U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Barker
- The Navy and the Marines loaded up an amphibious assault ship with a heavy configuration of F-35s, and experts believe it’s an experiment for a new type of light carrier known as a "Lightning Carrier."
- Lightning carriers armed with F-35s could theoretically take over operations in low-end conflicts, freeing up the supercarriers to focus on higher-end threats like Russia and China.
- These carriers could also boost the overall firepower of the Navy carrier force.
- "I think the Marine Corps may be realizing that this is the best use of their large amphibious assault ships," an expert said.
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The US Navy sent the USS Wasp into the South China Sea earlier this month loaded with an unusually heavy configuration of Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters.
"We are seeing a fleet experiment going on right now," Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and naval affairs expert, told Business Insider, explaining that the Navy and the Marines are experimenting with the "Lightning Carrier" concept.
Light carriers armed with these short landing and take off F-35s could theoretically take over operations in low-end conflicts, potentially freeing up the supercarriers to focus on higher-end threats like Russia and China, or significantly boost the firepower of the US Navy carrier force, experts told Business Insider.
USS Wasp has been drilling in the South China Sea with at least 10 F-35s on board.
US Navy/USS Wasp/Facebook
The USS Wasp, an amphibious assault ship, is participating in the ongoing Balikatan exercises with the Philippines. It deployed with at least ten F-35s, more than the ship would normally carry.
"With each new exercise, we learn more about [the F-35Bs] capabilities as the newest fighter jet in our inventory, and how to best utilize them and integrate them with other platforms," a Marine Corps spokesperson told BI.
The Wasp was recently spotted running flight operations near Scarborough Shoal, a contested South China Sea territory.
The Navy and Marine Corps began experimenting with the ‘Lighting Carrier’ concept a few years ago.
U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Cpl. Thor Larson
The Marine Corps did a "Lightning Carrier" proof of concept demonstration in November 2016, loading 12 F-35B fighters onto the USS America, the newest class of amphibious assault ship intended to serve as a light aircraft carrier.
"The experiments led to the realization that this is an option," Bryan Clark, a naval affairs expert and former special assistant to the chief of naval operations, told BI.
"I think the Marine Corps may be realizing that this is the best use of their large amphibious assault ships. I think you are going to see more and more deployments like that."
A "Lightning Carrier" might carry almost two dozen F-35s.
US Marine Corps
The Marine Corps elaborated on its plan for the Lightning Carrier in its 2017 Marine Aviation Plan, which suggests that by 2025, the Marines should be operating 185 F-35Bs, more than "enough to equip all seven" amphibious assault ships.
"While the amphibious assault ship will never replace the aircraft carrier," the Corps said, "it can be complementary if employed in imaginative ways." These ships, the America-class ships in particular, could theoretically be outfitted with 16-20 F-35s, along with rotary refueling aircraft.
"A Lightning Carrier, taking full advantage of the amphibious assault ship as a sea base, can provide the naval and joint force with significant access, collection and strike capabilities," the service explained.
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