Fielding smaller, more risk-worthy carriers that could reduce the chance of adversaries landing a major punch in a conflict simply by sinking or disabling a single ship, such as a Nimitz- or Ford-class aircraft carrier with thousands of sailors and tens of billions of dollars of hardware aboard, seems reasonable as the future of carriers remains in flux.
The effort to move to a smaller carrier, optimistically termed “Future Carrier 2030, seems frozen. So, the US Navy is forging ahead with preparing its big-deck boats — the amphibious assault ships — for operating with the Marine Corp’s F-35B. The Corps’ F-35 fighter jet is a short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing variant. The Navy recently inked a $200 million contract with BAE Systems to upgrade the amphibious assault ship Boxer to be able to operate with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the fifth landing helicopter assault ship to be so amended.
“The USS Boxer [depending on dry-dock availability] will complete a combination of maintenance, modernization, and repair of the following systems: Hull structure, propulsion, electrical plant, auxiliary systems, and communications and combat systems, as well as alterations to prepare the ship for operations with the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter (JSF),” according to a statement from Naval Sea Systems command.
Last fall, the US Navy packed 13 F-35Bs on the amphibious assault ship America. Then-Navy Secretary Spencer later said the ship could hold up to 20.
But the utility of a smaller carrier that still has a mean bite was recently demonstrated when a COVID-19 outbreak on the carrier Theodore Roosevelt sidelined the flat top in Guam in the middle of its deployment. The Navy directed the America to the South China Sea to provide presence there to dissuade China from taking advantage of the Roosevelt’s misfortune. That was a win for the idea of a smaller carrier. The America cannot replace a Ford-class carrier, but the idea, of course, is to have a more distributed force, which sounds sensible. So, the Navy should not stop building Ford-class carriers, but they should be including smaller carriers.