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NavWeek: Pacific Fit

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With the recent commissioning of the amphibious assault ship LHA 6 USS America in its new San Diego home, the U.S. Navy may be getting ready to soon deploy a perfect kind of ship to roam the waters of the Asia-Pacific.

With its heavy concentration of aviation power – built mostly around MV-22 Ospreys and the much-anticipated F-35B Joint Strike Fighters – the ship will provide a longer-range, deeper-strike capability than other amphibs, says Marine Maj. Gen Robert Walsh, director of Navy expeditionary warfare, as well as provide that ubiquitous presence so craved by Navy and Marine strategists.

America’s redesign will make it possible for the ship to perform certain missions and operations for a longer time, a big plus in the expansive Pacific. “It’s such a vast region, Walsh tells Aviation Week. “Aviation gives you so much capability.”

And America is built to keep its aircraft flying. “It has bigger hangars,” Walsh notes. “It has a larger aviation storage weapons area than we have now. We have much more storage on LHA 6 than we did on previous on big-deck amphibs.”

That extra room opens up bigger doors, especially with the MV-22s and the F-35Bs, he says.

“We start talking about the ranges we can operate with the MV-22s,” he says. “The Ospreys fit perfectly for those types of missions when you can launch with a range much farther and earlier-on because of the distances they can go. The ships can get you into a region and the Ospreys can launch from much father out.”

And the benefits continue close to the coast, too.

“When you get closer, the Ospreys can range much farther inland,” Walsh says. “Having those Ospreys will increase the aviation capabilities. The tiltrotor capability is something you want in the Pacific because it’s such a vast AOR [area of responsibility]. Then when we start putting F-35s on the America -- with double the fuel capacity -- you’ll be able to generate much more sorties in a set time period.”

It will be a brutal one-two punch for foes, he says, “when you start talking about both fixed-wing and tiltrotor aircraft.”

He adds, “The ship is tailored toward more aviation -– more maintenance, storage and weapons capacity. It’s going to keep you up tempo -– it ups the offensive punch we should have. Other big-decks have it, but not at the level the America will have with its more aviation-centric focus.”

Some of the operational concepts, Walsh says, will hearken back to the Marine glory days in the Pacific during World War II.  “It’s interesting to look back in history and compare this to the CVs [carriers] of World War II and CVEs or the escort carriers we had. We did a lot of great things during World War II with operations independently of the carrier strike group, but also in conjunction with those carriers. And those escort carriers were tasked in many cases to support Marine amphibious landings throughout the Central Pacific. Which is kind of what the America is tied to today -– the Marines are going to be aboard, they will be part of the Marine Expeditionary Units, part of amphibious task forces.”

That kind of power, scope and flexibility, he says, sends a message. “It’s a signal we’re putting our best forward because of the President’s and CNO’s [Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert] attempts to rebalance to put more of our ships and best capacity [into the Pacific]. It’s a signal, that we’re putting this out there first.”

Again, what make this ship even more special is the aviation potential going on it. “It’s a conscious decision to put America out there to San Diego and the forward deploy into the Pacific along with F-35s and Ospreys,” Walsh says. “We’re putting our F-35s there in Japan first.”

Marines, F-35s, Ospreys and an amphibious ship like the America certainly will put U.S. foes and friends alike on notice about American intentions in the region.

Anyone who doubts the seriousness and resolve of the U.S. shift back to the Pacific should consider the words of Leon Panetta, former defense secretary when the Obama administration made the move. In his recent book, “Worthy Fights,” Panetta writes, “By far the most important strategic decision we made was to rebalance the focus of our military toward the Asia-Pacific region.”

Deploying big gray hulls like the America to the region underscores that importance.

“You have to have these platforms to deter potential conflicts, to reassure allies and to do all the things that presence requires," Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in late September during a speech at the University of Pennsylvania.

Later in the month, he told defense writers during a breakfast roundtable: “Those great gray hulls will be on the horizon we will be virtually everywhere in the Pacific.”

In this case, being there is vitally important.

“Our allies and partners want to see a ship on the horizon,” says Brian Schires, vice president of Rolls-Royce North America and chairman of the Amphibious Warship Industrial Base Coalition. “Now, that’s presence! They want to see an aircraft carrier with escorts or an LHA with its escorts.  Presence means presence.  Virtual presence is no presence.  We have to be there, in theater, and on station.”

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