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Check out my latest in depth feature on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet over at Foxtrot Alpha!
Hey guys here are the links to what has been going on over at Foxtrot Alpha, make sure to bookmark it as I will be posting other there primarily for a bit, although I may be back at aviationintel full time if things don’t work out, so please bear with me!
Make sure to bookmark the link to the Foxtrot Alpha home page: http://foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com/
Hey guys! I mentioned earlier in the week that I had a big announcement to make, so here goes- I have been hired on to the Gawker team to be a military technology editor for a subsite of their incredibly popular auto enthusiast page www.Jalopnik.com. The new subsite will be called Foxtrot Alpha (you do the math on that one), and it will feature interesting news and my usual commentary on military technology and strategy. I know so many of my readers applaud the independent nature of Aviationintel.com, but this opportunity will provide a platform for an audience that is truly massive. Jalopnik.com get’s about seven million hits to the home page a month, and the Gawker community gets exponentially more. Additionally, my Boss over at Jalopnik has given me an incredible amount of control over the content that I post and has been extremely helpful getting me started.
So what does this mean for Aviationintel? Aviationintel will still continue on! I will see how the sites can work together, and eventually if my audience over at Jalopnik and Gawker enjoys the same depth of coverage that I offer here, it may all just melt together. Only time will tell.
My first piece has been posted over at Foxtrot Alpha and is linked below, and by aviationintel reader’s request, it tracks the history of Lockheed’s Advanced Technology Bomber offering, code-named “Senior Peg.” The response has been great so it looks like things are off to a positive start. This position will also allow me to get out and do some on site interviews and base/weapons program visits around the globe. Just this month and next I have some very cool location shoots and interviews lined up, so stay tuned for that. I am also planning on integrating original video content into the site beyond just stills and my usual narrative.
I would greatly appreciate all my Aviationintel readers, who have been so loyal during the good times and the rockier ones, to continue to support what I do by sending me emails for tips, content ideas, or just to chat about our common passion. In fact I need you all more than ever. Also, be sure to take part in the lively discussion section over at Foxtrot Alpha. I want to hear all of your voices.
Here is the link to my first Gawker post: http://foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com/lockheeds-senior-peg-the-forgotten-stealth-bomber-1534057907
Cheers, and upward and onward!
First of all, I will be posting a BIG announcement this weekend that will effect Aviationintel going forward in a positive way. Stay tuned for more information. Now onto the good stuff:
PENTAGON ASKS PERMISSION TO RIDE ITS MOST TRUSTY STEEDS OFF TO THE GLUE FACTORY:
Well, it is just about as bad as I thought it would be. Under the upcoming budget, the DoD and the Obama Administration are looking to slash the armed forces’ budget, and in doing so, the USAF will take the biggest “platform” oriented hits. The A-10 Warthog, the U-2 Dragon Lady, and the OH-58 Kiowa fleets are to be dispensed with in full. In their place, the RQ-4 Global Hawk will take over the U-2′s duty, the OH-58′s roles will be filled mainly by AH-64E and UH-72A helicopters, and the A-10, well it will have no real replacement at all, as its demanding mission will be executed by existing platforms and eventually the F-35 Joint Strike fighter.
None of this is good, but some of these force structure moves are worse than others. The U-2 does much of the RQ-4s job more reliably and at lower cost, while carrying more capable sensors (in some cases). The simple and cheap to operate OH-58D Kiowa Warrior is being partially replaced by a heavy and complicated attack chopper, the AH-64E, while the Kiowa’s training role, one that it does efficiently all over the globe in different guises, will be replaced by the comparatively large twin-engine UH-72 Lakota. These choppers of european origin were just purchased for light logistical support duties and mainly serve with the National Guard. Swapping out the Jet Ranger based TH-67 trainers with the UH-72 is akin teaching driving class with a brand new fully BMW crossover. Then there is the kicker, axing the A-10 fleet as a whole. Getting rid of the most relevant attack aircraft of the last decade will save $5B over the next five years, or so they say. Personally, I would rather have a couple hundred or so upgraded A-10s than another 30 F-35s for that same dollar figure.
The idea that we are willing to gamble away the most effective close air support platform ever devised because we are sick of occupational warfare and obsessed with a cash gobbling ”catch-22″ defense program (F-35) is arrogant, near-sighted, sad, and a total mistake. With war-weary America’s weakening position in the world, the rise of peer state competitors and the persistent threat from rogue nations, the notion that going forward we will continue to “choose” the wars we are involved in, as we have in the recent past, is an absurd and unrealistic proposition. Just because America does not “want” a ground war in the future does not necessarily mean we will get our way. Most of all, this decision shows how near-sighted the people who are actually in charge of making these decisions have become. Those in charge will not “scale down” a platform’s community size to retain elastic capabilities because in their mind they must have 2500 F-35s. In the end the retirement of the A-10 fleet as a whole will probably end not just in fictional cost savings, needed so that the F-35 program can be protected, but in dead US servicemen and women who are relegated to fight this country’s wars on terra firma.
Close air support (CAS) over denied airspace is a debatable mission in the first place, but an A-10 with towed decoys, digital electronic warfare suite, helmet mounted sight, paired with its survivable airframe and its low altitude operating environment is debatably more “survivable” than a fragile fast jet that features ”narrow band” low observability. Does the A-10 have a radar and beyond visual range air to air missiles, and can it turn at 9G and fly over the speed of sound? No, but can the F-35 whip around trees and hills at low altitude and in bad weather while carrying thousands of pounds of smart munitions and slinging over a thousand milk jug sized 30mm rounds at the enemy for hours, not minutes, at a time? Not a chance.
Considering that the A-10 is paid for, largely upgraded, and operates at a fraction of the price that the F-35 will, it is a serious bargain. Sadly, the Warthog’s demise is just another cost of “getting behind” the totally unproven and performance compromised F-35 program, and it disgusts me. If this is what the F-35 program is now costing our already highly depleted Air Force, maybe the USAF and the DoD should look at what is wrong with the F-35 and not what is wrong with battle proven A-10. An aircraft, that over decades of warfare, has saved countless young service people from returning home to their families in flag draped coffins.
The fact that this airframe is being treated as just another “niche capability” and “dated asset” by USAF brass is mind blowing. Since the mighty hog’s inception, the USAF has always been a fair weather friend at best to the A-10, but axing it after it has proved its worth for decades and saying “other platforms can provide this mission, just not as well in some respect” does not mean that less targets will be struck on a single night, or less enemy fighters shot down by a single jet, it means more American soldiers will return home in body bags should even a limited land war occur in the future. The whole thing is shameful and just another symptom of a disease riddled Pentagon. Hopefully Congress will continue to fund even downsized A-10 operations so that if a major conflict should occur this irreplaceable capability can be brought back in mass. Ideally, the Army would absorb the program as this is where the aircraft really belonged in the first place, but the cuts to this branch’s force structure are deep as well and it is highly doubtful that funding could be found for the mighty Warthog to operate with US Army proudly painted on its wings.
If these jets do get sent prematurely to the bone yard, then at least attempt to give some away to our allies and especially the Afghan Air Force, as they were in dire need of an indigenous close air support platform years ago…
FINALLY THE PENTAGON COMES TO TERMS WITH THE LITTORAL COMBAT SHIP’S IRRELEVANCE:
The news from the Pentagon was not all bad today. On the upside was the request to end production of the highly controversial and mostly toothless Littoral Combat Ship at 36 units. In its place a proper frigate seems to be in the Navy’s future, thankfully. This is fantastic news for so many reasons, many of which we have discussed here at great length. It appears that the 36 ships that will be built are more of a token program to get the Navy’s fairly arbitrary and over emphasized “numbers of hulls in the water” metric elevated. Ideally, this program would have been capped at maybe a dozen to eighteen units tops. In the LCS’s place, I have long suggested buying the Ingalls’ Patrol Frigate 4921, a ship that will be capable of area air defense, especially when paired with the new quad packed evolved sea sparrow missile, along with anti surface, submarine, and special operations warfare. These ships could also pack a surface launched version of the SLAM-ER missile for tactical strikes far over the Horizon. In addition, and to built up the Navy’s surface combatant inventory, a true Corvette would be useful for surviving and fighting in the littorals. An Enhanced version of Sweden’s stealthy Visby class would be at the top of my list.
Hopefully the 36 ship figure for the LCS program will come down by at least half and we can missionize these ships beyond the point of being glorified Coast Guard patrol vessels. In fact, maybe bailing them over to the Coast Guard makes great sense as their speed would actually be very useful in the homeland security and drug interdiction roles. Then maybe we could just cut the program fully and move on with procuring the multi-mission frigate we originally needed in the first place.
THE RQ-170 SENTINEL HAS A NICKNAME
A friend of the site, and a fellow defense journalist David Axe, who runs the site War is Boring, posted a great little piece about the RQ-170 recently. Through some great sleuth work he found out that the shadowy stealth drone actually goes by a different name than its manufacturer’s parlance. That name being “Wraith.” I always understood the definition of wraith to be an evil spirit, but Webster’s idea of what one is makes the name even more intriguing: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/wraith
Called an aircraft something other than its original name is an overtly common practice. Today the F-16 Fighting Falcon is almost always referred to as a “Viper,” and the Super Hornet is called “Rhino.” Its close cousin, the E/A-18G Growler is known as a “Grizzly.” The B-1B Lancer is unanimously referred to as “The Bone” and the A-10 Warthog was actually born with the name “Thunderbolt II.” Some of these nicknames come from chance, developing over time within their communities, and others emerge due to logistical issues, such as distinguishing three sub-types of aircraft from one another when operating onboard an aircraft carrier. The RQ-170 Sentinel being called “Wraith” seems somewhat fitting, but that title would be even more relevant if the type has indeed grown larger and now accomplishes more roles than penetrating reconnaissance alone. In other words, a “Super Sentinel” that this website has predicted to have existed for some time. I will let you use your imagination with that one…
SOCOM’S NEW CRUISE SHIP:
Mr. Axe has another unique piece that unveils America’s new special operations sea basing ship. Currently the USS Ponce is deployed to the Persian Gulf to act as a floating outpost for special operations and mine-sweeping activities, but the decades old ship is more of stopgap measure than as a permanent solution for such a mission. Enter the soon to be militarized container ship currently named the “Cragside.” The conversion of a commercial container ship into a potent multi-role floating naval base is nothing new, nor is the concept of a floating base for special forces, an idea that dates back to the Vietnam War (see article linked at the top of this entry). Yet in an age where access to land bases can be denied via geopolitical or physical means, such a capability is more relevant than ever. Originally, the ”Cragside” was built as a roll on, roll off commercial container ship, but after the US Navy drastically refits her, it will feature an expansive flight deck, large hangar, special operations planning facilities and weapons lockers, a gym, and the ability to deploy small boats and other waterborne vehicles with ease.
Basically, a militarized “Cragside” will be the “Love Boat” for Navy SEALs and the 160th SOAR, along with over special warfare units attached to SOCOM. One thing is for sure, the ship looks pretty damn cool as it is, and once it is painted haze gray and loaded with black choppers, communications gear, and a miniature navy of its own, it will be a very unwelcome sight off our potential enemies’ shores.
Read more about the “Cragside” in David’s post linked here.
BAE’S CONFUSINGLY NAMED “REPLICA” STEALTH AIRCRAFT MOCKUP MAKES ANOTHER APPEARANCE:
BAE’s “Replica” 5th generation mockup made another rare appearance at Warton Aerodrome recently as seen in the video above. “Replica” was BAE’s early 2000′s study into a 5th generation light stealth fighter. The aircraft’s advanced composite stealthy structure and shape, something akin to an F-35 crossbred with a YF-23, with UCAV wings attached, was designed using an advanced CAD process and built using laser measurement. Some of these design processes and philosophy behind “Replica” helped secure BAE a stake in the F-35 program.
The mockup of the jet has been seen multiple times mounted on a pole for radar cross-section testing, often times with different exterior applications. The fact that this aircraft is still seen in different surface configurations long after its time as potential flying production aircraft ended may lend us a clue as to its continuing use as a “control variable” for exterior “signature control” applications, such as radar absorbent materials and structures.
Regardless of “Replica’s” utility, a decade and a half after the concept’s inception, I would bet that the information gleaned from its continued testing, even as a surrogate for new stealthy structures and external applications, would have had a large impact on the design of “Teranis,” BAE’s proof of concept UCAV demonstrator that just made its first “publicly acknowledged” flight. Teranis is a fairly promising and advanced design, featuring some very “stealthy” features, many of which have not been seen publicly yet on US drone incarnations. Like Teranis, I would have to say that Replica’s concept is above all else aimed at proving “broadband” stealth, where the aircraft’s radar signature drove its design above many other requirements.
For more on cutting edge laser location/measurement low observable manufacturing and application techniques take a look at this video:
THE BELL JET RANGER RIDES AGAIN!!!
Heli-Expo 2014 had some interesting helicopter developments, but possibly the biggest was Bell’s new and extremely relevant 505 Jet Ranger X. The 505 will go after Robinson Helicopter’s newish R66 short light turbine model. The new chopper may cost under a million bucks but it will feature some advanced tech, such as the very capable and proven GARMIN1000 “glass” avionics suite and full authority digital engine control (FADEC) for its Turbomeca Arrius 2R powerplant. Additionally, the pint-sized Jet Ranger will feature a 350 mile range and a 125kt cruise. Multiple configurations will exist with seating for five in the standard layout, with others featuring clamshell doors and missionized equipment packages.
The Jet Ranger X will almost certainly ride on its predecessor’s legacy and become the go-to choice for TV News, policing, economical executive point to point transport and general utility applications. Then there is the trainer market. With lower fuel consumption, operating and acquisition cost than its highly successful predecessors, the Jet Ranger X will most likely become “thee” turbine helicopter trainer. Currently, Robinson’s R66 has seen penetration into this space, but seeing as the R66, with its unique flying qualities and cockpit layout, is the top of the Robinson line, Bell’s 505 may offer an aircraft for pilots to learn on at discounted rates while offering enticing platform migration to heavier Jet Ranger and other Bell models in the future.
The advent of the Bell 505 brings us back to the first story posted in the this article, the DoD’s budget cuts. Currently the Kiowa (earlier Jet Ranger derivative) is used to train Army pilots with great success. Under the Army’s “make the force structure fit” plan, these aircraft will be retired in mass, along with the OH-58 fleet, in an attempt to wipe the whole platform from the Army’s books. The turbine helicopter training role will then be fulfilled by the recently purchased, $6M a pop, twin engine UH-72 Lakota. How stupid is this when the Army could buy almost six brand new and super efficient Bell 505s for the price of one Lakota? Not only that, but the cost of running the Lakotas, maintaince and fuel costs, is a total waste. Simply put, using a ten person, twin engine helicopter for a job as menial as basic helicopter training is not just dumb, it is straight up wasteful. If we no longer need the Lakota, seeing as the National Guard will be trading their Apaches for Black Hawks, then sell them. Shoehorning them into a role they were never meant to perfrom when a platform that cost a fraction of the price to buy and operate is now going to be available, is an insult to the American tax payer.
BROKEN BONE: B-1B LANDS WITHOUT ITS NOSE GEAR
Our good friend David Cenciotti over at the TheAviationist.com has a fun little piece up featuring a video of B-1B crash landing on Edwards dry lake bed back in 1989. I have never seen this video before but it is pretty damn dramatic. David has some background on the event shown in the video, and as always make sure to check his page regularly for aviation news from around the globe.
I have said that I would post more of my media interviews here on the site but for some reason they just escape my mind. Anyway, I appear weekly on one of the smartest programs out there, The John Batchelor Show, and I want to share February 2nd’s appearance with you. Usually we discuss whatever main post I have up but sometimes John will “catch me on the fly” with breaking news. I would highly recommend listening to John if he is syndicated in your area, or at least download some of his podcasts. He covers just about every issue that I care about including history, art, foreign policy, spaceflight, the economy and so many other fascinating topics. He also has the most legitimate guest pool I have ever seen. So go make yourself smarter and download some John Batchelor to listen to during tomorrow’s commute!
Possibly the most “popular” new capability featured on the highly controversial F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the aircraft’s Distributed Aperture System, otherwise known as “DAS” for short. DAS is a unique system that pairs an array of cameras installed around a vehicle that each stare in separate directions. Then a powerful computer processor “stitches” these images together to create a continuous viewable video “sphere.” When the DAS system is paired with a helmet mounted display that is slaved to a spacial tracking system, the person wearing the helmet can look around and virtually “see” the environment around them, even in total darkness and, in some cases, otherwise blinding weather conditions. Because the cameras are mounted around the outside of the vehicle, and the user is seated inside of the vehicle while wearing a helmet mounted display with the DAS’s imagery being projected inside of it, the user can virtually “see through” the vehicle’s interior structures as if they were never there in the first place. As we have discussed at great length before, DAS is pretty cool stuff that has massive implications for the future of air combat, but it also looks like it will soon be migrating from the air to the sea, where it may find an even more welcoming and lucrative customer base…
Distributed Aperture technology does not only provide synthetic vision, when paired with high-speed computers loaded with the latest in image recognition and object tracking software, the system can provide missile launch detection, ground target tracking and recognition, infra-red search and track, and even ballistic missile tracking capabilities. Simply put, the system is very smart and very sensitive, and will only become more so as time goes on. In air combat, a pilot flying an aircraft with DAS installed will always know where the enemy is during a close in dogfight as the enemy aircraft cannot escape DAS’s panoptic point of view and tracking software. The system really works as a smart optical search and tracker at longer ranges and as a virtual ”backseater” born with x-ray vision during close range combat. A much more capable but less affable “Goose” if you will.
DAS is also totally integrated with other sensors, so that if the F-35′s super-capable APG-81 AESA radar detects something of interest, DAS’s software will closely analyze that location in space to see if it can “add” to the pilot’s situational awareness and the quality of potential targeting data. DAS and the F-35′s Electro-Optical Targeting System EOTS, basically a internal SNIPER XR targeting pod mounted under faceted windows below the F-35′s nose, also work closely together. When it comes to long-range targets, the aircraft’s radar may detect a possible contact, and the powerful telescopic vision of the EOTS will attempt lock onto it and relay its imagery to the pilot. As the target comes within the viewing range of DAS the system will seamlessly ”hand the contact off” if commanded to do so, thus freeing up the more powerful but cycloptic EOTS for other tasks. In this manner the system also offers some redundancy against electronic countermeasures and jamming, as optical systems are not susceptible to these types of tactics. The integrated nature of the F-35′s sensor suite, including its radar, EOTS, DAS, data-link and sensitive radar warning receiver, also allow for the F-35 to go “electromagnetic silent” once a target is detected at long range, and tracked by passive sensors (everything but radar really). This allows for the F-35 to maneuver tactically without being detected by continuously “spiking” the enemy aircraft with its radar system.
DAS, especially when integrated with a variety of other passive and active sensors, offers an extremely elevated form of situational awareness, as well as targeting quality tracking data and automatic contact recognition. With this in mind, the creative folks over at Northrop Grumman have adapted DAS for service at sea, in a system ominously named “Silent Watch.” Simply put, this system makes sense, not just for US Navy destroyers or Littoral Combat Ships who live under the constant threat of everything from cruise missile attacks to swarms of high-speed enemy cigarette boats, but also for the civilian market. When a super wealthy individual blows $100M on a super yacht, hires a team of ex-special forces to guard their “steel island,” and blows millions more on choppers, tenders, and mini-subs to play with, installing Silent Watch on their ship just makes sense and would seemingly be the very least of their budgetary concerns. This is especially true considering that many of the folks who own such large pleasure boats are usually security conscious and under some type of persistent security threat themselves.
Silent Watch, which has already been tested aboard Northrop Grumman’s test yacht the ”Sperry Star III,” is also a relevant for large commercial ships that have to sail into regions that have issues with piracy and terrorism. In fact, even for ships that do not sail in high risk areas, the situational awareness enhancement gained by Silent Watch may be worth the investment for navigation purposes alone, especially considering that crew sizes continue to shrink on commercial ships. Silent Watch could even potentially detect, and immediately track a man overboard, a capability that has never been fielded to this very day. The ability to have a system that could do all these things and literally alert the crew when an object is on a collision course with, or in its vicinity of, their ship could be worth its cost in saved manpower and averted disasters alone. Even while docked in port, a time when a ship is idle and its manpower is at its lowest magnitude, while vulnerability to attack it at its highest potential, Silent Watch could keep an eye on the ship’s surrounding with minimal manpower requirements and machine-like efficiency.
It is great to see DAS migrate its way off the F-35 even before its first host aircraft is fielded. This type of capability, and its Orwellian mega-scale cousin named WAAS, have the ability to literally change the way we interact and observe our environment. As bandwidth evolves, and more data can be piped quickly over long distances, “unmanned aircraft” may become “virtually manned” aircraft when the mission dictates it (see #10 this popular feature!). In the end, DAS is a game changing technology, will be just as at home at sea, and probably more plentiful there as well, as it is in the air. In time, I would not be surprised to see the system deployed on everything from US Navy AEGIS cruises to Carnvial cruise ships.
One thing is for sure, the future is very, very observant!
What the hell has happened to 60 Minutes? The name of the story was “Is The F-35 Worth It,” yet I really heard no debate in regards to that question whatsoever. What I did hear and see was an ill-informed reporter getting a look into the military’s side of F-35 program, with a few boilerplate questions thrown in. These questions were far from challenging considering how big of a blunder this weapons program has been. They mentioned that it was behind schedule and over budget, had some bad lighting and some unsatisfactory tires, and that was about it. Was the producer of this segment really a VP over at Lockheed Martin? All kidding aside, it just looked like he was having a blast playing with million dollar gadgetry and brushing shoulders with the military brass and test pilot corps.
Where was the long list of issues that the aircraft continues to suffer from without solution? What about discussing the alternatives to this machine and how many in the defense journalism and analyzation world see the JSF program as hurting America’s security not helping it? How could they have not included the opinion from someone, anyone, who is not receiving a paycheck in relation to this program? Not one-third party aerospace or defense expert was featured to give his or her view on this complex situation and not one independent study was cited. The reporter, David Martin, who mainly asked the same questions a child would have asked, was apparently not in the dark enough about aerospace and defense technology so they threw the damn super helmet on his head with the jet sitting in dark hangar, and let him look at a repeated image from the aircraft’s DAS system. He was just mesmerized that you can project an images and data into a motion tracking helmet? Sounds like this guy did a lot of research into the program and existing capabilities before executing this story. A real great pick for someone to do a feature on the most complex fighter jet ever built. Then came the grossest part of all, the finale of the whole piece, a ”hard-hitting” smirk filled statement that none of these issues really matter as we are going to buy a ton of these aircraft no matter how good or relevant they may be. