Strategic Implications of USS Wasp Carrying F-35B Lightning II Aircraft for Exercise Balikatan
The United States Navy amphibious assault ship USS Wasp participated in the Exercise Balikatan in the Republic of the Philippines for the first time, from April 1 to 12, 2019, since the ship has been forward deployed to the US Seventh Fleet, and for the first time it carried at least ten F-35B Lightning II aircraft of the US Marines Corps, more than the usual load of six F-35s or older AV-8B Harrier jump jets. Exercise Balikatan, in its 35th iteration, included 4,000 Filipino, 3,500 American and 50 Australian troops. 
1. Amphibious ships transformed into light aircraft carriers
A US amphibious assault ship usually carries only six F-35s or older AV-8B Harrier jump jets and some helicopters. By embarking with at least ten short take-off and vertical-landing (STOVL) F-35B aircraft, USS Wasp is implementing a new warfighting configuration of the Marine Corps – transforming amphibious assault ships into light aircraft carriers. Because F-35B’s official name is F-35B Lightning II, these F-35B carriers are also known as “Lightning carriers.” Light carriers are a unique force multiplier of the Navy-Marine Corps team which integrates their distinctive agility and opportunity. By executing this new warfighting configuration, the US Navy can cut down the number of large supercarriers in the fleet, which cost more than light carriers. Light carriers could also help the US Navy shift to a more mission survivable fleet design which could more easily dodge the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) long-range anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles stationed at the PRC-made islands in the South China Sea than supercarriers. Light carriers could moreover embed themselves with supercarriers to offer additional capacity during larger operations. According to Joseph Trevithick, the US Navy “is planning to fly a mix of both stealth F-35C Joint Strike Fighters and non-stealth F/A-18E/F Super Hornets for the foreseeable future.” As a result, an amphibious assault ship loaded with F-35Bs could become an important complement of the Navy air wing offering fifth generation jets during a high-end fight.
2. Indo-Pacific becoming the center of the US geopolitical strategy
The presence of USS Wasp carrying at least ten F-35B Lightning aircraft for Exercise Balikatan is an indicator that the Indo-Pacific region is becoming the center of the US overall geopolitical strategy which coincides with the discussions currently going on between the US and the Philippines on whether to revise their mutual defense treaty to include Spratly Islands. Exercise Balikatan, being in the Indo-Pacific region, is the first drill in which F-35Bs have been deployed in any quantity. USS Wasp was in Japan before being deployed to the South China Sea for the first time. Meanwhile, USS America, which is a newer aviation-focused amphibious assault ship which can carry as many as sixteen to twenty F-35Bs, is to be deployed to Japan to replace USS Wasp to defend against crises in the Korean Peninsula and East China Sea. Wasp-class ships fought in the Middle East previously as early as in 2003 in the US-led invasion of Iraq, carrying up to twenty AV-8B Harriers. More recently, in 2016, the Wasp-class USS Bataan fought in the US air campaign to drive ISIS-affiliated terrorists from the Libyan city of Sirte with just seven AV-8Bs. And, in 2018, the USS Essex, another Wasp-class ship, “conducted the first-ever strikes by American F-35s in Afghanistan, and later flew additional sorties against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.”  Now, similar light carriers are participating in exercises in the Indo-Pacific region to support the Indo-Pacific strategy.
1. More light carriers becoming flexible fleet to command the sea
More light aircraft carriers with larger numbers of stealth fighters, such as F-35s, will be operated by the US Navy for some regions in place of supercarriers, first and foremost, to reduce cost. A new Ford-class supercarrier costs around USD 13 billion, while America-class assault ships cost just USD 3 billion. Available analysis suggests a two-to-one replacement. Moreover, amphibious assault ships with larger complements of stealth fighters have potential value to project power in higher-risk environment, such as facing PRC’s missile deployment in the South China Sea. However, a conventionally-powered assault ship can never match the larger size and anti-submarine warfare and nuclear endurance possessed by a supercarrier, and specialist aircraft, such as radar-early-warning and radar-jamming planes, are too big for a light carrier to manage, or are for traditional takeoff or landing instead of STOVL. As a result, “a broader compromise could involve the Navy slightly reducing its supercarrier fleet while the fleet more frequently operates assault ships as light carriers with larger numbers of F-35s.” 
2. Taiwan might try to join in light-carrier drills and obtain F-35s
The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) confirmed for the first time on April 3, 2019 that active US military personnel, including service members from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, have been posted at its Taipei office since 2005, and those deployments will continue after it relocates to its new office in Neihu on May 6. Although such confirmation has been interpreted by many as a direct show of support for Taiwan in response to the crossing over of the Taiwan Strait median line by two PRC J-11 fighter planes on March 31, 2019, it is certainly an indication of the continued warming of US-Taiwan security relations. As the US-Taiwan security relations continue to warm up, and the PRC’s provocations persist in both the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, there is a possibility that Taiwan will need to join in exercises involving a light carrier embarked with F-35s somewhere in the Indo-Pacific region. Because the US has recently canceled shipments of F-35-related equipment to Turkey to prevent Turkey from receiving F-35s and has been figuring out whether it could remove Turkey as a partner in making the F-35, Taiwan might be standing in line to acquire F-35 aircraft to fill in the financial loss and become a replacement source of supply for Turkish-produced parts. Actually, Taiwan has in March 2019 officially submitted the Letter of Request (LOR) to the US for 66 F-16V aircraft and is still eagerly waiting for approval from the US.
USS Wasp (LHD 1) Public Affairs, “USS Wasp, SPMAGTF 4 Arrive in the Philippines for Exercise Balikatan,” Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet, March 31, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/y3fln7ft; David Axe, “Light Aircraft Carriers: The U.S. Marines Might Have More F-35s Fighting from the Sea,” National Interest, March 31, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/yxkq9a2e; Seth Robson, “US Brings F-35B Stealth Fighters to Philippines’ Balikatan Exercise for First Time,” Stars and Stripes, April 1, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/yxoxvyst; Ryan Pickrell, “A US Navy Warship Was Seen in the South China Sea Carrying an Unusually Large Number of F-35s,” Business Insider India, April 3, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/y5socjur
Joseph Trevithick, “U.S. Amphibious Assault Ship in South China Sea with Unprecedentedly Large Load of F-35Bs,” The Drive, April 1, 2019, https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/27253/u-s-amphibious-assault-ship-in-south-china-sea-with-unprecedentedly-large-load-of-f-35bs
 Joseph Yeh, “U.S. Confirms Active Military Personnel Posted at AIT since 2005,” Focus Taiwan, April 3, 2019, http://focustaiwan.tw/news/aipl/201904030014.aspx; the front gate of the new AIT Neihu office ostensibly displays the Great Seal of the US.