The future of the Marines, which has been hotly debated ever since Defense Secretary Robert Gates referred to it as our “second land army” days after he announced the closure of Joint Forces Command, may well lie more in the air than on the sea.
If you want to glimpse that future you could look at the fleet of around 20 warships from at least five nations that assembled off the Libyan coast in mid-March. It was notable for what it lacked: one of the U.S. Navy’s 100,000-ton displacement “supercarriers.”
The operation aimed at protecting civilians from Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddhafi’s forces was the first major conflict in decades that did not involve one of America’s 11 large carriers.
Instead, the American contribution to Operation Odyssey Dawn was spearheaded by four vertical-landing AV-8B Harrier jump jets flying from the 800-foot-long deck of the Navy’s amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge.
The 40,000-ton vessel was designed to carry Marines, their vehicles and their landing craft close to shore during beach-assault missions. Her straight flight deck is optimized for launching and recovering helicopters, not for high-performance jet aircraft. She was on a routine deployment to the Indian Ocean when orders came to sail for Libya.
When she arrived off the North African coast, Kearsarge functioned as an aircraft carrier, albeit a much smaller one than the Nimitz- and Enterprise-class supercarriers. Her four Harriers — carrying camera pods, precision-guided bombs and air-to-air missiles — flew some of the first aerial missions of the now two-month-old intervention. They comprised, in essence, a self-sufficient, miniature naval air force. Those capabilities might pale when compared to a super carrier’s 50 fixed-wing warplanes, but they were there when they needed to be and they worked.
Kearsarge had departed her homeport of Norfolk, Virginia, as an amphibious assault ship; she returned in May as a de facto light aircraft carrier — and a vision of the U.S. Marine Corps of the future.