Navy arms amphibs with 13 F-35s, changes future attack tactics

The Navy has ushered in a new era in amphibious warfare operations.

Launching a massive, fast-paced air assault from the sea, providing close-air support for amphibious assault forces, and bringing forward-operating surveillance and networking technology to maritime warfare are all part of the changing operational calculus introduced by adding F-35s to maritime attack.

With the goal of refining and preparing for these kinds of emerging maritime combat tactics, a high-tech U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship recently completed a deployment mission armed with as many as 13 F-35s.

The Navy’s USS America, a first-in-class new generation amphib, traveled the seas armed with 13 F-35s, senior Navy officials said. This brings an unprecedented measure of air attack and surveillance possibilities, including the option to provide stealth air support to amphibious assaults.

Amphibs could offer a smaller, more mobile type of aircraft carrier power projection capability, Vice Adm. Rich Brown, commander, Naval Surfaces Forces, told an audience Jan. 14 at the 32nd Annual Surface Navy Association Symposium.

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"A big deck with that many F-35s is beginning to look like an aircraft carrier to me," Brown said.

Since potential adversaries now have longer-range weapons, better sensors, targeting technologies and computers with faster processing speeds, amphibious forces approaching the shore may need to disperse in order to make it harder for enemy forces to target them. Therefore, the notion of an air-powered, disaggregated, yet interwoven attack force, less vulnerable to enemy fire, could be launched to hit “multiple landing points” to exploit enemy defenses.

Execution of this new strategy is, depending upon the threat, heavily impacted by the arrival of fifth-generation aircraft, such as the F-35. Now operational as part of Marine Corps Air Ground Task Forces aboard the USS America, USS Wasp and USS Essex, the F-35B is intended to provide close-air support to advancing attacks, use its sensors to perform forward reconnaissance and launch strikes itself.

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The success of an amphibious attack requires air supremacy. Extending this logic, an F-35 would be positioned to address enemy air-to-air and air-to-surface threats such as drones, fighter jets or even incoming anti-ship missiles and ballistic missiles. The idea would be to use the F-35 in tandem with surveillance drones and other nodes to find and destroy land-based enemy defenses, clearing the way for a land assault.

These kinds of synchronized attack tactics would naturally be heavily fortified by an F-35, which has a distributed aperture system – placing 360 degrees worth of cameras around the aircraft – and a high-tech targeting sensor called EOTS, or electro-optical targeting system. The aircraft’s computers also allow for something called “sensor fusion,” a technology that integrates information from a host of different sensors onto a single screen for pilots to view.

Dispersed approaches, using air-ground coordination and forward-positioned surveillance nodes, can increasingly use synchronized assault tactics, pinpointing advantageous areas of attack. Not only can this exploit enemy weakness, but it also brings the advantage of avoiding more condensed or closely configured approaches that are far more vulnerable to long-range enemy sensors and weapons.

Having advanced airpower such as an F-35B, with its heavier load of firepower, helps enable this need to bring assault forces across a wide range of attack locations. But while intended to destroy technologically sophisticated enemies, none of this removes major risks. Among the systems of concern are Russian and Chinese weapons, including emerging fifth-generation fighters, DF-26 anti-ship missiles claimed to reach 900 miles, and rapidly emerging weapons such as drones, lasers and railguns.

In effect, future “ship-to-shore” amphibious attacks will look nothing like the more linear, aggregated Iwo Jima assault. A Naval War College essay on this topic both predicted and reinforced this thinking.

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“The basic requirements of amphibious assault, long held to be vital to success, may no longer be attainable. Unlike the Pacific landings of World War II, amphibious objective areas could prove impossible to isolate,” said the paper, called “Blitzkrieg From the Sea: Maneuver Warfare and Amphibious Operations.” (Richard Moore, 1983)

The essay, written during the height of the Cold War, seems to anticipate future threats from major-power adversaries. Interestingly, drawing from some elements of a Cold War mentality, the essay foreshadows the current “great-power” competition strategy for the Navy as it transitions from more than a decade of counterinsurgency to a new threat environment. In fact, when discussing its now-underway “distributed lethality” strategy, Navy leaders often refer to this need to return its focus to heavily fortified littoral defenses and open, blue-water warfare against a near-peer adversary as having some roots in the Cold War era.