The arrival of the F-35B Lightning-II into the inventory of many NATO nations is likely to fundamentally alter the methods by which NATO conducts air support to amphibious operations. In the past, the amphibious force has not had an asset capable of performing roles such as counter-air, anti-shipping, and traditional Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (ISR), perhaps at all, much less all in one airplane. Amphibious task force commanders and their respective staffs will have to adapt to new capabilities brought by the F-35B and learn other aspects of air warfare at sea. The converse is true as well. Former harrier pilots now flying the F-35 will have to learn overwater Navy operations procedures and roles, again something new to these pilots and the embarked marine staffs, as they have not previously had an airframe with the requisite capabilities to conduct those functions. The JAPCC Journal 22 explored tactical air control in the amphibious environment (May 2015 ‘Air C2 in an Amphibious Environment’). This article will further explain air support to amphibious operations and discuss specific changes the Maritime component must undergo to fully exploit the F-35B’s capabilities in an amphibious operation. The arrival of the F-35 will force a sea change and will require a deliberate effort to break the generational and service mind-set if the future amphibious force is to operate and maintain with a more integrated perspective, fully exploiting the new capabilities.
NATO’s Aircraft Carriers
The next few years will see a dramatic increase in the capacity and capability of amphibious forces. The trend begins with the availability of highly capable F-35s on board many NATO amphibious assault ships. Although the USA has also planned to procure the F-35C for use aboard her nuclear-powered aircraft carriers (CVNs), this article is focused primarily on the F-35Bs employment in the amphibious environment surrounding NATO’s smaller Short Take-Off Vertical Landing (STOVL) aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships. Of the NATO F-35 partner countries, the F-35B variant is being planned for use aboard the Amphibious Assault Ships of GBR, ITA, and the USA.1 Although the numbers are always subject to change throughout the acquisition process, projections indicate that the UK is planning to acquire 138 aircraft split between land and sea-based. Italy is projecting 15 each for land and sea basing, and the US Marine Corps is planning on up to 340. Spreading these aircraft across the Wasp and America class (US), Cavour and Geribaldi (ITA) and the 2 Queen Elizabeth class carriers (UK) will dramatically increase the range of options for the use of air power available to the Maritime Component commander over the 6–10 harriers which were previously based on each of these amphibious assault ships. Additionally, GBR is in discussion with USA regarding the potential of deploying a US Marine Squadron aboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth within the next few years2, as the UK’s F-35 will not be available prior to the completion of sea trials of this new aircraft carrier class.
Furthermore, the US will deploy both LHA 6 (USS America, commissioned in 2014) and LHA 7 (USS Tripoli, projected commissioning in 2018) in the near future. These ships are unique from the others in the WASP class as they are designed without a well-deck for surface craft operations, providing a larger hanger deck with overhead cranes for aircraft maintenance and more aviation fuel bunkering. Although this model provides less overall flexibility to the amphibious force than the other Amphibious Assault Ships (who are capable of simultaneous flight deck and well deck operations), inclusion of this variant will bring a significantly enhanced aviation capability to the maritime commander. Some envision these ships operating as the striking arm of the Task Force (similar to the ‘harrier carrier’ model used in Operation Desert Storm) while the remainder of the ships and their embarked aircraft would fulfil the traditional roles of supporting Landing Force movement.
Taking into account the increase in aircraft capacity from the QEC Class (GBR) over the Ocean and Illustrious class carriers, and including the addition of the aviation-oriented LHAs (USA) in the future, NATO may have as many as 30–40 more sea-based fighters in a future Amphibious Task Force. This increase in numbers of sea-based strike aircraft available to NATO in the coming years, coupled with the increase in overall mission capability brought by the F-35B over its predecessor means the Commander of the Amphibious Task Force (CATF) will have more aviation capability at his/her disposal than ever before. This will require a detailed review of doctrine and operational employment concepts to fully embrace the capabilities of this next generation aircraft.
Command and Control During Amphibious Operations
Changes brought by these new capabilities even include potential adjustments to the unique relationship of the command structure currently in use for NATO’s amphibious operations (as described in ATP-08). It describes a condition comprised of two separate but equal commanders who operate in a mutually supporting role, with one having priority over the other based upon the phase of the amphibious operation. The CATF is the supported commander in the early phases of any operation from arrival into the theatre through the deployment of the Landing Force and is charged with protecting the Amphibious Task Force to ensure safe delivery of the Landing Force to the objective area. The CATF will have to work together with the Commander of the Landing Force (CLF) in a new way, and the embarked pilots will have to learn the roles of each of the air functions described below.
The Role of Air in Amphibious Operations
The Landing Force traditionally contains an air component, comprised of predominantly lift aircraft and strike helicopters for Close Air Support (CAS). It also contains a small element of fixed wing strike aircraft. For many NATO nations this has previously been addressed using variants of the AV-8B Harrier. Regardless of whether the nation chose to retain its Harrier fleet under their Air Component or Maritime Component, the functions the aircraft performed were tailored to its capabilities: CAS and limited strike. The Harrier retained a very limited anti-shipping capability, largely because it lacked a datalink between aircraft and the ship, and tactics for employment in this role were still under development as the airframe approached end of service. Many nations did not retain an air-to-air capability in their Harrier fleet, and Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (ISR) support was limited to non-traditional ISR roles stemming solely from the ability to steer the laser targeting pod to capture imagery for intelligence assessment post-mission. The capabilities of the F-35 will not only eclipse this entire list, but a single F-35 will be able to conduct a large array of functions related to core air power roles and types of air operations identified in AJP 3.3.
