A Fleet of ‘Lightning Carriers’: The Marines’ Big Plans for the F-35
Policy + Politics

A Fleet of ‘Lightning Carriers’: The Marines’ Big Plans for the F-35

The USS Gerald Ford -- the almost $13 billion super carrier that has been beset with delays and cost overruns, making it the most expensive ship ever to float on water -- is scheduled to start sea trials this week and could be commissioned later this spring.

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But while the Ford begins to ply the oceans, the Marines are looking to their smaller amphibious assaults ships as launch pads for as many as 20 F-35B Lightning IIs each.

The F-35B is the Marines’ version of the fifth-generation Joint Strike Fighter that will be the mainstay of U.S. air power in the future. The $122 million jets are designed for short takeoff and vertical landing, which makes them operational from amphibious assaults ships – referred to as “Lightning carriers” in this scenario.

The 2017 Marine Corps Aviation Plan says that by 2025, the service will have 185 F-35Bs that could populate its fleet of amphibious assault ships. “While the amphibious assault ship will never replace the aircraft carrier,” the outline of where Marine aviation is headed said, “it can be complementary if employed in imaginative ways.”

Related: The Art of an F-35 Deal: Did Trump Engineer a Lockheed-Boeing Pact?

The plan, released late last month, goes on to say, “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.”

A story on the website of the U.S. Naval Institute said that “the Lightning Carrier concept includes an amphibious assault ship carrying 16 to 20 F-35Bs with four MV-22 Ospreys to refuel them.” Such ships could operate independently as a component of an expeditionary force or could be “part of a Carrier Strike Group [that would include] a Navy aircraft carrier and guided-missile cruisers and destroyers.”

While amphibious ships may never have to be deployed as Lightning carriers, the Marine Corps plan says that to not develop “this capability” would be to ignore a “force multiplier.”

Among the benefits of such a scenario, Lightning carriers would be smaller targets for the “carrier killer” missiles being developed by China and Russia.

Another benefit is cost. While the new America-class amphibious assault ships aren’t cheap at $3.4 billion each, they cost a lot less than a full-size flattop. And they don’t skimp on firepower. Maj. John Dirk, an F-35 test pilot, said that the Lightning carrier produces "the most powerful concentration of combat power ever put to sea in the history of the world."