The arrival of the F-35B, the vertical or short take-off and landing version of the Lighting II, offers completely new perspectives in terms of light aircraft carriers and/or without catapults. Much more capable and versatile than the AV-8 Harrier IIs they replace, the F-35Bs further provide the air group on board these ships with the ability to conduct advanced missions, whether air interdiction or strikes to land or against naval targets, even in the absence of support aircraft such as the EA-18G Growler for electronic warfare or the E-2C/D Hawkeye for aerial surveillance. In fact, an aircraft carrier armed with 18 to 20 Lighting IIs offers, at first glance, operational capabilities without any measure of those available to these same ships armed with Harriers, even if they cannot compete with the global air group and homogeneous of an aircraft carrier equipped with catapults like the American Nimitz or the French Charles de Gaulle. However, he puts forward a strong argument, an acquisition and operating cost that is out of all proportion to these large ships.
If several Western navies have undertaken to design aircraft carriers adapted to this aircraft and its needs, as Great Britain with the Queen Elizabeth II class, or in Japan with the Izumo class, the US Marines Corps had so far planned to use its F-35Bs identically to its Harrier 2s, namely by carrying 8 to 10 aircraft aboard its America-class LHAs, alongside around ten MV-22 and CH-53 heavy helicopters, and Super Cobra combat helicopters, so as to support the maneuver of its troops in amphibious manoeuvres. But as the international situation rapidly evolved, Chinese naval power grew, and it became clear that the US Navy and US Marines Corps would have to cover several potential conflict areas simultaneously, the idea of employing LHAs America class in the form of a light aircraft carrier began to emerge at the Pentagon despite many reservations and objections, especially since the results obtained by the Royal Navy's HMS Queen Elizabeth II and HMS Prince of Wales aircraft carriers, each carrying 18 F-35Bs half supplied by US Marines Corps squadrons, demonstrated the potential for this model.
In fact, at the beginning of April 2022, the USMC will experiment in detail with the concept, by simultaneously boarding 20 F-35Bs aboard the USS Tripoli, the second America-class unit which entered service in February 2020. , to transform this 257-meter and 45.000-ton assault helicopter carrier into a light aircraft carrier, commonly referred to as the "Lightning Carrier" or Porte-Lightning by the Pentagon. The objective of this trial will be to validate the concept and the effectiveness of the ship and its on-board air group, as well as to analyze all the difficulties that the crew, pilots and maintenance personnel will have to face in order to effectively put implement as many aircraft on a ship that was not initially designed for this mission. Thus, for the time being, only two landing spots have been positioned in the middle and at the rear of the ship's deck to accommodate the F-35Bs and the constraints linked to the heat release of its reactor in the vertical landing phase. . In addition, the America's Bridge is relatively narrow, reducing the possibilities of movement of aircraft on board, while there is no elevator on the front part of the building. In fact, the US Marines Corps wants to validate through these tests the real potential of its building thus configured in terms of aviation maneuvers and number of outings per day, to determine its operational relevance but also its limits.
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