Aboard The Marine's First F-35B-Packed 'Lightning Carrier'
The Marines turned USS Tripoli into a 'Lightning Carrier' packed with over 20 F-35Bs. We were there.
On March 30, 2022, several F-35B Joint Strike Fighters took off from Marine Corps Air Station Yuma for the short flight to the deck of amphibious assault ship USS Tripoli (LHA-7). The big ‘Gator Navy’ flattop was operating in the Pacific for a very unique task — put the potentially highly-impactful “Lightning Carrier” concept to the test for the first time. The trials would see 20 F-35Bs deployed to the ship, which is the most ever operated aboard a vessel, even eclipsing the 16 operated from the HMS Queen Elizabeth last year. The War Zone was invited to see this historic exercise first hand and to get a deeper understanding of just how the Navy and Marine Corps are working to write the Lightning Carrier ‘playbook.’
For the last several years, the Marine Corps has been experimenting with the idea of loading up US Navy LHA/LHDs with a large number of F-35Bs, much like they did with their AV-8B Harrier jump jets back in 2003 for the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Marine Corps Aviation Plan of 2017 first disclosed the concept, saying, “While the amphibious assault ship will never replace the aircraft carrier, it can be complementary, if employed in imaginative ways. The CVN-L concept has previously been employed (five times) utilizing AV-8B Harriers in a “Harrier Carrier” concept. The ARG/MEU’s mission, and 13 mission essential tasks (METs), will not change; however, 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 USS Tripoli was chosen as the test ship due to the fact that it is optimized for aviation capability with a larger hangar and more aviation facilities space compared to other Wasp class amphibious assault ships. The Tripoli and its sister ship, USS America were built without a well deck and have smaller medical spaces so they can operate more aircraft like the F-35B. The third ship in the America class, USS Boungainville, will have a well-deck, bringing back the surface connector capability.
You can read all about the Lightning Carrier concept and how it was planned to be tested in these drills in this recent War Zone feature.
Teaming up to make the Lightning Carrier concept a reality are the USS Triploi’s commanding officer Captain Joel Lang and Marine Air Group-13s commanding officer Col. Chad “Mo” Vaughn. Both men have been preparing for the last six months for this event and sat down with The War Zone out at sea to help explain this unique endeavor.
Vaughn told The War Zone “This all came together as a test event and we merged it with the ability to get some training. The operational test team was on board the ship evaluating the event so they can bring back lessons learned from operating a large number of F-35Bs on the ship. We did a crawl-walk-run phase where we first learned how to operate from the deck and then doing it without locking up the deck with all of these airplanes. The CO of the ship and I have been locked at the hip since about September. Our goal has been if the Navy/Marine Corps team decides that the Lightning Carrier is an option at some point then here is the playbook that we developed.”
Speaking about taking two of his squadrons out to a ship, Vaughn added “I think for us the way we have fought over the past 20 years has obviously been a different model and was a lot of individual squadrons doing things in the Middle East as directed. Where we are at with contingency operations is not going to cut it and so the last time we had a MAG fight as an entire MAG was 2003 during the initial push into Iraq. That requires a skill set that we just haven’t practiced.”
“We deployed our MAG to 29 Palms in October to do a joint integrated exercise and that was an opportunity to learn how to fight from the land and this opportunity arose to put a lot of F-35 onto a ship. It gave our MAG pilots and our MAG HQ the opportunity to learn how to fight from the sea. F-35s are not unique to this ship. This ship is flexible and can do traditional MEU which is the centerpiece of Marine Corps crisis response, but we are looking at options that can be provided to the joint force commander and the MEF commander. The USS America class is uniquely suited for aircraft operations with a lot of gas and big magazines for weapons.”
The last several days out at sea for Tripoli was much more than just testing a concept. The ship and its aircraft practiced fighting as a team.
Captain Lang told The War Zone “We are in a unique position to start off as a test event but we went to our respective commands and said what we would really like to do is turn this into an operational rehearsal using the test objectives but filter through the MAG commander and see how best he wants to employ his forces out at sea. Not only did we need to get to the point that we could safely operate as many aircraft on the ship as possible, but bringing the teams together and working through spaces so we could then focus on where we want to operate and how we are going to operate. How are we going to trade information and who is it going to go to? We needed to figure out if this core capability that we are putting together is a game-changer. We had to figure out how many aircraft we could fit in the hangar. We can’t be crunching wings. We needed room to do maintenance and figure out how many sorties we could generate.”
“This new 5th generation aircraft can plug into this new ship and the capabilities together can influence the operational environment. The America class were designed to employ the 5th gen capabilities of the F-35 and so our weapon system and sensor suite were designed to work in tandem with some of the airborne systems. So if we had a joint task force commander onboard, he would have the ability to understand and employ the forces under his control or we could provide that up-echelon.”
