Arthur J. Villasanta – Fourth Estate Contributor
Washington, DC, United States (4E) – The deployment of the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II aboard U.S. Navy warships large enough to accommodate this stealth fighter (such as the America-class amphibious assault ship) knocks-down a key foundation of China’s flawed anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy in the South China Sea.
Operated by the United States Marine Corps, the F-35B doesn’t need to operate out of Navy Nimitz-class supercarriers, which are the main targets of the long-range ballistic missile defense system that underpins China’s A2/AD strategy.
F-35Bs, which is the “Vertical/Short Take-off and Landing” (V/STOL) version of the fighter that can hover like a helicopter, can be launched from any place with a flat surface a few hundred feet or more in size.
“You can fly the F-35B literally anywhere,” said David Berke, a retired US Marine Corps lieutenant colonel. “If your traditional places of operation are unavailable” — probably because of the damage to airfields — “the F-35B can be there.”
“Find me 600 feet of flat surface anywhere in the world, and I can land there,” said Berke.
U.S. Marine Corps Aviation pilots have been training for this operating concept in the Pacific. In mid-January, they landed an F-35B on a sloped platform, showing that future pilots could land their fighter almost anywhere.
In 2017, F-35B crews trained on tactics like “hot loading” and “hot refueling,” which aims to turn reloading the F-35 into the equivalent of a NASCAR pit stop.
The ground crew runs-up to the jet while it’s still running to pump more fuel and load more bombs. In just a few minutes, the F-35B can take-off again to attack Chinese targets.
F-35Bs can also deploy on America-class amphibious assault ships such as the USS America (LHA-6), which has been reconfigured to operate up to 20 F-35Bs.
USS America, the U.S. Navy’s newest and largest amphibious assault ship, will be deployed to Asia in 2017 in anticipation of a conflict with China. She’s the lead ship in the America-class amphibious assault ships designed to launch a Marine Expeditionary Unit using helicopters and Bell Boeing MV-22B Osprey V/STOL tiltrotor transport aircraft.
These amphibious assaults will be supported by Boeing AV-8B Harrier II or the F-35B and various attack helicopters.
The navy plans to build 11 LHAs, whose large flight decks also classify them as small aircraft carriers. USS America is the first ship of its class, which was designed to replace the Tarawa-class amphibious assault ships.
F-35B trials aboard the USS America, the only operational America-class LHA, were completed in late 2016 and verified the capability of F-35Bs to operate from them. The success in transforming LHAs into “small carriers” gives powerful teeth to the new U.S. Navy doctrine of “distributed lethality” that aims to turn as many surface warships as it can into small aircraft carriers.
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