The US Navy amphibious assault ship USS Wasp was recently seen sailing through the South China Sea with an unusually heavy configuration of F-35s.
The Wasp deployed carrying at least 10 F-35B Lightning II stealth fighters, more than the usual load of six of these hard-hitting fifth-generation jet fighters
The U.S. Navy’s first-in-class amphibious assault ship USS Wasp recently arrived in the Philippines for a major annual exercise.
From what we can see on deck, Wasp’s current complement includes at least 10 F-35Bs from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron One Two One (VMFA-121), as well as four MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotors from Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron Two Six Eight (VMM-268) and a pair of MH-60S Sea Hawks from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Two Five (HSC-25). A more typical aviation component onboard an amphibious assault ship would only have around six F-35Bs, in favor of more MV-22s, as well as a detachment of CH-53E Sea Stallion heavy lift helicopters. This is by no means a hard rule, though, and Wasp-class ships have carried AH-1 gunships and UH-1 light armed utility helicopters at times, as well. It’s also important to mention that we don’t know how many more aircraft were in the ship’s hangar bay when the photos were shot.
Wasp entered the Philippine port of Subic Bay on Mar. 30, 2019, ahead of the beginning of Exercise Balikatan 2019. The ship is carrying Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Four, with the 4th Marine Regiment as the lead unit. The drills have occurred almost every year since 1991, with the exception of a hiatus between 1995 and 1999 due to a protracted dispute over the legal status of American troops deployed to the country during the exercise.
Deploying with more F-35s than usual could be a first step toward fielding of light carriers – an approach that could theoretically boost not only the size of the carrier force but also its firepower.
The concept is not without precedent. During the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, amphibious assault ships sailed with up to 20 AV-8B Harriers, becoming “Harrier Carriers.”
This concept has been rebranded as the “Lightning Carrier,” a reference to the fifth-generation fighters the warships would carry into battle.
The light-carrier concept could see more F-35s doing maritime operations, delivering a massive increase in firepower.
This could prove beneficial if the Navy goes ahead with plans to scrap a Nimitz-class carrier as it bets big on the troubled Ford-class carriers and other future combat platforms.