The Joint Strike Fighter, operating off the Navy’s carriers and large deck amphibious ships in the near future, has the potential to be used to support a critical mission set that it wasn’t originally intended to support – sea control.
“The expeditionary surface fleet is increasing its combat capability exponentially with the integration of the F-35 into its already formidable arsenal,” said Rowden.
The Surface Forces’ primary mission for this aircraft is to support amphibious operations – put Marines ashore and support the Marine Air-Ground Task Force. That said, we’ll focus on the aircraft’s future contributions to sea control.
“Given the capabilities in the fifth-generation fighters like the Joint Strike Fighter coming to the flight decks of our big-deck amphibs and given the capabilities in those fifth-generation fighters, I think we need to think differently about how we’re going to utilize our amphibious ships in the sea control fight as well,” Rowden told The National Interest in October.
First, it’s important to understand what the aircraft can contribute to surface force operations, whether flying from the flight deck of an aircraft carrier or amphibious ship or from a shore-based airfield. Integration of the F-35 into the surface Navy has already begun, and it will dramatically alter how aircraft and ships pass data to each other to more effectively detect, track, and engage both airborne and ship threats over the horizon.
In September at the White Sands Missile Range, a simulated Aegis ship engaged a low-flying cruise missile target with a Standard Missile 6 (SM-6), based solely on targeting data provided to the test ship by the sophisticated sensors of a Marine Corps F-35B. Consequently, Aegis Baseline 9 ships equipped with SM-6 missiles like the one used in this test will be able to accept fire control data from any variant of the F-35, extending the operational benefits to the entire joint force. This will allow for long range surface-to-air engagements when part of a traditional carrier strike group, as part of an up-gunned expeditionary strike group, as part of a surface action group (SAG), or even as part of a joint integrated fire control engagement with U.S. Air Force F-35As.
This test was possible because of the F-35’s broad range of advanced sensors and data processing capability combined with the Navy Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) concept being integrated in Aegis radar-equipped surface warships. NIFC-CA is a cooperative network that permits various naval platforms access to sensors and targeting data to detect, track and engage airborne threats beyond the horizon. And soon, with new enhanced missiles, these ships will also be able to engage surface threats over the horizon.
“We are going to create a brand new capability,” said Secretary of Defense Ash Carter when describing the Navy’s success in altering the SM-6 missile for use as a high-speed ship killer. “We’re modifying the SM-6 so that, in addition to missile defense, it can also target enemy ships at sea at very long ranges.”
The next avenue where the amphibious fleet has potential to further contribute to sea control is operationalizing the concept of an “up-gunned” expeditionary strike group (ESG) – a concept being promoted by Adm. Scott Swift, commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet.
An up-gunned ESG is a compilation of a ship multiship amphibious ready group (ARG) and, depending on the mission, a varied combination of two to three destroyers or a cruiser and destroyers. The concept was rolled out by Swift during an April all-hands call held on USS Momsen (DDG 92), part of the Pacific Surface Action Group (PACSAG), which was in Hawaii for a port visit.
“I’m excited about the potential options you will explore as part of this three-ship SAG,” Swift told Sailors.
Momsen, along with destroyers USS Decatur (DDG 73) and USS Spruance (DDG 111), put the first part of the concept into practice when they deployed as a SAG to the 7th Fleet area of operations shortly after the port visit.
“What is really unique here with the PACSAG is that instead of sending independent deployers out . . . you’re deployed together,” Swift said. “It’s part of the effort you’ve been reading about called Distributed Lethality, meaning the combined lethality of a three-ship SAG is much greater than an individual DDG [destroyer] – even as impressive as an individual DDG is.”
The next phase of the concept is combining an ARG, embarked with F-35B aircraft, and a SAG together to fully empower an up-gunned ESG. The strengthened ESG will provide increased defensive capabilities and protection of the ESG while enabling incredible power projection ashore. The integrated F-35 can provide critical data back to the ESG for additional fire power ashore in support of the ground force when needed, as well as information to aid in the defense of ships at sea – vital nodes to Marines ashore.
“I think this is going to revolutionize where we are with expeditionary strike groups,” said Swift.
During the PACSAG deployment, two of the three ships had an opportunity to further Swift’s concept by conducting live exercises with the USS Bonhomme Richard (BHR) ESG in October. The BHR ESG employed the capabilities of Spruance and Decatur to practice in-depth defense of the amphibious ships, including anti-submarine warfare and air defense scenarios, and live-fire events with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit’s embarked helicopters.
"… [T]his type of training with the BHR ESG will pave the way for the inaugural deployment of an ESG embarked with joint strike fighters and escorted by a SAG like this one, said Swift.
"Being able to concentrate and disperse all of that capability based on the situation will provide commanders with tremendous operational flexibility."
Within the next 24 months, the F-35B will make its first operational deployment with the first expeditionary SAG comprising a big-deck amphibious and a couple of “shooters” – cruisers or destroyers, according to the Pacific commander.
Finally, the amphibious force could increase its offensive and defensive capabilities – power projection and sea control – through the potential to put missiles on amphibious warships. The Navy and the Marine Corps are considering retrofitting the vertical launch systems (VLS) in its San Antonio class of amphibious assault ships. VLS would allow these ships to field larger offensive missiles. Once outfitted, these amphibious ships, operating with a standard ARG or up-gunned ESG, could exponentially increase their lethality.
“The surface force is going on the offensive,” Rowden said. “We are looking at every ship as a potential offensive weapons platform. We are operating them in new and novel ways, and we are putting potential adversaries on the defensive while making them work harder to find and target us,” he continued. “With these new capabilities and new employment options, the naval forces together can bring to bear the fullest extent of our combined combat power against an adversary.”
A key component to that strategy is amphibious warships standing on the edge of exponentially adding new dimensions to the Navy’s arsenal and its ability to project power ashore, control the sea, and provide conventional deterrence via new advanced aircraft, new and enhanced missiles, and new weapons systems.
With all the upcoming initiatives that will increase its offensive capability, it’s an opportune time to be in the Navy’s amphibious community and the surface force.