The United States is experimenting with light aircraft carrier concept

During the first half of June, the US Navy’s amphibious landing ship took the USS Tripoli to sea in the role of a light aircraft carrier. The launch of the USS Tripoli in this role was part of the military exercise Valiant Shield, which was held at various locations in the Pacific.


USS Tripoli, the second American class ship. (Photo: US Navy)

USS Tripoli started the exercise from the Japanese naval base in Sasebo, where the ship arrived on June 7 was discovered† Her normal component of helicopters and transport aircraft had been replaced by a squadron of F-35B ‘lightning’ fighter jets from the VMFA-121 combat group of the US Marine Corps. In this configuration, it is referred to as a ‘lightning’ aircraft carrier, referring to the nickname of the F-35B fighter aircraft.

The F-35B is the only aircraft in the U.S. Navy capable of operating from amphibious landing craft. The relatively small cockpit does not allow for the installation of catapults on which other types of aircraft can be used. However, due to the need to lighten vertically, there is a reduction in combat power. An F-35B is not capable of carrying as many weapons as an F-18 Hornet fighter jet on full aircraft carriers.

Light aircraft carriers – standard instead of revolutionary
The idea of ​​a light aircraft carrier may be a new operational development in America, but for the rest of the world, a light aircraft carrier is the standard, while the American Nimitz and Ford class aircraft carriers are the exception. Most fleets operating an aircraft carrier fall under the US designation of a light aircraft carrier despite being a normal aircraft carrier for these countries. Examples include the Japanese Izumo class, the Spanish airline Juan Carlos I, the French Charles de Gaulle and the Russian Kuznetsov. This also includes the Chinese airlines in operation.

The aircraft carriers of the mentioned countries usually carry a supplement of 20 to 40 aircraft and helicopters, depending on the deck size and the configuration of the aircraft squadron on board. These numbers quickly become insignificant compared to the aircraft carriers of the Ford and Nimitz class, which can easily carry 80 to 90 aircraft. But for all countries outside the U.S. Navy, deploying 20 to 40 aircraft on an aircraft carrier is the standard standard. A possible exception is the new Chinese aircraft carrier Fujian, which is getting closer to an aircraft carrier in the Ford class and may also be competing with these superships in terms of air group.

Conceptual implementation – independent or supportive role
Light aircraft carriers can be deployed in an independent role to provide air support for amphibious operations. In this operational deployment, the US Marine Corps was able to achieve complete independence in carrying out amphibious operations. The main role would then be to bomb land targets in preparation for and during the amphibious landing, as well as independently provide an air patrol over the amphibious squadron. The larger aircraft carriers can therefore be relieved of these roles and focus on other tasks, such as providing air support to targets further inland or directly confronting the enemy air force.

Pictures of the Valiant Shield exercise showed the LHA7 USS Tripoli flying in formation with two full-fledged aircraft carriers, the USS Abraham Lincoln and the USS Ronald Reagan. In this configuration, a light aircraft carrier can be used to provide an additional air patrol to protect the aircraft carrier frame. In this way, too, the fully-fledged aircraft carrier has the additional opportunity to focus on projecting air support towards distant targets. In addition, the full-fledged aircraft carrier can carry out major attacks because the aircraft needed for the air defense are now supplied from a light aircraft carrier. The presence of a ‘lightning’ aircraft carrier thus ensures an increased impact force of full aircraft carriers operating in the vicinity.

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Operational deployment
U.S. naval operations in the Western Pacific must increasingly take into account the presence of ever-expanding Chinese weapons systems. Like the Soviet Union, China has a strong focus on neutralizing American airlines operating on the periphery of mainland China. For example, China continues to conduct tests to target aircraft carriers with ballistic missiles. With ‘only’ 11 aircraft carriers in service, half of which are operational on average, the loss of an aircraft carrier is an immediate major blow to the combat capacity of the US Navy.

The use of light aircraft carriers may be part of the solution to the Chinese threat. In itself, an amphibious landing craft equipped as a light aircraft carrier has only a fraction of the capabilities of a full-fledged aircraft carrier. Its strength lies in redundancy, whereby the loss of a full-fledged aircraft carrier can be compensated by inserting more light aircraft carriers. Furthermore, light aircraft carriers provide more targets for China’s ballistic missiles, which means that China may have to deploy more of these weapon systems in order to maintain a full-fledged threat. In addition, a light aircraft carrier is significantly smaller than a full-fledged aircraft carrier and therefore a little harder to hit with a ballistic missile, at least as far as is known in the current technological setup, as there are indications that these ballistic missiles use radar signals to find their goal.

A major disadvantage of inserting an amphibious landing craft in the role of a light aircraft carrier is the loss of deck space for helicopter operations. A light aircraft carrier would therefore have a greatly reduced or completely absent ability to carry out landings of air mobile troops through the air. This set-up appears to conflict with the U.S. Marine Corps’ desire to transform itself into an organization that specializes in performing short but powerful amphibious raids on the Pacific Theater.


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