As the Harrier previously provided an extremely limited capability against surface or air threats, adversary shipping or aircraft, there previously existed limited air support from the Marine component to the Navy component of the Task force, even during the arrival/ staging and beach landing phases.
Maritime doctrine says tactical control of overwater missions not specifically supporting logistics movement of the Landing Force is further delineated to the Composite Warfare Commander (CWC) and his subordinates, the Air and Missile Defence Commander (AMDC) and the Anti-Surface Warfare Commander (ASUWC). These roles have always existed but embarked harriers have rarely contributed to this function due to limited capability.
Defensive Counter Air (DCA)
The AV-8B’s strengths lie in providing CAS to the Landing Force. Although some nations have equipped the Harrier with an air-to-air capability toward the end of its service life, protecting the Naval Task Force against inbound hostile aircraft was never intended as a principle role. As a multi-role fighter, the F-35B will be equipped with the latest air-to-air missiles, including the AIM 9X Sidewinder, AIM 120C AMRAAM and AIM 132 ASRAAM.3 Some dispute whether the F-35 is truly suited for this role; however, ‘the advanced helmet with 360-degree targeting capabilities and AIM-9X with its extreme off-boresight engagement parameters should ensure that a turning dogfight is an irrelevance’.4 Any F-35B used for DCA would be under tactical control of the AMDC in the same C2 model used by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier strike groups to control DCA aircraft. Although the harrier ‘could’ have been used in a last ditch intercept role, the capability to launch organic air defence stations will be a new concept for the amphibious task force and the mechanics, concept of operations, and procedures must be ratified and adopted by the components of the amphibious task force.
Air Power Contributions to Maritime Operations (APCMO)
APCMO is the AJP 3.3’s most recent variation of a term that describes the missions flown in support of the maritime component. Nominally, the maritime component sources organic (embarked) air missions to conduct defence of the force. However, unless an aircraft carrier (USA or FRA) is part of the Task Force, the capability of the embarked aircraft on amphibious assault ships are normally limited to executing small niches of the full spectrum of air power. Therefore, enabling functions must be requested from the Joint Force Air Component Command (JFACC) to support the Joint Force Maritime Component Command (JFMCC) and the naval force. This is also the case for Anti-Surface Warfare (finding and destroying adversary ships before they sink friendly ships) missions. In a typical amphibious operation, Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) and armed helicopters may be sourced to fill the anti-shipping mission, but there are often times when an enemy ship must be struck from the air and there is no MPA or properly equipped helicopter available. In this case in the past, Joint Air assets were requested to fill the support requirement. However, this is another area where the F-35B will likely be employed to fulfil the need organically where its predecessor could not.
Not only do the weapons carried by the F-35 facilitate its use in an Anti-shipping role, the sensors and information exchange capability will be a generational leap forward felt across the entire naval force. The F-35 will provide an organic ISR capability to the CATF staff which previously did not exist. Additionally, the Lightning II’s missile launch detection sensors will tremendously augment the naval AMDC’s capability to defend the force. Previously, the AMDC had to wait until a maritime sensor, usually a ship-mounted radar, detected an inbound aircraft or missile prior to determining the best weapon system to employ for defence. Furthermore, integration of the F-35 and the Aegis weapons system has been discussed and concepts for operation are in development.
Finally, as a Joint Enabler, the F-35 may reduce maritime components’ capability shortage for defence of the force, and potentially reduce JFACC support requests. Furthermore, integrating the F-35 from the Maritime Component into JFACC strike packages offers an additional level of synergy between the services not normally achieved without the presence of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and her 75 embarked strike aircraft. This will alter the relationship between the JFMCC and JFACC early in any campaign and synergy of effort should be sought out and exploited in this phase of the campaign.
Therefore, it is very probable the F-35 may find itself serving in overwater missions while the Amphibious Task Force arrives into the operations area and begins the process of debarking the Landing Force. This will require a level of education and training for both the CATF Staff and the ex-Harrier pilots in the cockpit of the F-35, both of whom are not used to using embarked organic aircraft in this role. The CATF staff will have to become much more educated in the overwater AMDC responsibilities than has traditionally been the case. The F-35 pilots, used to overland operations and Joint Terminal Attack Control (JTAC) procedures, will have to learn the maritime overwater command and control procedures, including the CWC structure and governing maritime tasking orders). This is a significant departure from the overwater control procedures employed for logistics movement and CAS at the beach roles they have previously embraced.
The impending arrival of sea-based F-35s offers an opportunity to rethink current approaches for maritime air employment in amphibious operations. Previously, the AV-8B Harrier has not typically been part of any overwater C2 process as it was unable to effectively fulfil any of those roles until the landing operation commenced. The CWC structure in use by the maritime force, and the subsequent supporting elements and control networks/procedures of the AMDC and ASUWC, are traditionally a foreign concept to the pilots embarked on amphibious assault ships, as those missions have not been part of the portfolio of the previous generation of assault support aircraft.
NATO planners should establish a concept for F-35B integration into future amphibious operations by reviewing and questioning the old assumptions that drove the creation of today’s doctrine. There are currently two appropriate forums to address this upcoming challenge: the Maritime Air Coordination Conference (co-chaired by JAPCC and Commander Maritime Air NATO) or the Amphibious Operations Working Group, both with significant support from and integration with Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO (STRKFORNATO). STRKFORNATO is the NATO entity which oversees operational employment of the unique capability provided by a US aircraft carrier or Expeditionary Strike Group and can serve as either JFC HQ or CFMCC. As the US is likely to begin F-35 deployments to the Pacific on WASP Class STOVL carriers in 20176 with NATO and Middle East deployments likely to shortly follow, addressing this issue is growing in importance as the F-35 programme comes online.