Budgetary Gamble of the America Class Warship

Amphibious assault ships have yet to prove themselves but could be an asset in the Asia pivot.

This week, the United States launched the first of a new breed of assault ship, the America class, from drydock at the Ingalls shipbuilding facility near Pascagoula, Mississippi. The ship is designed primarily to support the Marine Corps and could represent the start of a significant redistribution of power projection focus within America’s armed forces in the near to medium term.

The United States are forging ambitiously ahead with plans to develop their amphibious assets. The launch of the mammoth USS America follows last week’s announcement of a $2.4 billion contract between the government and Ingalls for the construction of the USS Tripoli, the second ship in the America class.

As amphibious assets, the two 45,000 ton ships will provide air support, command coordination and shallow water backing for Marine operations abroad.

These vessels differ from previous amphibious assault ships in one critical way — they are geared toward aviation.

With no amphibious well deck, larger hangar bays and aircraft elevators and an expanded flat top for storing and launching short takeoff aircraft, the America and the Tripoli will focus more on air support than any of the country’s existing Marine vessels.

In fact, not only will the America class carry a complement of Joint Strike Fighters alongside V-22 Ospreys and other helicopter forces; the ships will be capable of offloading equipment for amphibious missions in favor of a full compliment of up to 22 F-35Bs, giving the US Navy capabilities similar to aircraft carriers in some of its smaller ships.

This kind of powerful air projection capability really demonstrates the way in which America will likely be capable of delegating major missions to noncarrier force assets in the future, much like it did in a limited fashion with the USS Kearsage during the Libyan conflict in 2011.

Yet many have called these investments a budgetary gamble and say that ordering such vessels, given some of the delays suffered by the Joint Strike Fighter program to date, could mean wasted money and a period of restricted amphibious abilities for the United States Navy. After all, a time mismatch between the arrival of new landing helicopter assault ships and their F-35B air wings, alongside the planned decommissioning of older amphibious ship and Harrier fighter units, could constrain the capabilities of the Marine Corps to both deploy significant assets abroad and support broader American military operations in the context of the “pivot” to Asia that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta says will see 60 percent of all American ships in the Pacific by 2020.

However, if technological development and production timetables can be effectively managed and coordinated in the next few years, it is likely that amphibious assault ships like the America will give the United States an operational flexibility that is both strategically important and financially sound.

In terms of grand strategy, the pivot toward Asia and concern about the rise of China as a military power in the Western Pacific focuses in large part on the security of allied countries, the defense of whom requires the continued deployment of numerous air and sea assets.

Aviation centric ships like the USS America and USS Tripoli will both add to America’s ability to project power and diversify the force structure that is to be arrayed against China’s increasing focus on area denial and anti-access military strategies. The ships will also counter those nascent Chinese amphibious capabilities that have recently received much media attention.

Moreover, the United States will be able to respond to small crises without deploying more expensive assets or having to cope with the geopolitical gravity that accompanies the deployment of a supercarrier.

Finally, a focus on constructing and utilizing advanced aviation centric amphibious assets alongside existing forces might give the United States some budgetary wiggle room in the future when it comes to building, deploying and equipping new supercarriers.

With a price tag of slightly less than $2.4 billion, the America class is a far cry short of the roughly $13 billion cost of building the new Gerald R. Ford nuclear powered aircraft carrier.

Though operation of diesel electric ships like the America and the Tripoli becomes more expensive in the long run, increasingly advanced aviation capabilities and a significant difference in production costs could give policymakers the leeway needed to reduce defense expenditure in years to come while maintaining an edge in considerations of strategic capabilities.

It is likely that the debate over the budgetary sense and strategic importance of America’s new aviation focused amphibious forces, when considered alongside the Asia pivot and more traditional military assets, will be rehashed again and again in the future as the economy changes and new policymakers arrive in Washington.

Ultimately, if the government can effectively coordinate the construction of these new fleet units, the United States could find themselves with significantly more global flexing power, able to both practice fiscal responsibility and respond effectively to a wide variety of situations in geopolitical affairs.