Amphibious warship America leads flotilla back to San Diego

Electrician's Mate 3rd Class Elizabeth Robles kisses her daughter on the pier at Naval Base San Diego as the amphibious assault ship USS America returns from its maiden deployment.


By CARL PRINE | The San Diego Union-Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 2, 2018

The high-tech flagship America and its flotilla sailed back to San Diego on Friday, carrying home Marines who battled in Iraq — along with the promise that these warships will redefine how potential enemies view the 21st century Navy.

“This ship is a wonderful ship. It has incredible capabilities,” said Navy Capt. Rome Ruiz, commodore of Amphibious Squadron 3, shortly after he disembarked from the $7 billion America.

The America is the first of its class of revolutionary “big deck” vessels that make traditional amphibious assault ships more like powerful aircraft carriers.

Specially designed to support both F-35B Joint Strike Fighters and tilt-rotor MV-22 Ospreys, it was commissioned in 2014 but didn’t take to sea on a maiden deployment until July 7, beginning a seven-month tour from California to the Middle East alongside the landing ships Pearl Harbor and San Diego.

Unlike those vessels in the amphibious ready group, the America lacks a well deck — a big compartment that floods, allowing armored vehicles or fast landing boats to ferry troops to shore. But it displaces a whopping 45,000 tons of steel and electronics, beefy enough to carry 20 strike fighters while bristling with sophisticated computers, sensors, communication gear and missiles to control the seas around and under it and the skies above.

“It’s an aviation-centric ship,” said Ruiz, who previously skippered the minesweepers Shrike and Cardinal and the destroyer Higgins. “It depends on what you want us to do, that becomes the focus of this ship.”

Ruiz described how the America can spread out its CH-53 D/E Sea Stallion helicopters far over the horizon, helping hike what commanders call “battlespace awareness” — the way the military mind pictures the locations of friendly and enemy forces, weather conditions, terrain and many other factors to get a sense of how combat might unfold.

“That made us more lethal farther out and allowed us to understand what was around us a lot better,” Ruiz said. “The ability to spread it out more, with those aircraft and the MV-22s, we used every aircraft to get battlespace awareness. If it wasn’t for that, we’d have been very limited and an enemy could capitalize on all that.

“I came from a cruiser and destroyer background. This was my first amphibious tour. But I learned about the flexibility of this platform. The firepower, the lethality, the mobility of this ship and that of the (amphibious readiness group) is something that can leveraged later on. And with a carrier strike group, we can leverage all of those platforms together.”

Part of that promised power was put on display in bilateral exercises off the Horn of Africa and the United Arab Emirates, the Dubai Air Show, alongside a security patrol with the French warship Tonnerre and then in combat in Iraq.

The 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit sent its joint tactical air controllers and AeroVironment RQ-20 Puma drones to spy on Islamic State forces and call in strikes.

The unit logged more than 300 combat missions that destroyed nearly 1,000 Islamic State weapons or strongholds, with their AV-8B Harrier jets compiling 80 sorties and a 100 percent success rate at destroying enemy targets, according to the Miramar-based 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.

Parts of all four Marine sections — the command element, aviators, the logistics team and grunts from Camp Pendleton’s 1st Battalion, 5th Marines — entered Iraq to support Baghdad’s forces against the Islamic State, said unit commander Col. Joseph Clearfield.

“Everyone who went into Iraq came back safe and sound,” he said. “By all accounts, they did an outstanding job. We couldn’t be more proud of them.”

Clearfield’s operations in Iraq’s Anbar Province buttressed a late December announcement by Secretary of Defense James Mattis that conventional troops increasingly will take on missions that over the past several years went to special operations teams.

“As an Iraq veteran, as a colonel in the Marine Corps, I think watching ISIS retake parts of Iraq that we’d fought for hard for was a little bit heartbreaking,” said Clearfield, who fought in Fallujah in 2004. “But now it’s been retaken by Iraqi-led forces and that’s a good feeling. They’re fighting for their country and they want their country back. I got to witness that and see that. It was an amazing feeling, frankly.”

While the ships came back to San Diego on Friday, aviation units began flying home earlier, with homecoming celebrations planned at Miramar, Camp Pendleton and Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona.

Lt. Col. David “Virus” Bennett, the commander of Marine Medium Tilt-rotor Squadron 161, led his “Greyhawks” home to Miramar on Thursday. He said that their workhorse Ospreys flew a wide variety of missions in Iraq, including casualty evacuations.

“It was no different than it was when I was there in 2008. You find a base. You stage out of a base and then you stand by for the call and launch aircraft,” Bennett said shortly after he landed.

Near him Katie Small scanned the sky for her husband, Marine Capt. Randall “Tandy” Small, flanked by their children — Zoe, 7, Brooke, 3, and Harper, 18 months.

The two are high school sweethearts from Sacramento. Miramar is their 16th duty station in 11 years. She planned to surprise her husband with a new Toyota Tundra truck but also was ready to hand off some of the family duties.

“I’m going to tell him ‘Hi!’ and then “Help!,’” she said “We’ve got three kids!”

©2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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Sailors and Marines aboard the amphibious assault ship USS America man the rails as the ship returns to its homeport of Naval Base San Diego following their first operational deployment.