The South China Sea isn’t exactly a tension-free part of the world right now. China’s been arming it to the gills and the United States Navy has been conducting freedom of operations missions there, both of which have drawn the ire of the other side.
Well, now the Chinese have a new focus for their wrath: A “light carrier” that has a surprising number of F-35 Lightning II jets on board.
The National Interest first noted that the USS Wasp, an amphibious assault craft that has been part of the Navy’s light carrier concept, deployed to that Southeast Asian powder keg with a bevy of next-generation fighter jets.
“The U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship USS Wasp in March 2019 deployed to the Indo-Pacific region with no fewer than 10 F-35B Lightning II stealth fighters on board,” the National Interest reported March 31.
“An assault ship usually embarks just six F-35s or older AV-8B Harrier jump jets.”
Both the F-35 Lightning II and the AV-8 Harrier are fighters that can take off either vertically or on a short runway by vectoring engine thrust downward. That means they don’t need a full-size carrier like you’re used to seeing, giving the Navy far more leeway in terms of the ships it can deploy with the fighters.
Wasp-class ships usually deploy with helicopters and MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft as well as the six fighters. The deployment of the USS Wasp with 10 F-35s represents a shift in strategy. The decision to make the fighters all F-35s, as well, represents a major shift.
“In sailing with nearly twice as many vertical-landing fighters than is normal for an assault ship, Wasp is helping to prove a concept the Marine Corps seriously has been mulling over for years now — transforming amphibious ships into light aircraft carriers,” the National Interest reported.
“It’s an idea that’s gaining credibility as the Navy considers cutting the number of large carriers in the fleet.”
According to Military.com, the light carrier — or “Lightning carrier” — was included in part of the Marine Corps 2017 aviation plan.
“A Lightning Carrier, taking full advantage of the amphibious assault ship as a sea base, can provide the naval and joint force with significant access, collection and strike capabilities,” the plan stated. “An amphibious assault ship … equipped with 16-20 F-35Bs with an embarked, organic aerial refueling capability will create opportunities for the naval and joint force commander.”
The Wasp sailed through the South China Sea on its way to the Philippines, where the Navy says it will be conducting exercises.
“Balikatan is an exercise between the Republic of the Philippines and the United States, and also features participation from Australia,” the Navy said in a March 31 statement announcing the ship’s arrival in Subic Bay in the Philippines.
“Balikatan is a Tagalog phrase for ‘shoulder-to-shoulder,’ which characterizes the spirit of the exercise and represents the partnership between the U.S. and the Philippines.”
The statement announced that forces “will conduct amphibious operations, live-fire training, urban operations, aviation operations, and counterterrorism response. All events will take place in Luzon and Palawan.”
“This will be the first Exercise Balikatan to incorporate the Wasp with the embarked United States Marines Corps’ F-35B Lightning II aircraft,” the statement noted. “Together they represent an increase in military capability committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Participating in Balikatan demonstrates their ability to quickly forward deploy in support of an ally should a crisis or natural disaster occur.”
Business Insider noted that the language used about “a free and open Indo-Pacific region” was “rhetoric consistent with US military freedom-of-navigation operations and bomber flights in the South China Sea, intended to check China.”
The light carrier concept could be a serious threat to China, particularly since China doesn’t have fighters that can compete with the F-35 or that could fit on an amphibious assault craft.
Beijing hasn’t made a whole lot of noise about this yet, but you can bet there’s some fuming going on behind the scenes.
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