The F-35B: Keep It or Kill It?

This is a image of F-35 B Joint Strike Fighter
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The coming austerity in defense budgets has left several high profile programs vulnerable to being cancelled. The poster child for at risk programs that are over budget and behind schedule is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program. There is a growing suspicion in defense circles that rather than seeing the whole program cancelled, the DoD might be willing to cancel the troubled F-35B Short Take Off/Vertical Landing version intended as a replacement for the Marine Corps aging fleet of AV-8B Harriers.

Neptunus Lex’s occasional co-author, Whisper, argues that instead, the opposite should happen- cancel the Air Force “A” model, and if needed, the Navy’s “C” model as well, and instead produce only the STOVL “B” model. I’ve already made my thoughts on Marine Aviation known here, but let’s see what Whisper has to say.

As Senators McCain and Levin begin to inquire about the costs of terminating the entire program, some have begun to suggest offering-up the F-35B as a sacrificial limb who’s amputation is necessary to save the patient.  To them I say: you’ve got it all wrong.  You’re 180-out.


Cancel the A-model first, and produce the C-model for all of the CTOL customers.  The USAF can deal with the extra range and improved slow-speed handling of the C-model. (Though they will rightfully miss the built-in cannon.)  If that’s not enough, go ahead and cancel the C-model as well.  This will set big-deck Naval Aviation back at least ten years in its quest to field a fifth generation fighter, but Boeing is waiting in the wings– and it might be worth the wait to get a real air dominance fighter for fleet defense.  The USAF can buy some more Raptors (act now, and we’ll get you stoned for no extra cost!), and Gucci high-lot F-16s for our FMS friends are still rolling-off the line in Fort Worth.  The sky is not falling.

Sorry, Whisper. It is nice to see some original thinking but your conclusions are wrong. Putting all the JSF eggs into the STOVL basket is the least attractive option for a couple of different reasons.

First, it is the model that still has the highest level of technical risk in its development cycle. The added complexity of its STOVL capability has proven to be a real challenge for the contractor, Lockheed Martin, and there is no guarantee they’ve discovered all the major hurdles even at this late date.

Second, Whisper rightly notes that the inclusion of a STOVL variant forced compromises across the entire program. But his proposed solution leaves only the least capable variant in production. All the weight and space needed to add the STOVL capability is used in the other variants for fuel and munitions capacity on the other models. The F-35B has the shortest range of all three variants. Just as the Navy is finally on the cusp of buying a jet that has a decent unrefueled radius of action, Whisper is advocating killing that variant.

Whisper also notes that per unit costs would skyrocket.

Condensing F-35 production into the STOVL model will of course drive the per-unit acquisition cost up from insane to ludicrous, but it might be palatable if you can explain to the tax-payer what they are getting.  Beyond the bread and butter of maneuver warfare and amphibious assault that the F-35B will easily support when embarked with an ARG, the US tax-payer will be getting a forward-deployed national asset.  Stop calling it a “game-changer” and tell them exactly what it is you’re supplanting.

I am not at all confident that this argument makes any real sense. If F-35 production is limited to the B model, then the Air Force and the Navy are forced with the choice of either replacing their current fleets with B models, or buying legacy aircraft such as the           F/A-18E/F. But the B model’s shorter range and increased complexity (and thus, higher unit cost) make it extremely unattractive for the Air Force, and the B-model cannot operate from conventional big deck carriers unless they are extensively modified, thus making it a non-starter for the Navy.

The other option, just buying legacy fighters for the Air Force and Navy, and giving B models to the Marines, is insane. If the decision is made to buy legacy aircraft is made, how can we justify spending untold billions of dollars developing and fielding a tiny number of jets for close air support? If old style aircraft are good enough for the Air Force and Navy, why not for the Marine Corps?  I’m already unable to discern why the Marines need supersonic stealthy fighters to provide CAS. Doing it at the expense of busting the aircraft acquisition budget doesn’t help the argument in it favor. Instead, it would be far more likely that the entire program would be cancelled.

Cancelling the B model would pose challenges for the Marines. The AV-8B has been in service for a quarter century, and is due for replacement. Without it, or the F-35B, the Marines lose the ability to integrate a fixed wing close air support platform into the Ace Combat Element deployed on board Navy LHA/LHD class ships.

But that is actually a capability they’ve managed to do without for almost the entirety of Marine Aviation’s existence.  That capability is of limited utility. The Marines would be faced with the challenge of either operating from normal airfields ashore, or operating in concert with a Navy big-deck carrier to provide air support. But that is exactly what they normally do. Any landing big enough to require more than one LHA on scene would almost certainly justify surging a CVN in support. Any landing that only requires on LHA (with no more than about 20 F-35Bs on board) would be such a localized contingency that establishing a secure airfield to operate from would likely be very feasible.

At the end of his piece, Whisper argues that the new America class LHAs are the wave of the future:

The new America class of amphibious assault ships represent a fork in the road for Naval Aviation.  The USMC needs to embrace the concept and run with it. Stop lamenting the missing well deck. While big-deck CVNs will continue to be the centerpiece of American overseas crisis response for the foreseeable future, the dynamics of the Arab Spring have shown us that we do not have enough assets to cover all of our interests simultaneously.  The F-35B+LHA combination could be one of the most cost effective and efficient solutions for engagement in the changing landscape of crisis response.

In fact, they are not. That’s a back door argument in favor of building light carriers. But time and again has shown that for the money, the big deck carrier is always the better option (and likely the subject of another post!)

If it is absolutely critical that the Marines have a STOVL capability deployed on LHA/LHD class ships, let’s build a new batch of AV-8Bs, and keep the F-35A and C models in production to rebuild the Air Force and Navy tactical aircraft fleets.