When the USS Ford was being built, we all assumed, quite logically, that the ship would be able to operate the F-35 which had been around for twenty years or so, in various stages of development. The timing was looking about right – the carrier and the F-35C would both be ready about the same time. Well, in yet another disappointment for the Ford, it turns out that the carrier wasn’t actually built to operate F-35s. No, this is not an April Fools post or some ComNavOps comedy piece. This is real. The Navy’s newest carrier can’t operate the F-35.
As it turns out, most of the Navy’s carriers and amphibious ships (LHA/LHD) can’t operate the F-35.
Yes, the F-35C can take off and land on the carriers but the ships lack the communications, data integration, and maintenance facilities to fully utilize the supposed capabilities of the F-35 – those much hyped surveillance capabilities. Without the proper comms and data handling facilities on the carriers, the F-35 can collect data but can’t effectively relay it to the carrier and allow the carrier to make use of it.
On a related and stunning note, the US Navy has almost no ability to transfer F-35 engines to carriers. The Ford is the only carrier that has the equipment to receive an engine. The MV-22 has demonstrated the ability to transport a single engine to a carrier but this can only be done over very short distances.
As far as the amphibious ships, none can land the F-35B due to its excessive exhaust heat which damages the flight deck unless it has been specially modified. You’ll recall that even the new USS America was unable to operate the F-35B, as the ship was built. It had to be modified with special deck heat treatments, thermal and structural modifications to compartments immediately beneath the flight deck, and relocation of equipment in the path of the F-35B’s downward landing exhaust in addition to numerous communications and data handling facility installations and modifications. Yes, America, the ship that was purpose built for the F-35B was unable to operate the F-35B without extensive and expensive modifications.
In fact, of 11 carriers and 33 amphibious ships, currently only 4 amphibious ships can fully operate the F-35.(1) The lucky four are listed below.
- USS Essex
- USS Makin Island
- USS America
- USS Wasp
Even with the modifications, the F-35B can only land on a couple of limited spots. For the America, the F-35B can only land on spots 7 and 9.(2)
It is worth noting that none of the supercarriers can operate the F-35.
The USS Bonhomme Richard, LHD-6, which recently suffered a massive fire that burned out of control for several days, would have been the fifth ship altered to operate the F-35. The Bonhomme Richard is now, officially, being scrapped.
So, for those of you who envision air armadas of Navy F-35s sweeping the skies clear of enemy aircraft, that vision is still a long way in the future because we only have four amphibious ships that can even operate the F-35!
It is worth noting that the modifications required to operate the F-35 require many months and hundreds of millions of dollars to install (I assume the F-35 proponents are dutifully adding that to the cost of the F-35?). It is not a capability that can be quickly installed when needed. It will take decades to bring the current ships up to the standard required to handle the F-35. If a war were to start today, we’d be limited to four amphibious ships operating our F-35s.
What is all this telling us? What lessons are being demonstrated (and ignored!)?
- In our pursuit of technology, we created an aircraft too complex to even communicate with our carriers.
- Concurrency kills.
- Even the modified ships have only a limited F-35 operating capability and, in the event of battle damage, we might lack the ability to operate the aircraft due to damage to the couple of specific landing spots.
- In pursuit of the big, expensive, flashy toys, we’re ignoring the mundane support and infrastructure needed to even fully operate the toys.
Just a reminder … When the F-35C reaches squadron service, the Navy is planning to reduce the squadron size from the current 12 aircraft to 10, further shrinking the already shrunken air wings. The F-35 is the gift that keeps on giving!
(1)Breaking Defense website, “USS Bonhomme Richard Heads For Scrapyard After Devastating Fire ”, Paul McLeary, 30-Nov-2020,
(2)Jalopnik website, “Navy Builds Ship For F-35, Ship Needs Months Of Upgrades To Handle F-35”, Tyler Rogoway, 13-Apr-2015,