The NATO-led aerial armada that struck Libyan targets beginning March 20 was notable for what it lacked. Though some American naval jets flew from land bases, the air strikes on forces loyal to repressive Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi were not supported by a large-deck U.S. Navy aircraft carrier. All of the Navy’s 11 large flattops were on deployment to other conflict zones or in maintenance.
It was the first time in decades that the free world went to war without a Nimitz-class carrier or a similar ship.
But an American carrier was present. Sailing off the Libyan coast, the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge carried hundreds of battle-ready Marines of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit plus their vehicles, landing craft and helicopters — and pulled double duty as a light carrier.
Barely noticeable among the 200 allied warplanes were six U.S. Marine Corps AV-8B Harriers flying from Kearsarge‘s 844-feet-long, un-angled deck. The Harriers flew bombing raids on Libyan ground troops, tracked targets with their camera pods and, on March 22, escorted MV-22 Osprey tiltrotors deployed to rescue the crew of a U.S. Air Force F-15E that crashed in Libya following a mechanical failure.
Col. Mark Desens, 26th MEU commander, told Defense News that the “flexibility” of the assault-ship-Harrier combo is a strong argument for retaining an independent Marine Corps jump-jet force and its supporting small-deck Navy carriers. “We were here and we were ready to go,” Desens said.
But with Washington planning deep cuts in government spending aimed at closing a trillion-dollar annual budget deficit, the Navy’s 11 assault ships and their embarked jump jets could be on the chopping block.
For all their flexibility, the 40,000-ton-displacement Kearsarge and her sister ships possess just a fraction of the striking power of a 100,000-ton Nimitz-class vessel and its more than 60 high-performance aircraft. “Harrier-carriers” are a duplicative capability borne of the Marines’ tradition of aerial self-sufficiency.
In April, U.S. President Barack Obama promised to study the Pentagon’s existing roles and missions, with an eye to eliminating some entirely. “We need to not only eliminate waste and improve efficiency and effectiveness, but conduct a fundamental review of America’s missions, capabilities, and our role in a changing world,” Obama said.
In this cost-cutting era, the Marines could see their roles and missions curtailed. Just last year, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates questioned the Marines’ traditional beach-assault mission. “In the 21st century, what kind of amphibious capability do we really need to deal with the most likely scenarios, and then how much?”
Besides clinging to potentially outmoded operational concepts, the Marines also insist on duplicative capabilities that make them vulnerable to cuts. The Marine Corps maintains an “air force within an air force” of some 1,000 navalized helicopters and airplanes that is a mirror of the much larger U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force fleets. The Corps also possesses several hundred Army-style M-1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks and other heavy ground equipment typically associated with the much larger U.S. Army.
Gen. James Amos, the new Marine Corps Commandant, indirectly underscored the redundant nature of his Harrier-carriers in a March testimony before the U.S. Senate. “So today, with 11 carriers and 11 large-deck amphibious ships, our nation — this is a national capability — has 22 capital ships flying [tactical] aviation off of them,” Amos said.
Gates warned that the huge relative size of America’s flattop fleet invites cutbacks. “No other navy has more than three [carriers],” he said, “and all of those navies belong to pur allies or friends. Our Navy can carry twice as many aircraft at sea as all the rest of the world combined.”
“Consider the massive over-match the U.S. already enjoys,” Gates added.
Furthermore, by lumping assault ships with full-size carriers, Amos invited an unfavorable comparison.
Harrier carriers embark, at most, 20 jump jets, versus three times that number of aircraft aboard a Nimitz-class carrier or the $9-billion, next-generation Ford class. A big carrier can sustain as many as 120 sorties per day; an assault ship, no more than 32. “That means the Navy would have to build 30,000-ton CVLs [light carriers] at a cost under $2.2 billion each, which would be at a cost less than the 9,800-ton DDG-51 destroyer in the  budget, in order to be less expensive and equally capable in sortie generation as a Ford-class,” pointed out Raymond Pritchett, an independent U.S. naval analyst.
The Harrier carriers’ dire predicament is exacerbated by the difficulty in designing vertical-landing fighters. The Boeing-made AV-8B is no longer in production; accidents have reduced the Marine fleet to fewer than 100 operational examples.
To replace the Harrier and keep its assault ships in the light-carrier business, the Marines are counting on Lockheed Martin’s F-35B Joint Strike Fighter. To carry the F-35, the Navy is building, on behalf of the Marines, at last two ships in the new America-class of assault vessels. The $2.4-billion America and her sister will not have the well-decks and other amphibious capabilities of today’s assault ships. Instead, they will be optimized for aviation operations, with bigger fuel and weapons magazines compared to Kearsarge and earlier vessels.
The F-35B jump jet was originally planned to enter service in 2012, around the same time as America. But after years of delays, several redesigns and billions of dollars in cost overruns, in Januray Gates put the F-35B on a two-year probation. “If we cannot fix this variant during this time frame and get it back on track in terms of performance, cost and schedule, then I believe it should be cancelled,” Gates said.
“If we lose the F-35B, there is no Plan B for fixed-wing airplanes on the large-deck amphibs,” Amos said in his Senate testimony.
Already, the Navy and Marines are putting into place back-up plans to the F-35B that don’t involve the Harrier-carriers. The Marines plan to purchase an undetermined number of conventional-takeoff and -landing F-35Cs and fly them alongside Navy F-35Cs and F/A-18s aboard large carriers. With this plan, the Marines have perhaps inadvertently illuminated an alternative to the inefficient light carriers.
“The F-35B STOVL Joint Strike Fighter is vital to our ability to conduct expeditionary operations,” Amos told the Senate. But what he really meant was that the F-35B was vital to existing ways of doing things — and existing plans for new assault ships.
“During these times of constrained resources, the Marine Corps remains committed to being the best stewards of scarce public funds,” Amos assured lawmakers. But what if that means giving up the jump jets and Harrier-carriers that the Marines’ love so dearly, and forcing all Marine fighter pilots to share the big-deck flattops with their Navy comrades?
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