Tension are deescalating in mid-May 2020 in the South China Sea with the withdraw of Chinese and Malaysian ships over a maritime dispute regarding oceanic mineral and oil reserves claimed by Malaysia, China, and Vietnam. The U.S. Navy responded by sending warships in late April: the USS America (LHA-6) and its escorts USS Bunker Hill (CG-52) and USS Barry (DDG-52).
Additionally, the U.S. Navy also sent the Littoral Combat Ships USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS-10), USS Montgomery (LCS-8) and USNS Cesar Chavez (T-AKE-14) to show American interest and resolve in the region. As of October 2019, the LCS USS Gabrielle Giffords is armed with the 100 nautical mile-range Naval Strike Missiles mounted behind the 57mm Bofors cannon.
Meanwhile, two Pacific Fleet Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in the region were not actively patrolling—the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) was homeported in Yokosuka, Japan, and the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) was sidelined off Guam due to COVID-19 cases aboard. Therefore, these smaller U.S. Navy ships proved very useful since no active “large deck” U.S. Navy (USN) nuclear-powered aircraft carrier was patrolling the Pacific Ocean as of mid-April to mid-May 2020.
Even though smaller amphibious Landing Helicopter Assault (LHA) ships lack steam catapults, angled flight decks, cable arresting gear, large Air Wings, and E-2D “Hawkeye” Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes, these LHAs should not be underestimated, especially when escorted by U.S. nuclear submarines and AEGIS-equipped cruisers and destroyer escorts.
In the April 18, 2020 photo at the top, USS America appears to carry the standard United States Marines (USMC) Aviation Element of 12 MV-22B tiltrotor transports, six Short Vertical Take-off and Landing (STOVL) F-35B Stealth Fighters, four CH-53K heavy cargo transport helicopters, seven AH-1Z/UH-1Y attack/utility helicopters, and two Navy MH-60S for air-sea rescue. However, the USMC have slotted 14 F-35Bs aboard (usually even numbered pairs as every F-35B pilot has a wingman) as a trial “Lightning Carrier” concept back in October 2019. USS America, built without an internal well deck, could operate upwards of 20-24 F-35Bs and two MH-60s if the V-22 tiltrotor and CH-53 cargo and AH-1Z attack helicopter squadrons are removed.
The small complement of six USMC F-35Bs could be enhanced and “Force Multiplied” if some or all of the F-35Bs use optional “Beast Mode” configuration. Each USMC F-35B stealth fighter aboard the USS America can operate in two versions, “Stealth Mode” and “Beast Mode.” Since the F-35B is essentially a sensor with data networking and linking capabilities (thus its own miniature AWACS), “Stealth Mode” is advantageous for stealthy Command, Control, Communications Computers, Cyber, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C5SIR) missions and usually comes armed with only four internally-carried AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Ranged Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAMs).
Optional “Beast Mode” forgoes the stealth shape and adds non-stealthy external weapons pylons to hang ordnance under the wings. In “Full Configuration Beast Mode,” 14 AIM-120s and two AIM-9Xs can be carried for a total of 16 Air-to-Air Missiles (AAMs) for a single U.S. Air Force F-35A or a U.S. Navy F-35C, which is mighty impressive ordnance capacity for a single-engine stealth fighter, (or 32 AAMs for a flight of two F-35A/Cs).
An Air-to-Air weapons loadout of eight AIM-120s AMRAAMs and two AIM-9X Sidewinders is possible when using internal and external weapons stations on a single USMC F-35B. Multiply 10 AAMs per F-35B by six F-35Bs on board, and the USS America’s small F-35B Air Wing can haul 60 AAMs both internally and externally, creating a formidable Anti-Aircraft capability for such a small LHA Air Wing (compared to just 24 AAMs carried internally by six F-35Bs in “Stealth Mode”). If all six USMC F-35Bs were converted to “Beast Mode” with 60 AAMs, that would provide two-and-a-half times the Anti-aircraft missiles compared to all six F-35Bs operating without underwing mounted pylons for 24 internally-carred AAMs.
The latest AIM-120D version has a range in excess of 100-plus miles whereas the newest generation AIM-9X Sidewinder with thrust-vectoring tailfins has a range of around 26 miles.
For a single F-35 in “Beast Mode,” each wing has six external weapons pylons: a 5,000 lb (2,300 kg) inboard station and a 2,500 lb (1,100 kg) middle station for the F-35A/C, or 1,500 lb (680 kg) middle station for a USMC F-35B, in addition to a wingtip Sidewinder pylon. Thus, the F-35B can carry 18,000lbs of internal and external ordnance compared to 22,000lbs for the USAF’s F-35A and USN’s F-35C. Tactically, the USS America can mix “Stealth Mode” with “Beast Mode” to display more weapons as a “Show of Force” message if these weapons were indeed mounted and yet retain some F-35Bs in their stealthy configuration.
A few USMC F-35Bs with non-stealthy “Beast Mode” external weapons pylons mounted could “Force Multiply” any small MEU Marine Aviation Element when U.S Navy “Big Deck” Carrier Air Wings were not present (such as due to the Coronavirus situations affecting the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet). As of mid-to-late April 2020, USMC F-35Bs aboard the USS America were photographed with external unarmed Sidewinder wingtip pylons, allowing for a single USMC F-35B to carry six AAMs if mounted (four AIM-120s internally and two AIM-9Xs externally).