USS America ARG/MEU: Operations Adjust to Aviation-Centric Amphib
By RICHARD R. BURGESS, Managing Editor
ARLINGTON, Va. — The recently completed first deployment of the new-class amphibious assault ship USS America required adjustments to adapt to the ship’s aviation-centric configuration, but the embarked Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) was able to accomplish its missions.
USS America (LHA 6), the lead ship of a new class, differs from previous LHAs by not having a well deck from which landing craft and amphibious assault vehicles could be launched. Instead, it has additional space devoted to aviation capabilities. America and forthcoming sister ship Tripoli will be the only two ships to lack a well deck. Subsequent LHAs will have them.
America and two other amphibious ships — the amphibious platform dock ship USS San Diego and dock landing ship USS Pearl Harbor — deployed as an amphibious ready group (ARG) on July 7 to the Western Pacific, Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea and Mediterranean Sea, returning home on Feb. 2. Embarked was the 15th MEU, its 2,500 Marines and Sailors commanded by Col. Joseph R. Clearfield, and Amphibious Squadron Three, led by Capt. Rome Ruiz, who was the commander of the America ARG. Both commanders briefed an audience on the deployment at the Potomac Institute March 13.
America embarked three more aircraft than would be embarked in an older LHA, including one UH-1Y Venom and one CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter, and one AV-8B Harrier attack aircraft. The ship has reduced medical facilities, no surface connectors, increased aviation fuel capacity, expanded hangar space and limited organic targeting capability.
Ruiz described America as “designed to be a command-and-control ship.”
Without a well deck, the ARG embarked only four utility landing craft instead of six and had to sling-load more cargo on helicopters and MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft than it would have otherwise. The number of the MEU’s vehicles embarked in the ARG’s three ships had to be reduced as well. To compensate, the 15th MEU left some vehicles at home base but in a “prepare to deploy” status in case a need for them emerged. Additionally, the Marines were able to draw on vehicles and other equipment available in Kuwait to operate in Iraq.
“We could do everything,” Clearfield said. “We just did it a little bit differently.”
During its operations in the U.S. Central Command area of operations, the America AG/MEU conducted 313 strikes against ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and killed 514 enemy fighters, including 67 in strikes by AV-8B Harrier IIs. The MV-22Bs flew 833.2 hours of assault support and 226.8 hours of casualty evacuation. The CH-53Es flew 459 hours of assault support.
Clearfield said 2,100 personnel of his force of 2,500 operated ashore at some point in the deployment.
The 15th MEU included a detachment of Marine UAV Squadron One, equipped with RQ-21A Blackjack unmanned aerial vehicles.
The RQ-21A “did everything it was advertised to do,” Clearfield said.Ruiz said there is a lot of potential for adding MH-0R helicopters to the MH-60S helicopters already assigned to ARGs. He also said there was “enormous opportunity” for a littoral combat ship as a scout or a counter-scout for an ARG.