Chief Aviation Electrician's Mate Ezekial Zacharias, from the amphibious assault carrier Tripoli (LHA 7), kisses his wife after his warship's return to Naval Base San Diego on Nov. 29, 2022. US Navy photo by Mass communication Specialist 2nd Class Brett McMinoway.
Hailed as a 21st-century throwback to World War II’s light carriers, the US Navy’s $2.4 billion amphibious assault ship Tripoli has completed its maiden voyage.
Tugs gently prodded LHA-7 into its Naval Base San Diego pier on Tuesday, Nov. 29, the final few feet in a cruise that began on April 7 and journeyed 40,303 nautical miles across the Pacific Ocean, including port calls in Tasmania, Japan, Singapore, and the Philippines.
“I am proud of Tripoli for a successful first deployment,” said Rear Adm. James Kirk, the commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 3, in a prepared statement released in the wake of Tripoli’s return. “The ship and crew are on the leading edge, setting the example and testing the limits of the assault ship. LHAs are designed to support the future of the Marine Corps Air Combat Element, and Tripoli has done just that. I am excited to see what else they can bring to the fight.”
And that’s what caught the eye of naval strategists — 2,052 hours of flight operations, including the sorties by the America-class warship’s 16 US Marine Corps stealthy F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters during the Valiant Shield 22 exercises off the Mariana Islands and Noble Fusion war games in the Philippine Sea.
“Whether it was launching and recovering aircraft at night, acting as a base of operations for the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit to conduct operations ashore, or serving as an instrument of diplomacy to our ally and partner nations, the crew performed their duties professionally and demonstrated why they are the Navy’s greatest asset. I couldn’t be more proud,” said Capt. John C. Kiefaber, Tripoli’s commanding officer, in a prepared statement.
Amphibious assault ship Tripoli (LHA 7) transits San Diego Harbor as the warship returns to Naval Base San Diego on Nov. 29, 2022. US Navy photo by Mass communication Specialist 2nd Class Brett McMinoway.
Commissioned in 2020, Tripoli has a primary mission to provide an aerial punch for Marine landings on hostile shores.
But between March 30 and April 8, hours after Tripoli quietly slipped out of Naval Amphibious Base Coronado on its inaugural overseas tour, its crew of Marines and sailors tested the Pentagon’s “lightning carrier” concept.
Wielding 20 F-35Bs from Marine Fighter Attack Squadrons 211 and 225, and Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron 1, Tripoli’s team showed they could employ an assault ship much like a traditional fixed-wing flattop, launching and recovering fifth-generation, short takeoff and vertical landing jets at a high tempo.
It's not nearly as big or bad as the Navy’s Nimitz- or Gerald R. Ford-class carriers — each of those can tote more than 90 planes and helicopters — but Col. Chad Vaughn, the commanding officer of Marine Aircraft Group 13, came away “thrilled” with Tripoli’s demonstration of raw air power.
That’s because Tripoli is as much a traditional aircraft carrier as it is an assault ship. It loads twice as much aviation fuel and nearly a third more ordnance than the Wasp-class warships it and the America are replacing.
US Navy Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Handling) 3rd Class Nicolas Fareri launches a US Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II jet with the "Green Knights" of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 off the amphibious assault ship Tripoli (LHA 7) during the Valiant Shield 2022 exercise in the Pacific Ocean on June 13, 2022. US Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Jackson Ricker.
There’s also more hangar space to maintain jets, plus specially built flight decks that can absorb the abuse the strike fighter engines dish out.
Naval strategists often point to their similarity to flattops launched during World War II, when the Navy put to sea light carriers and smaller escort carriers to augment fleet flattops plying the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
While escort carriers often shepherded convoys or launched planes to savage shore defenses during amphibious operations, fast Independence-class light carriers fought alongside their fleet carrier cousins, including in the crucial Battle of the Philippine Sea in 1944.
Modern Marines believe Tripoli can be used for all of these types of warfare, and sailors have begun calling it an "amphibious assault carrier," although that's not its official title.
On board the light aircraft carrier Belleau Wood (CVL-24), a landing signal officer, Lt. j.g. Walter F. Wujcik, brings in a plane, circa 1945. National Archives photo.
While Tripoli’s sailors were happy to come home after seven months at sea, many of the crew also sported some fancy new badges on their chests.
During the deployment, 362 sailors earned their qualifications as Enlisted Surface Warfare Specialists, Enlisted Air Warfare Specialists, or Enlisted Information Warfare Specialists.
And in the wardroom, 16 officers qualified as officers of the deck (underway).
“A sailor earning their primary warfare pin is a great way for them to better themselves and it’s a milestone in their career, but also it’s important sailors have a deeper understanding of the role that they and their shipmates play in the ship’s operations,” said Command Master Chief Matthew Logsdon in his prepared remarks.
Carl Prine is a senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. He previously worked at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
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