The Iwo Jima class carrier was the first purpose built
vertical assault (helicopter) amphibious ship.
In this post, we’re going to take a look at its original design
rationale, abilities, and limitations and examine whether those have remained
Here are some basic specifications for the seven ship class,
built in the 1960’s:
|Iwo Jima Class LPH|
The amphibious assault helicopter carrier (Landing Platform,
Helicopter - LPH) traces its origin back to a 1946 Marine Corps study on the
effects of atomic weapons on amphibious assaults. Marine leadership,
… concluded that a few atomic bombs could easily destroy the
concentrated shipping and also the beachhead of any classical amphibious
assault.As described by Friedman, the Marines settled on the
helicopter as the means to achieve physical dispersion of both ships at sea and
troops on land. The greater range of the
helicopter would allow the host ships to more widely disperse and would allow
the troops to land at more widely dispersed locations thus avoiding the
concentrations that an atomic bomb would easily destroy.
Their decision was strongly influenced by the belief that
helicopters would quickly and markedly advance in capabilities (range, speed,
lift capacity) – a belief that turned out, disappointingly, to be only
partially met. Friedman goes on to describe
some of the helicopter development issues which is, itself, a fascinating topic
but outside the scope of this post. I
encourage you to read it yourself, if you’re so inclined. It’s well worth the time.
The Marines, while eagerly adopting the helicopter as the
assault transport vehicle also recognized the vulnerability of the helicopter
on the battlefield. Regarding helicopter
Even larger helicopters were proposed, but the Marines were reluctant
to adopt one that could lift many more than twenty men in view of the high vulnerability of individual craft.[emphasis
added]The Marines recognized that concentrating greater numbers of
troops in a vehicle that was inherently non-survivable would be a mistake. In comparison, today’s MV-22 transport is
rated for 24-32 troops which raises the concentration of risk issue that the Marines
were afraid of. To be fair, most sources
state that the MV-22 troop capacity is not actually achievable in real world
What did helicopter assault mean for overall
requirements? The Marines were focused
on division-strength assaults,
The Marines concentrated on the requirements of a divisional assault,
which were considerable. For example, a January 1951 study envisaged lifting
10,000 men and 3,000 to 4,000 short tons of material. Total lift, then, would be 520 HRSs [ed.
Sikorsky H-19] or 208 HR2Ss, which in turn would require, in the former case,
20 escort carriers with 20 helicopters each, accommodating 150 to 200 tons of
cargo, 500 to 600 assault marines, and a 200-man helicopter squadron.This focus on division level assaults was a far cry from our
current MEU/ARG (3-ship Amphibious Ready Group) and disaggregated ARG which
employs the three ships of the ARG separately.
Of course, in the event of a genuine assault operation, multiple MEU/ARGs
would aggregate to form MEBs (Marine Expeditionary Brigade) and MEFs (Marine
Expeditionary Force) although these aggregations are never exercised and
constitute a theoretical capability, only.
Further, with the elimination of tanks, reduction in artillery,
elimination of heavy mortars, and lack of anti-air vehicles it is highly
debatable that MEBs/MEFs are even combat effective anymore.
The Marines also considered the tactical usage of the
Tactically, the Marines considered a flight of ten helicopters best for
effective control, so that helicopter carriers were generally designed to
accommodate multiples of that unit.We see then, that the Marines of the time were focused on
getting large numbers of helos/troops on the ground quickly as opposed to our
current concept of slow, drawn out, one-at-a-time MV-22 landings due to the 250
ft aircraft-to-aircraft separations and immense cleared areas required for
To their immense credit, the Marines didn’t just come up
with wild ideas and implement them without any proof of concept - as we do
today - they conducted actual exercises.
… May 1948, 8 helicopters from the Palau simulated a full helicopter
attack of 184 aircraft flying from six CVEs, to lift a complete regimental
combat team which would seize a strategic crossroads inland of the beach. … each HRP [Piasecki HRP tandem rotor
helicopter] carried six passengers about ten miles from the carrier under heavy
fighter cover.Note the use of fighter cover. The exercises were tactically realistic as
opposed to the unrealistic, set piece theater performances we call exercises
Following tests, the WWII escort carrier USS Thetis Bay was
converted for helicopter operations to further test out the concept.
At that point, the Marines seemed fully committed to helicopter
assault. A Sep-1954 report stated,
… over the next ten to fifteen years most existing attack cargo and
transport (AKA and APA) ships would be replaced by helicopter carriers. “This will be occasioned by the VTOL aircraft
becoming the principal means of placing personnel ashore under assault conditions. Supporting personnel and heavy equipment will
still be landed by water-borne means but the majority of assault troops will be
air-landed.”Ultimately, a new design LPH, the Iwo Jima class, was built
along with several Essex class conversions. The purpose-designed Iwo Jima class, not
surprisingly, offered several significant advantages over the Essex
conversions. Even so, the design was not
without its flaws,
The amphibious force commanders criticized the Iwo Jima design for its
“complete lack of landing craft, so that it is of doubtful utility under
non-flying conditions and must depend on other types with landing craft to give
it an over-the-beach capacity.This flaw eventually led to the development of the LHA
design which incorporated both aviation and a well deck to support waterborne landing
craft. Interestingly, we have returned
to exactly the original flawed design with the new America class variants which
have no well decks.
Let’s examine several aspects of the original vertical assault
concept that birthed the LPH.
As noted, the original rationale was dispersal of ships and
troops in response to the threat of atomic bombs. The original Marine thinking was dominated by
the fear of atomic warfare. With the
advent of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), that is no longer a concern. Any use of atomic weapons would immediately
escalate the war to a global nuclear war and eliminate the need for a localized
amphibious assault. In other words, no
one is going to bother with an amphibious assault while waging a global nuclear
war. Thus, the original rationale is no
longer valid and yet we have not modified our current thinking to account for
- Helos allow the rapid transport of troops from a greater distance
than waterborne landing craft.
- Troops can be delivered to safer or more strategically
beneficial locations rather than to a central troop/beach concentration
although safer locations also imply less operationally relevant and useful.
- The greater range of the helos allows greater separation of
the helicopter carriers.
- Bad weather may ground aviation.
- Lack of waterborne landing craft prevents any other means of
- Helo assault is limited to troops and light cargo. Heavy equipment, tanks, armored vehicles,
etc. cannot be transported by air.
- Helos are extremely vulnerable to even modest anti-air
- Helo carriers have very limited wave transport capacity. For example, 20 helos per wave x 15-20 troops
per helo = 300-400 troops per wave and that’s just troops, no equipment. It would require 5-7 waves, over many hours
or multiple days, to get the full troop complement ashore and that assumes no
helo attrition. The reality is that any
reasonable helo attrition would likely result in a portion of the troops never
getting ashore and certainly not in a timely manner.
- Limited by the need/availability of suitable cleared landing
sites; such sites can be reasonably anticipated by the enemy and become fire
traps as demonstrated in Vietnam.
The original Marine leadership was focused on division level
assaults. What they failed to address
was sustainment. While simply moving
troops ashore is easy (ignoring the extreme vulnerability of the helicopter and
the potential lack of suitable landing sites), sustainment via helicopter is
not. In fact, it is impossible. The logistic supply demands of a division in
combat are staggeringly huge and the cargo carrying capacity of a helicopter is
vanishingly small. This remains an
unexplained – and hand waved away – weakness in today’s various vertical
assault concepts (helos, MV-22, well deck-less LHAs, etc.) as well as the
Commandant’s dispersed, hidden, platoon size missile shooters concept. It is not possible to sustain an assault
The original rationale for the LPH and vertical assault was
dispersal due to the threat of atomic weapons.
As, discussed, this is no longer a valid concern.
It is noteworthy that the original Marines identified significant
weaknesses in the concept including the extreme vulnerability of helos to
anti-air defenses and the absence of waterborne landing craft as an
alternative. Other weaknesses included
the inability to transport heavy equipment, the limited number of troops that
can be transported per wave, and the impossibility of sustaining an assault
using vertical transport.
We see, then, that vertical assault is an inherently flawed
concept that was justified only by the extreme atomic threat. With no realistic atomic threat today, one
has to ask why we’re still pursuing the flawed vertical assault concept?
Where does this leave us today? For starters, we’ve begun repeating the
original mistakes such as the absence of waterborne landing craft in the early
variants of the America class LHA.
Additional problems include the extreme vulnerability of vertical
landing aircraft to anti-air defenses, first noted by the Marines back in the
original concept development. In fact,
the threat to helos has increased markedly over the years with the advent of
small, portable, shoulder launched, heat seeking, anti-air missiles of the
Stinger type. Vertical landing aircraft
are simply not survivable over a defended battlefield as has been repeatedly
demonstrated in the real world (Vietnam, Soviet Afghanistan, US Afghanistan,
The inability to transport heavy equipment by air continues,
today, and is a serious weakness in the concept. This limitation relegates any assault to a
light infantry effort only and makes the enormous cost and resources dedicated
to such a limited capability highly questionable.
The need for secure, cleared landing sites has only gotten
substantially worse with the advent of the MV-22 which requires enormous
cleared areas and huge separations between aircraft to the point that a massed
assault is simply not possible. Landings
will have to be a very slow, one-at-a-time affair that is ideal for enemy
defensive fire sequentially focused on each landing aircraft in turn.
Despite clearly and correctly identifying the inherent flaws
in the vertical assault concept, Marine leadership pushed ahead with vertical
assault in the belief that the atomic threat was more significant than the
known weaknesses. One can only speculate
whether the Marines would have adopted vertical assault if there had been no
perceived atomic threat.
With no realistic atomic threat today, one has to ask why
we’re pursuing an inherently flawed concept?
Worse, we have taken the concept and reduced it from a full,
divisional level effort and capability to a light infantry effort with no
supporting tanks, armor, artillery, heavy mortars, or mobile anti-air
vehicles. Is the staggering cost to
build and operate 30+ amphibious ships worthwhile to deliver light infantry
It would seem that vertical amphibious assault is an example
of inertia. The helo assault was
established and continues just because it exists. It exists because it exists. We need to re-examine this 1940’s era concept
in light of the known flaws and, especially, modern defenses which have
rendered helos even more vulnerable than they were originally. The cost/risk to benefit ratio does not
support continued vertical assault.
Norman Friedman, “U.S. Aircraft Carriers, An Illustrated
Design History”, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1983, p.359-370.