Q&A On USS America

Unique amphibious ship is first modern big-deck to go all aviation

(SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE 21 MAR 14) … Jeanette Steele

The newest amphibious assault ship in the U.S. fleet is the America, the fourth Navy vessel to be named for the nation.

Its design is unlike all the other modern flat-top ships built to carry Marines. It has no “well deck” – a floodable space at the rear of the ship used to launch Marine Corps landing crafts.

As a result, the America has room for up to 34 aircraft instead of the usual 31, including three extra Joint Strike Fighter jets.

Still in the shipyard, the vessel will be assigned to San Diego and is expected to arrive in September.

Its skipper, Capt. Robert Hall, recently sat down with U-T San Diego to discuss this first-of-its-kind ship. Here is an edited version of that conversation:

Q: Why did the Navy build a big-deck amphibious ship that is focused solely on aircraft?

A: The idea came up many years ago with the advent of the newer aviation platforms that the Marines are bringing on, specifically the MV-22 Osprey and the Joint Strike Fighter. … They’ve got a much larger footprint. The amphibious assault ships today are equipped to handle them, but not as far as sustaining the maintenance they require. It requires more hangar space, more maintenance capacity, and that’s really what our ship was built to do.

Q: Is that because the Joint Strike Fighter and the Osprey, which lands like a helicopter and flies like a plane, are just larger?

A: Right, and both very complicated platforms also. The maintenance requirement to keep them operational is larger, and so we have a much greater capacity to do that. We also carry (twice as much) jet fuel on board. We have a lot more room for ordnance to sustain aviation operations once we get to sea.

Q: So you have no landing crafts to launch, no amphibious vehicles that have traditionally delivered Marines from ship to beach. What goes in their space?

A: We have 40 percent greater hangar capacity, with two high bay areas to do maintenance, with a large crane so you can do big, heavy lifting. The aircraft themselves require a lot equipment, tools, spare parts that come with them. All that space is turned into shop space. We also have greater storage capacity. Magazines for ammunition are larger.

Q: I’m surprised there’s room for only two or three extra aircraft. It doesn’t sound like a lot.

A: You are looking really at the sustainability of the operations. Once we get out operating, we can sustain the operations because we can do the maintenance. As aircraft evolve and get more complex, it takes a lot more work and effort to keep them up and operating. Our ability to stay on station should be a lot greater.

Q: Let’s take a real-world scenario. Say the Marines need to go ashore and rescue people from an embassy. How would that work from the America, if there are no amphibious vehicles?

A: The MV-22s obviously carry a lot of personnel, and the CH-53 (troop-carrying helicopters) can. And when we go out, we sail with an amphibious ready group that will have two other ships that will be able to carry the (air-cushioned landing craft) or the LCUs (landing craft with heritage back to World War II) to bring personnel back that way.

It’ll be a different kind of (amphibious ready group.) And the Marines are working through what their concept of operations is going to be. They’ll take a different (vehicle) load … It’ll be a different capability. Much stronger in some areas, not as strong in other areas.

Q: What’s the strength of this new arrangement?

A: Certainly, we can do every mission out there – forward presence, power projection, deterrence. We’ve got a ship with 1,700 Marines with this great capability these new aircraft are going to bring. We can get a whole bunch of Marines behind enemy lines in a hurry. We can evacuate people in a hurry. We can sustain operations out there on station.

Q: What’s the weakness?

A: I don’t think there is a weakness. You know, we can’t bring a tank ashore. But if we are in an (amphibious ready group), that’s what these other ships can do.

Q: How are the ship’s sailors affected by the new paradigm?

A: We have more sailors onboard dedicated to the aviation mission. We have more aviation maintenance folks and flight-deck personnel.

Q: When America is on the horizon, will we see any visual differences from the current big-deck amphibious ships assigned to San Diego – the Makin Island, Boxer, Essex and Peleliu?

A: If you are looking at it from the stern, we don’t have the big gate in the stern. It’s just all steel all the way up. That’s the only perceptible difference. We’re a little bit heavier because we filled in that (well deck) gap with machinery.

Q: Ships usually have memorabilia on board that celebrates the vessel’s namesake. What do you have, or plan to have, for the America?

A: We have some things from the previous (aircraft carrier) America onboard. As far as for the country, we’re designing things. We have some great American slogans we’re going to put throughout the ship. Military slogans from past eras: “I have not yet begun to fight.” On the mess (cafeteria) deck, we plan on calling it the Heroes Café. We’ll have a lot of Medal of Honor pictures, with the citations of what they did for our country.

(The ship’s motto is) “Bello Vel Pace Paratus,” which means “Prepared in War and Peace.” It really fits perfectly. We have a lot of capability to serve in wartime, definitely, but in peacetime also with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Q: Since it’s a post-9/11 ship, are you planning any tributes to those killed in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks?

A: We’re still designing everything. One of the things we are planning is to have a big timeline of American history.

Q: As a ship named for the entire nation, you have a big potential fan base. What kind of feedback are you getting from the public?

A: On our Facebook page, people are very excited to have a ship named America. It’s an honor, it’s also a big responsibility. Where you sail, when you sail, you sail as America. The crew understands that, and they are looking forward to that.

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