For the week-long event, one of the biggest challenges was learning how to properly move aircraft around the deck of the ship and in the hangar. Several months before the event, Yuma-based Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron One (VMX-1) worked on the USS Tripoli conducting nighttime ‘spot 9’ testing in order to make it a second “unaided night landing spot” for the F-35B.
Lang told The War Zone “The flight deck is designed originally for single spot recovery. You can do two spots during the day and a single spot at night. Based on this demo and working with MAG-13, we requested to be the test platform to change the lighting configuration so that we could have two spots at night.”
“What that does is that there’s a multiple there that it's not just a one for one. We can increase sortie generation by a significant factor to give us a freedom of operation which allows us to determine what we are going to do in the future. The way ‘Mo’ and I looked at this is first how do we maximize the number of jets and what we can do in the hangar and flight deck. Then what do we do with the pilots and LSOs [Landing Signal Officers]? How much maintenance can we do? Once we get to the maximum, then we figure out what is optimum. That is why we needed the MAG CO out here with the experience to say we can do a lot, but it is not necessarily numbers.”
Initial flight operations involved carrier qualifications (CQs) for the first several days so that pilots could get certified. This included continuous operations for the entire 10-hour fly day. Since Monday, they have been doing sustained, cyclic flight operations for a 10-hour fly day with the pilots conducting various missions throughout the entire period including both Offensive and Defensive Counter Air Missions (OCA/DCA).
Getting to this level has been no small feat, the entire Navy-Marine team
has been working together effectively, and is focused on the same mission. Vaughn told The War Zone “The first few days we were onboard, the winds were out of the northwest and were pretty strong. Normally with a carrier, they run into the wind. Our MAG is about 95 percent carrier qualified and the last time we had that number was probably during Iraqi Freedom with the Harrier Carriers. We knocked out a lot of sorties and landings because of the way the ship's team drives the ship and understands flight operations. It was awesome.”
He added, “One of the early takeaways during the event was the ability for the ship’s team to quickly move aircraft around the ship. There are a lot of little things like deck flows and how many jets can we get forward of the island and how quickly they can push back the jet. It turns out the number that their seasoned yellow shirt team can move is larger than what we had seen in the past.”
“As the deck started to get crowded, they hooked up the aircraft to the tow and moved it backwards pretty fast. They are smooth. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. That is a force multiplier because the thing we have to be careful of is we can get to a spot where we have to reshuffle the deck where people are and we lose a lot of time. Their team does not let that happen.”
MAG-13 has the most experience in the Marine Corps operating the F-35, so it was a no-brainer to have them lead the way for this event. One of its squadrons, VMFA-211, has a lot of experience working on a ship with several other aircraft. They recently returned from a seven-month deployment on the HMS Queen Elizabeth where they operated their full complement of ten aircraft along with six other F-35Bs from the Royal Navy.
Vaughn told us, “211 has a lot of seatime and is very salty. From a safety standpoint, they know what looks right especially in the evening where it is more challenging. We [MAG-13] are now full F-35s in Yuma with VMFA-214 being the last to transition to the F-35. We have three full F-35B squadrons at Yuma right now. The F-35 and its systems are designed to hunt like a pack of wolves. We operate best with four or more airplanes. So in order to generate the tempo that we think we would need in a contingency operation, we need to generate tempo and lots of sorties. The MAG needs to command and control that so having multiple squadrons doing that takes a little orchestration.”
The USS Tripoli will soon make its first deployment as part of an Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), bringing with it a typical Air Combat Element (ACE) of ten MV-22B Osprey tilt-rotors and six or eight F-35Bs, along with a mix of helicopters, like CH-53E Super Stallions, as well as AH-1Z Vipers and UH-1Y Venoms. Speaking about that difference, Vaughn told us “the MEU in its original construct is the crown jewel. We are doing this event as a contingency op potentially. When the MEU deploys, they have enablers that come with them. When it's my MAG, I don’t have all of those enablers that do command and control and bridge the gap between the ship and the air-wing on board so we have a detachment from Marine Air Traffic Control Group 38 in Miramar that came with us. They integrate in the landing force operations center with the ship’s team in the Combat Information Center (CIC). That is how we do command and control and get situational awareness back to the ship.”
When The War Zone visited the ship, the Tripoli had 16 F-35Bs on board as well as three MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopters for search and rescue and utility support duties. Vaught told us, “We have 16 now and we are going to bring two additional out tomorrow. Joel and I talk every night and do a safety wrap up and our teams do a safety wrap up to see how we are doing and do we want to add more aircraft. We may get 20 on board just fine and realize that 18 is how we optimize operations. We might get 22 on board and realize that 20 is best. We will probably know that in the next 36 hours.”
On April 4, 2022, the USS Tripoli reached its goal of 20 F-35Bs when four more aircraft joined the 16 jets already operating from the ship. The entire complement is scheduled to fly off Tripoli on April 8th.