The US Navy is talking about turning its large amphibs into 'Lightning Carriers' as its carrier fleet struggles to keep up

The US Navy is talking about turning its large amphibs into 'Lightning Carriers' as its carrier fleet struggles to keep up

Amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) steams forward in the eastern Pacific Ocean. The U.S Navy and Marine Corps continue to combine efforts to refine and strengthen the fundamental amphibious capabilities and reinforce the Navy and Marine Corps team. America is at sea conducting routine operations.

  • Twice in the past week, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer has pointed to the 'Lightning Carrier' as an option to augment the carrier fleet.
  • The Navy is currently unable to fully meet the demand for aircraft carriers, Spencer said Wednesday at the Heritage Foundation, so one possibility that the Navy is looking into is loading up the large amphibious assault ships with F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters.
  • "I think it's a great way to start thinking with new muscle movements," the Navy secretary said, adding that while the light carriers lack the power of an aircraft carrier, they offer effective combat capability, as well as presence and forward deployability.

The US Navy can't meet the current demand for aircraft carriers around the world, so the service is looking at possibly loading large amphibious assault ships up with F-35 stealth fighters to create light-yet-capable carriers able to augment the fleet, the Navy secretary said Wednesday.

"I have a demand for carriers right now that I can't fulfill. The combatant commanders want carriers," Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer said at the Heritage Foundation.

Half, if not more than half, of the Navy's 11 carrier fleet is currently in a non-deployable state, Business Insider recently learned during a congressional hearing. Spencer revealed Wednesday that he believes it may take up to five years to get carrier maintenance back on track.

"My job," the Navy secretary added, "is to see how I can fulfill that requirement the best I can."


One option, he said, is the "Lightning Carrier" concept, an idea the secretary has mentioned twice in the last week to augment the carrier fleet.

The idea, which is reminiscent of the Harrier Carriers (Wasp-class amphibious assault ships carrying AV-8B Harrier jump-jets), involves stripping out the assault force component and loading up the new America-class amphibs with up to 22 F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters, short-takeoff/vertical-landing variants developed for the Marine Corps.

Possible Lightning Carrier configuration

The first Lightning Carrier test was conducted aboard the USS America in 2014 with 12 F-35Bs. Earlier this month, the Navy and the Marine Corps flew sorties off the America with 13 of these new fighters.

The Lightning Carrier concept has never been tested at full capacity.


"Does it have the same strike as a carrier? No, it doesn't," Spencer said Wednesday.

But, "part of the mission of the carrier is presence and forward deployability," the secretary added, explaining that around two dozen fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighters aboard a large amphib is "a great option" to augment the Navy's fleet of available flattops and meet the requirements of the combatant commanders.

The Lightning Carrier is not an institutionalized program of record. It is an experiment, Spencer told reporters. "We will experiment with it. What we are trying to do is get the commanders out there ... to think, explore."

"I think it's a great way to start thinking with new muscle movements," he added.

It's unclear when or even if the Navy will actually field this kind of capability. The secretary said that it might be possible to "see one set sail in the near future," adding that he would "love to see it sooner rather than later."