US Marine Corps Commandant General David Berger has called on the US Marines to become more “unpredictable” when countering China, seeing the Lightning Carrier concept as a key way of achieving this.
As the capabilities of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter variants continue to evolve, new CONOPs will evolve around the fifth-generation platform – the US Navy and Marine Corps team has developed the “Lightning Carrier” concept to provide the branches with a lower-tier naval aviation capability to support amphibious power projection operations.
Serving as the latest iteration of the Sea Control Ship (SCS) concept developed and conceptualised by the former US Navy Chief of Naval Operations and famed Second World War Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, the Lightning Carrier and the corresponding sea control doctrines emerging around the platform combination are emerging as immense power projection potential.
While the aircraft carrier emerged as the apex of naval prestige and power projection at the end of the Second World War, the platform has evolved as technology has.
Today’s carriers are defined by large fleet and supercarriers like the US Nimitz and Ford Class, the UK Queen Elizabeth and Chinese Type 001 and follow-on Type 002 and Type 003 Class vessels.
However, in recent years, nations throughout the Indo-Pacific have begun a series of naval expansion and modernisation programs, with traditional aircraft carriers and large-deck amphibious warfare ships serving as the core of their respective shift towards greater maritime power projection.
These developments have prompted the rapid development of the Lightning Carrier concept, combining the mobility and comparatively low cost of large-deck amphibious warfare ships and the increasing affordability of platforms like the F-35B short take-off, vertical landing (STOVL) serving as powerful alternatives for regional powers seeking to expand their long-range strike and maritime power projection capabilities.
While a traditional carrier power, the United States and the Marines in particular have recognised the limitations of the larger super carriers to develop and perfect the Lightning Carrier concept as part of developing and executing a strategy of “distributed lethality” in the face of mounting Chinese hostility.
Additionally, China’s growing network of advanced anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles (ASCM/ASBM) systems like the DF-16 and DF-21 series, combined with their own growing fleet of aircraft carriers and under construction large-deck amphibious warfare ships, the Commandant of the US Marine Corps has emerged as a major advocate for the Lightning Carrier.
GEN Berger explained at a conference discussing the Amphibious Warship Industrial Base Coalition, where he stated, “China has moved out to sea, and they have long-range weapons and a lot of them.
“Those two things have changed the game. Take those away, in other words, we could keep operating with dominance everywhere we wanted to, as we have. We cannot do that. We can’t get stuck in old things. We are being challenged everywhere.”
Not comparable to a supercarrier, but a key component of the joint force
Combining the capability of the F-35 with large-deck amphibious warfare ships and ever-advancing tanker and airborne early warning capabilities is emerging as increasingly powerful force structures following the successful deployment of US Navy formations for combat operations to the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea in recent months.
The US variant of the Lightning Carrier combines a large-deck amphibious warfare ship like the Wasp or America Class vessels and the F-35B – enabling the platforms to carry approximately 40 per cent of the firepower of a larger Nimitz or Ford Class carrier.
Enhancing the combat effectiveness and power projection capabilities of the Lightning Carrier concept is the ability of the F-35B to take off from the carrier and land on primitive airstrips ashore while also dispersing the platform throughout an area of operations limiting broader force vulnerability.
It is planned that the US Navy’s large amphibious warfare ships will accommodate up to 20 F-35B Joint Strike Fighters, which would provide both the US Navy and US Marines with a potent force package.
However, it is important to recognise that the Lightning Carrier concept is not without its limitations, as the development of early warning and control and tanker aircraft small enough to be stationed on the amphibious warfare ships is still somewhat limited, although progress is being made.
However, the US Marine Corps is optimistic about the capability brought by the Lightning Carrier, with the 2017 Marine Corps Aviation Plan stating, “While the amphibious assault ship will never replace the aircraft carrier, it can be complementary if employed in imaginative ways.”
“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 Corps added.
Adding to this, GEN Berger said, “I’m in favour of things like the Lightning Carrier concept because I believe we need to tactically and operationally be ... unpredictable. We’ve been sending out every [amphibious ready group] and [Marine expeditionary unit] looking mirror-image for 20 years. We need to change that.”
However, maximising the efficacy of the Lightning Carrier concept was a key focus for GEN Berger who seeks to combine and leverage the introduction of new technologies and platform packages to ensure the US Marines remain unpredictable in agile in response to the mounting challenges arrayed against traditional US dominance.
To this end, GEN Berger said, “You would like to see one of those big decks one time go out with two squadrons of F-35s and next time fully loaded with MV-22s and another MEU with a 50-50 combo. Now that’s how you become unpredictable. How do you defend against that?”
Food for thought and supporting the Australia-US alliance
For Australia, a nation defined by its relationship with traditionally larger yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities and competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, place the nation at the centre of the 21st century’s “great game”.
Further compounding Australia’s precarious position is an acceptance that “Pax Americana”, or the post-Second World War “American Peace”, is over and Australia will require a uniquely Australian approach and recognition that the nation is now solely responsible for the security of its national interests, with key alliances serving a secondary, complementary role to the broader debate.
Today, strategic sea lines of communication support over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.
Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.
Meanwhile, the Indian Ocean and its critical global sea lines of communication are responsible for more than 80 per cent of the world’s seaborne trade in critical energy supplies, namely oil and natural gas, which serve as the lifeblood of any advanced economy, including Australia, which has become vulnerable, as events in both the Middle East and south-east Asia show.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic, economic, diplomatic and military capabilities, serves not only as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of “it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother” will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.
Both fixed-wing naval aviation and amphibious capabilities are key force multipliers reshaping the region.