The ships are successors to the lighter 40,000 ton Wasp Class assault carriers of which seven are currently in service. America Class carriers are some of the most versatile in the world, and are capable of operating in a wide range of roles from conducting amphibious landings for several hundred U.S. Marines at a time to anti submarine warfare and serving as aircraft carriers. When used as carriers the ships can deploy up to 20 Harrier II or F-35B vertical landing capable fighters – both of which have short takeoff and vertical landing capabilities which compensate for the ships’ lack of catapult launch systems or arresting gear. The America Class ships are notably prized for their low cost relative to the Navy’s supercarriers, with each costing approximately $3.5 billion compared to around $13 billion each for the new 100,000 ton Gerald Ford Class ships.
U.S. Navy America Class Assault Carrier with F-35B Stealth Fighters
Although fighters deploying from their decks are much less capable in combat, their air wings are less diverse, and their endurance is considerably lower, the relatively low cost of the America Class ships at a time when carriers are increasingly at risk of being neutralised by long ranged anti ship missiles, from the Chinese DF-21D to the Russian Kh-47M2, has led several experts and many in the U.S. Navy itself to call for investment in these ships to be prioritised over investment in new supercarriers. At present the American carrier fleet is comprised of ten Nimitz Class supercarriers, one Gerald Ford Class supercarrier – which while technically in service since June 2017 is suffering from severe maintenance issues and remains far from combat ready, seven Wasp Class carriers and two America Class carriers for a total fleet of 20 ships. Under the F-35B, F-35C and Sixth Generation Air Dominance Fighter programs, all 20 of these ships are expected to deploy some class of next generation combat jet over the next two decades. 20 carriers is expected to be the peak size of the U.S. carrier fleet, at least until the Navy reduces its reliance on supercarriers, due to limitations on the number of crew and aircraft available and the considerable operational costs each of the ships incurs. The major fire on the Wasp Class ship USS Bonhomme Richard on July 13th, just two days before the USS Tripoli entered service, and the damage incurred by the older ship, has led many analysts to speculate that the fleet could shrink down to 19 carriers again in the near future as the Bonhomme Richard is potentially withdrawn from service.