The Navy's newest amphibious assault ship, America, has some of the fleet'sservice's most advanced command and control capabilities and electronic warfare technology, but one low-tech asset has won -over sailors and Marines who have beengone underway on the America: Sspace

Compared to with earlier big-deck amphibs, the America has more room throughout its aviation spaces. This allows the ship to generate sorties farther away from the shore, maintainers to turn wrenches longer and can fix aircraft faster than before, maintainers can spend more time turning wrenches, the hangars to accommodate larger can fit larger aircraft, and the ship to stay at sea longer before it has to resupply.

But it comes at a cost.

Unlike most of its predecessors, the America was built without a well deck and the capability to carry Marines and their heavy equipment ashore via surface craft. The Navy and Corps have deployed amphibious ships without well decks before, but the last, the Iwo Jima-class amphibious assault ship Inchon, was decommissioned in 2002. Unlike the America, the Iwo Jima-class ships were designed to carry helicopters instead of an air combat element comprised of jump jets, tilt-rotors and rotary wing aircraft.

Marines on the America said the lack of a well-deck means that there isn't a way to get ashore when flight operations aren't possible, and aircraft weight limits limit their ability to reduces the ability to move the heaviest pieces of gear via aircraft.

There is space for small ground vehicles, but they have to be offloaded pierside or carried by a sling from an aircraft, said Lt. Col. George Hasseltine, commander of Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force South.

"In that situation with the America, you would be in a challenge," he said.

But despite this limitation, Marines said the lack of a well deck isn't too big of a deal because the America will deploy as one of severalmany ships in an amphibious squadron that includes vessels that can deploy surface connectors.

"I think, to be frank, you have to combine it with other assets to give it a full capability," Hasseltine said.

It could require that Marine expeditionary units deploy deploying MEU's with two instead of one San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ships to make a fully -capable amphibious ready place of a dock landing ship? or 4 ships? since they can't provide enough amphibs now, isn't this a nonstarter?//km Combined with the Corps' two maritime prepositioning squadrons, combatant commanders will have a large task force with the ability to do operations with extended range, he said.

An asset to the fleet

Despite the trade-offs, And the ship's aviation-centric design make it a major asset to the fleet, Marines said.

"One of the big surprises to me were some of the big capabilities compared to the LHDs," said Maj. Patrick "Bert" Butler, air operations officer.

The facilities on the ship are better, and there are more of them. "There's more space in general to spread out in," he said.

Chief Warrant Officer 4 Shane Duhe, the ship's cargo combat officer, said there are 19 more maintenance spaces, and Master Sgt. Jesse Ramirez, the senior combat cargo assistant, said those spaces are 20 to 30 percent larger than what Marines work in aboardin other ships.

The maintenance spaces are better designed. Previously, tools were used to be kept in a tool room separate from where maintainers worked on aircraft, requiring them to leave their workshop to get the equipment they needed. Now, they're kept on-hand on a shelf nearby, Ramirez said.

"It increases the turnover for maintenance," he said. "The Marines can work faster, longer, quicker. That was a surprise I found."

The flight deck itself is not larger than those found on other amphibs, but the different configuration means the ship can support more flight operations.

Without a well deck, the ship's hangar bay is 40 percent larger than similar amphibs. That means more space for aircraft storage and more room to maneuver them below the deck.

The larger hangar can handle bigger aircraft like the MV-22 Osprey and the F-35B Lightning II, a short-takeoff, vertical-landing variant of the Joint Strike Fighter. By being able to embark these aircraft, the America can reach targets that were out of range for older aircraft on older ships, officials said.

Previously, transport missions began when the ship was 10 to 15 miles from to the shore, and the ship had to loiter in the area in order to pick up Marines and up to bring them back. But on the America, aircraft can they're able to take off 250 miles awayfrom shore, and the ship can and change positions before retrieving the Marines, Hasseltine said.

All this allows the America to put Marines and the gear further inland, while remaining out of range of many land-based enemies.This puts the ship out of range of many land-based enemies, and it can also put Marines and their gear deeper into land.

The capability was tested when the America cruised past Brazil during its transit from the shipyard in Mississippi to its homeport in San Diego. Marines needed to go ashore to train at a Brazilian military base, but and instead of disembarking at them from a pier and driving them on undeveloped roads to the base, they flew them from the ship directly to their destination —. This was a simpler and faster option, Hasseltine said.

"You can easily extrapolate that and see how it would work in a combat environment," he said.

Two aircraft elevators — instead of the one found on other amphibious assault similar ships — will allow flight-deck personnel to swap out aircraft more quickly. And two cranes inside the hanger will allow for major maintenance work on two aircraft at a time.

"I think that will translate into a greater sortie accomplishment rate," said Capt. Michael Baze, the ship's executive officer in an interview hereon the ship Jan. 14.

The ship is also has fuel tanks that are far bigger than other amphibs, which means it can carry more jet fuel and mount more flight operations in between resupplies, Baze said.,

The ship can carry a total of 30 or 31 aircraft, which will probably include five or six F-35Bs Joint Strike Fighters, up to 12 MV-22 Osprey tiltrotors Ospreys and a mix of Marine attack and logistics helicopters, Baze said.

The ship is not quite ready for the F-35Bs because the heat blast from the aircraft's engines during the vertical landing can warp or damage the flight deck. In June, the ship will go into the shipyard for some additional work, which will include reinforcing the deck to handle heat from the Lightning II'sF-35s.

That shipyard stay, known as a "post-shakedown availability," will last until February 2016.

The ship's spaciousness produces many other benefits. For example, it There is also enough room to allows for a marksmanship simulator and classroom space for as many as 200 Marines.

"That's a huge capability, to keep Marines busy and keep them active with their weapons," Butler said.

Changing tactics, and requirements

The Corps' tactics missions are changing as well, Duhe said. Planners expect over-the-horizon operations with small detachments of Marines to become more common, so aircraft with long range will become more important. The distance between the ship and the target makes it impossible for amphibious assault surface craft to fulfill these missions, but these missions won't require off-loading heavy equipment, he said.

The Navy is planning on building one more ship without a well deck, - the other is the Tripoli, which is under construction. One will go on each coast.

Marines said they're still figuring out how to best to use the America, determining the best mix of aircraft to embark, and learning how to take advantage of use the ship's unique features to keep the ACE in a peak combat readiness state.

"You can scale this ship," Duhe said. "There are concepts and ideas there to scale it up to all strike aircraft, all fixed wing."

They are also determining the best way to maintain the aircraft in their new environment, and are evaluating what equipment to bring to sea, he said.

While the ship is different, the essential work remains unchanged, Duhe said.

"The mission of the ship is going to continue to remain the same as other amphibious assault ships across the fleet. It will land amphibious assault forces," he said.

Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.

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