warfare ship that focuses on air operations rather than launching small vessels to carry Marines to shore. While the ship can work as a poor-man's aircraft carrier, it is not a carrier.

We have a new ship in the fleet:

Yesterday, as part of San Francisco's Fleet Week festivities, the US Navy had a high-profile commissioning ceremony for the USS America LHA-6, the fourth US Navy ship to bear the name and the first in a new class of amphibious assault ships that are really more like aircraft carriers, yet somehow, compromised as both.

America is not both. So calling the design compromised in both missions is wrong. She is optimized for aerial delivery of Marines to the shore because of the proliferation of cheap precision anti-ship missiles makes it too dangerous to approach a shore to deliver ashore by more traditional means.

America can stand over the horizon and launch an assault using helicopters and the new Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.

That's a rational response to the threat. So it is not compromised as an amphibious ship. It is a different type of amphibious ship.

Nor is the ship compromised as a carrier since that wrongly presumes the ship was designed to be an aircraft carrier like our large Nimitz and new Ford class vessels. America is not a carrier.

America simply has a secondary mission of being a small and greatly inferior carrier if needed by virtue of being an air-centric amphibious vessel.

It would be inefficient to actually build a carrier specifically designed to carry 20 F-35Bs as its main offensive arm.

So this line of attack on the ship is wrong. The America design surely represents a stealth carrier fleet, But it could not and should not replace the large super carriers designed for power projection and sea control missions.

Which doesn't mean that America is the best option for an amphibious ship with a secondary carrier role. Doing the analysis is beyond my expertise, but I do throw out this option for consideration:

Why not build amphibious warfare vessels even larger than America class ships that would be real reserve strike-capable aircraft carriers if needed.

What if we made our amphibious warfare ships based on the Ford hull? Which is the pinnacle of aviation optimized ships.

We did use a big-deck carrier for special forces missions in the initial Afghanistan campaign, in 2001.

And we used a big-deck carrier to carry Army forces in a Haiti mission before that, in 1994.

But build the amphibious warfare Fords without much of the gear needed for the first line fleet carriers but with the ability to add this equipment if we need more strike carriers.

I assume we'd need fewer Ford amphibious warfare vessels than America class because of the greater size of the former.

And as big-deck carriers, we'd save money on needing vertical take-off versions of our fighter and strike aircraft. The Marines could simply use the Navy version of the F-35, for example. [UPDATE: To my surprise, the Marine version is actually cheaper. If there is to be savings, it would be from decreasing Navy costs per unit by buying more. And maybe some savings by having just two types of aircraft to build and support.]

Knowing we have an operational reserve carrier fleet dedicated to moving Marines, we could build fewer of the fleet carriers and put that money into surface combatants and subs to achieve sufficient numbers for our fleet.

My notion could be inefficient or stupid, I admit. I don't think it is inherently the latter while I admit that I lack the expertise to evaluate the former. But given the unjustified confusion over what America is, I'm not too worried about looking stupid.

But I digress.

America is an exceptional ship. Judge her on her means to perform her primary mission and not on what you think her mission or means should be.

UPDATE: I will admit to one misgiving about the whole notion of delivering Marines from beyond the horizon. If the coastal region isn't secure enough because of shore-based anti-ship missiles for amphibious ships to approach the shores to deliver Marines by small boat, how will we supply those Marines we put ashore from the safety of beyond the horizon?