With the Marines making use of the Navy’s eight Wasp and America class amphibious assault ships, and further America Class vessels in future, the service requires modern STOVL capable platforms to replace the ageing Harrier jets currently in service. When operating STOVL platforms, the assault ships are able to function as small aircraft carriers which significantly enhance their capabilities. Indeed, though smaller, operating the F-35B gives American warships a similar role with comparable effectiveness to the British Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers – which also rely exclusively on STOVL aircraft.
On March 5th 2017 the U.S. Navy deployed the world’s first ever carrier laden with fifth generation fighters, deploying a Wasp Class carrier with a deck of F-35B fighters. While the F-35B is the least combat capable variant of the next generation light platform, with far higher maintenance requirements than and lacking the range and manoeuvrability of the A and C variants, it has nevertheless been deployed to the Pacific for what U.S. media have widely referred to as a show of force to China and North Korea. With the U.S. facing an increasingly unfavourable balance of power in the region, a result of the rapidly advancing capabilities of its rivals, the deployment of the first fifth generation fighter carrying warship represents an attempt to reassert its position as the region’s dominant power.
The U.S. is set to equip all its amphibious assault ships with F-35B fighters, while its supercarriers are set to deploy the F-35C – a short takeoff variant. While the Navy’s supercarriers were originally set to deploy a carrier based variant of the F-22 Raptor, an elite heavier, more specialised and more combat capable air superiority platform, budgetary constraints led to the cancellation of the program. This has left the Navy with only light fighters of the fifth generation in its arsenal, while relying on modernised fourth generation platforms such as the F-18E for an air superiority role. With Russia and China both reportedly developing heavy and elite fifth generation platforms for their carriers, their equivalents to the F-22 Raptor set to be in service by the mid 2020s, the U.S. qualitative advantage will likely be undermined with just a fraction of the originally planned carrier based F-35 units are deployed. While rival fifth generation carrier based fighters are set to be deployed in far smaller numbers to the U.S. platform, they will make advantages gained from deploying the F-35 at sea somewhat short lived. This is particularly true considering recent reports that over half of the F-35 fighters so far delivered to the Air Force and Marines, less than half are operable and parts shortages for the high maintenance platforms continue to impede the program. The deployment of the fighter onboard an assault ship nevertheless sends a strong signal regarding the United States’ resolve to maintain its position of primacy in the Pacific, demonstrating its current technological advantage at sea with the world’s most sophisticated carrier based fighter – however briefly this may last.