A Strong Argument Against the F-35B

We were saddened to learn of the loss of two Marines in the recent attack on Camp Bastion. Most of the attention in the press has been on the loss of half a dozen AV-8B+ Harrier II jump jets. Personally, we’re not terribly upset by that, though it is a significant propaganda victory for the Taliban. But in the  end, jets are just hardware. Yes, we should safeguard them to the extent practicable, but any Marine would gladly trade another half dozen, a dozen, for those Marines.

But the Harrier is an important part of the Marine air component. Due to their light, expeditionary nature, the Marines are far, far more reliant upon fixed wing close air support than the Army.  The triad of Marine ground combat units, organic air assets (both rotary and fixed wing) and Marine logistical units forms a stable platform of combat power that they entire Marine Corps is organized around.  And while the Marines operate large numbers of legacy F/A-18s in the close air support role, the Harrier is at heart a plane dedicated wholly to that role. Think of it as roughly analogous to the A-10 from the Marine grunt’s perspective. 

The big advantage of the Harrier is its ability to forward deploy. Not needing much of a runway, it can theoretically operate extremely close to the front. That reduces transit times to the fight, and allows more sorties per plane to support the Marine on the ground. In effect, that shortened transit is equivalent to operating more jets. And all you need is a patch of ground not much larger than a basketball court.

Except, you need a hell of a lot more than that. Jets need maintenance. Lots of it. And fuel. Lots of it. And weapons. Lots of them. And housing for all the people that fix, fuel, and arm the jets. And spaces for planning and operations. By the time you have all that in place, you’ve pretty much got to have an operational airfield. Getting all that fuel, people and ammo to an operating location takes a large logistical investment. So the utility of STOVL and VSTOL aircraft is actually quite limited.

Eric L. Palmer also notes that Camp Bastion, far from being some austere strip in the middle of nowhere, is in fact, an airbase capable of handling virtually any aircraft in the world.

And lets look at the costs of the loss of 6 jets. With a price tag of roughly $30-40 million apiece, we’re looking at a loss of $200 million dollars or so of equipment. Had these been F-35Bs with a price tag variously computed at up to $200 million each, we’d be looking at a billion dollars worth of losses. That’s a pretty good return on investment for 14 guys who were already on a suicide mission.

The STOVL requirement for the B model of the F-35 drove a series of compromises that impacted both the A and C models, and has dogged the program from day one. What should have been a relatively inexpensive jet to replace legacy Hornets and F-16s has instead become a behemoth program that sucks funding from all over the DoD, has become a gold-plated monstrosity, and still hasn’t entered service, and with the coming cash crunch, looks ripe for cancellation. All because the Marines insisted on a STOVL capability they almost never have used since the first introduction of the Harrier.

10 thoughts on “A Strong Argument Against the F-35B”

  1. When the Marines get back to doing what they are supposed to do then they take their complete airfields with them.
    The LHD’s.
    Why does the Air Force not have enough dedicated CAS should be the question.
    Or maybe let the Army have a few planes that could do the job.

  2. Jon,

    The Marines have a very long history of FW aviation as a part of their combined arms team. Longer than anyone else, in fact.

    Why the USAF has insufficient CAS resources, particularly in a contested air environment, can be found in the debates and articles from almost 30 years ago with the ALBD. Have a gander at what the AF set as allocation priorities.

    1. When AirLand Battle Doctrine was formulated in the late 70s/early 80s, both the Army and the AF remembered the dark days of early in WWII when the Army was the manager for CAS, and did a poor job of it. They also remembered the days right after that when the AF was the manager for CAS and did a poor job of it. It wasn’t until summer of ’44 that the AF TACs wholeheartedly adopted the mission, and developed the doctrine to support that mission. And had sufficient airplanes to do it. Oddly, even then, a lot of what the TACs did under the rubric of CAS would today be called Battlefield Air Interdiction.

      I’m not defending (or attacking) the AF CAS effort in Iraq/Afghanistan, just noting that under ALBD, the Army realized in a Western European fight, there was no way the AF could have a 4 plane flight over every battalion, all the time. They had other things to do.

      And as I noted, there’s no practical way to structure the Marines without that FW CAS component. URR noted that with the EFFSS, the Marines could be looking at a MarDiv with the only tube artillery directly supporting an RLT being a battalion of 120mm mortars. An Army BCT, in addition to an organic battalion of either 105mm or 155mm guns, would almost certainly be supported by a DS battalion of 155mm guns, and likely an MLRS or HIMARs battery. That’s a heck of a lot more tube fire support.

  3. So why don’t we just fold the Air Force back into the Army so that it will get its priorities straight? An independent air arm is not needed.

    1. So Bill, if we did that, would we make all the Army Officers wear their trousers two inches too short? 🙂

    2. I agree with you Bill, if you are talking TacAir. The problem with TacAir in the AF is that it’s something they really don’t want to do. Even though the Bomber Generals are no longer in charge over there The AF still wants to be a Strategic service and supporting the Army is just a sideline that they may get around to if they have someone that just doesn’t have anything to do. That’s the reason an A-10 assignment is a dead end for an AF career.

      I would turn TacAir over to the Army and leave the strategic stuff with the AF.

      I have to say I don’t get URR’s joke about the 2″ too short pants.

  4. QM,

    The AF guys were notorious for having high-water trousers on their blue service uniforms. At a distance, the joke was, you could tell the USCG from the USAF by looking at their shoes.

    You had to be there…..

    1. Nah, you can always tell the Coasties because they’re all over 6 feet tall. It’s required. That way, if their boat sinks, they can all walk to shore.

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