Navy Amphib Sails Through South China Sea with a Bunch of F-35s Aboard

The amphibious assault ship Wasp arrived in the Philippines on March 31, 2019, with at least 10 F-35B Joint Strike Fighter jets to participate in Exercise Balikatan. The ship sailed through the South China Sea on the way to the exercise. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Benjamin F. Davella III/Navy)
The amphibious assault ship Wasp arrived in the Philippines on March 31, 2019, with at least 10 F-35B Joint Strike Fighter jets to participate in Exercise Balikatan. The ship sailed through the South China Sea on the way to the exercise. (Benjamin F. Davella III/U.S. Navy)

The Navy and Marine Corps appear to be testing a concept that would turn an amphibious assault ship into a mini-aircraft carrier -- and they did so while sailing through the contentious South China Sea.

The amphibious assault ship Wasp made its way to the Philippines last weekend with at least 10 F-35B Joint Strike Fighter jets aboard. That's nearly twice as many F-35s than typically deploy with amphibs.

Navy photos show that four MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft were also on the Wasp. The National Interest was the first to report on the ship's larger-than-normal F-35 detachment.

"In sailing with nearly twice as many vertical-landing fighters than is normal for an assault ship, Wasp is helping to prove a concept the Marine Corps seriously has been mulling over for years now -- transforming amphibious ships into light aircraft carriers," the magazine reported. "It's an idea that's gaining credibility as the Navy considers cutting the number of large carriers in the fleet."

The ship sailed through the South China Sea on its way to Subic Bay in the Philippines. The Navy has been making regular transits through the waterway, just west of the Philippines, since China began militarizing artificial islands there.

The Marines and sailors will now conduct amphibious operations; live-fire training; and urban, aviation and counterterrorism operations, according to a Navy news release. It's the first time the Wasp with the F-35B Lightning II aircraft will participate in the training exercise, the release states.

"Together, they represent an increase in military capability committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific region," according to the Navy.

The Marine Corps' 2017 aviation plan includes a section on the "Lightning Carrier." While the amphibious assault ship will never replace the aircraft carrier, the plan states, it can be complementary "if employed in imaginative ways."

"A Lightning Carrier, taking full advantage of the amphibious assault ship as a sea base, can provide the naval and joint force with significant access, collection and strike capabilities," according to the aviation plan. "An amphibious assault ship ... equipped with 16-20 F-35Bs with an embarked, organic aerial refueling capability will create opportunities for the naval and joint force commander."

The model could become more common as the Navy looks to retire one of its aircraft carriers, the Harry S. Truman, years before originally planned.

The Wasp's presence in the region comes as Filipino officials protest hundreds of Chinese boats swarming the Philippine-occupied Thitu island in the South China Sea. The island, which is called Pag-asa by Filipinos, is in the Spratlys, the most hotly contested region in the busy waterway, The Associated Press reported.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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