She’s 844 feet long, 106 feet wide and displaces 45,000 tons of water. The future USS America, christened in Mississippi on Saturday, is technically an amphibious assault ship, a type of vessel optimized for carrying Marines into battle. But subtle changes under America‘s steel skin mean she can double as a small aircraft carrier, capable of sustaining a short air war all on her own.
The changes to America and her sister ship Tripoli came at the cost of some of the usual amphibious capabilities possessed by assault ships. By investing a combined $6 billion in America and Tripoli, the Navy and Marines are betting that future warfare will involve more aerial combat and fewer potential beach assaults.
It’s not a totally reckless wager, but it does involve some risk. With the America class, the Pentagon is taking a chance on air power and, more to point, on the Marines’ version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. When America‘s sister ship Tripoli enters service in 2018, the Navy will (in essence) possess 13 carriers — these two smaller, newer models, plus 11 of the big, nuclear-powered variety. That’s up from the 11 nuke flattops in today’s fleet. Commensurately, the number of old-school assault ships will drop by two.