Vertical landing F-35Bs enable new 'lightning carrier' concept

By Al-Mashareq

An F-35B Lightning II fighter aircraft lands on the USS America in the South China Sea April 19, 2020. [US Navy]

An F-35B Lightning II fighter aircraft lands on the USS America in the South China Sea April 19, 2020. [US Navy]

WASHINGTON -- The US Marine Corps' F-35B Lightning II stealth aircraft and its ability to launch from amphibious assault ships are changing the role of Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) with a new "lightning carrier" concept.

The F-35B variant is designed to land vertically like a helicopter and take-off in very short distances, enabling it to operate from a range of air-capable ships and short-field bases, according to Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer.

The variant is operated by the US Marine Corps, the United Kingdom and the Italian Air Force and can achieve a top speed of Mach 1.6 and a combat radius of 833km.

The F-35B and the other variants also have a "beast mode" -- when weapons are carried on the wing-mounted pylons as well as inside the internal bay.

A US Navy sailor signals to an F-35B Lightning II as it takes off from the USS Makin Island in the Indian Ocean January 12. [US Navy]

A US Navy sailor signals to an F-35B Lightning II as it takes off from the USS Makin Island in the Indian Ocean January 12. [US Navy]

In normal stealth mode, the plane can carry 2.6 tonnes of ordnance in the internal bay.

Beast mode, which almost quadruples that to 10 tonnes, especially comes into play as hostile anti-air systems are eliminated and as the F-35 no longer has to rely on its stealth for survivability.

The Marine Corps plans to procure 353 F-35Bs, according to a May 2020 Congressional Research Service report.

"The Marine Corps intends to leverage the F-35B's sophisticated sensor suite and very low observable, fifth generation strike fighter capabilities, particularly in the area of data collection, to support the Marine Air Ground Task Force well beyond the abilities of today's strike and EW [electronic warfare] assets," said the report, citing the US Department of the Navy.

"[The] F-35B gives us the ability to dominate air and sea space and persist wherever we are without rival," said US Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Chris McPhillips at a ceremony in Japan last October marking the creation of the second Marine squadron overseas to field the F-35B.

"It is an expeditionary platform that literally holds doors open for the Fleet Marine and Joint Force," he said.

Lightning carrier

For the corps, the F-35B enables a new "lightning carrier" concept and a major change in the way the MEU -- an expeditionary quick reaction force -- operates.

The F-35B made its combat debut in 2018, conducting its first strike on Taliban targets in Afghanistan.

Before the introduction of the F-35B, the US Navy's amphibious assault ships operated Harrier jets, Ospreys and helicopters to fulfill their primary role of supporting an amphibious assault and forces ashore.

Unlike the Marine Corps' aging AV-8B Harrier attack aircraft, the F-35B can reach supersonic speed while avoiding enemy radar, has a longer range and can carry more weapons.

With the F-35B's strike capabilities, long-range sensors and ability to augment the capacities of other weapon systems, Navy amphibious assault ships can take on a role more similar to that of larger aircraft carriers in terms of ocean attack and power projection, the National Interest reported in February.

"As part of this equation, the F-35 can also provide close air support for Marine Corps Expeditionary units conducting ship-to-shore amphibious assault in ways that change operational tactics," the National Interest said.

The so-called "lightning carrier" -- an amphibious assault ship with a heavier component of 12 or more F-35Bs -- in theory could launch the aircraft closer to shore while allowing larger carriers to operate outside the range of anti-ship missiles.

Armed with stealth and strike capabilities in addition to its ability to collect and distribute data, the F-35B would deliver the opening salvo in a fight.

The fighters could deploy from the amphibious carriers, destroy enemy defences and collect information all while reducing risk for larger carriers.

'A lethal combination'

The US Navy has been testing the "lightning carrier" concept, and F-35Bs are now regularly deployed aboard amphibious assault ships.

The Navy's Wasp-class and America-class ships are capable of deploying F-35Bs. The America-class amphibious assault ships, which are optimised for aviation capability and include the USS America and the USS Tripoli, can carry up to 25 F-35Bs.

The USS America in October 2019 completed deployments with 13 F-35Bs aboard, an increase from the usual six carried on the ship.

The deployment "signaled the birth of the most lethal, aviation-capable amphibious assault ship to date", the Marine Corps said in a statement at the time.

The higher proportion of F-35Bs means US forces have "more of a strike mindset with 12 or more jets that give the fleet or... commander the ability to better influence the enemy at range", Lt. Col. John D. Dirk said in the statement.

"Tying the sensors and weapons of the F-35B together with those of the fleet is a lethal combination," he said.

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