By Whisper, on July 26th, 2011
The little one, that is. The L-class – The Aphib.
As a belt begins to tighten around the pot belly that is DOD procurement, one of the most enticing bulges has been the F-35 program. With it’s three variants of fifth generation strike-fighters expected to become the backbone of United States tactical aviation, it is an ambitious, complicated, and now much scrutinized program.
The most exotic and most complicated of the three variants is without argument the F-35B. The “B” model is the replacement for the USMC’s AV-8 “Harriers” that currently serve aboard amphibs and at forward-deployed bases in Afghanistan. Capable of short take-offs and vertical landings, the F-35B is the only game in town to replace the old and tired Harriers.
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.
From its conception and design, to the competitive fly-off between Boeing and Lockheed Martin*, the entire concept has been sub-optimized to include the STOVL variant. The STOVL requirement has driven the most basic design considerations – like having only one engine. Does the Navy really want a single engine combat jet flying around the CVNs? No. It is an accepted compromise. In the case of engines, two is always better than one when you’re working blue-water flight ops. This lesson is written in blood and paid in national treasure.
Cancelling the F-35B leaves you with two ugly babies who never knew their mother.
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.
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.
In the opening hours of Operation Odyssey Dawn, B-2 bombers flew from their base in the United States to Libya and back to provide the “unique capabilities” necessary to kick down the door for the NATO campaign. What if instead of a twenty hour mission requiring a billion-dollar asset and millions of pounds of jet fuel – you had an aircraft that could do the same mission in twenty minutes from the deck of a ship just off the coast? Whether operating in the denied airspace of an integrated air-defense system or striking fleeting targets in a failed state, the future of tactical aviation is about being readily available and flexible.
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.
* 11-01-2018 Link Gone; no replacements found – Ed.