US Warship In South China Sea With Unprecedentedly Large Load of F-35Bs
The U.S. Navy’s first-in-class amphibious assault ship USS Wasp recently arrived in the Philippines for a major annual exercise carrying a U.S. Marine Corps contingent that includes at least 10 F-35B Joint Strike Fighters. This is a larger than average number of the combat jets than Wasp-class ships normally embark, but is a force structure that the Navy and Marines are looking to standardize. It’s also one that could help lay the groundwork for a future operating concept that could turn amphibious assault ships into light carriers, as necessary.
Wasp entered the Philippine port of Subic Bay on Mar. 30, 2019, ahead of the beginning of Exercise Balikatan 2019. The ship is carrying Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Four (SPMAGTF 4), with the 4th Marine Regiment as the lead unit. The drills have occurred almost every year since 1991, with the exception of a hiatus between 1995 and 1999 due to a protracted dispute over the legal status of American troops deployed to the country during the exercise.
“During Balikatan 2019, U.S. and Philippine forces will conduct amphibious operations, live-fire training, urban operations, aviation operations, and counterterrorism response,” according to an official Navy statement. “[Wasp and SPMAGTF 4] Participating in Balikatan demonstrates their ability to quickly forward deploy in support of an ally should a crisis or natural disaster occur.”
This deployment is already notable since it is the first time F-35Bs, in any quantity, will take part in these drills. But it also appears to be one of the first times, if not the first time, a Marine task force has embarked aboard an amphibious assault ship with an air combat element, or ACE, in this particular F-35 heavy configuration.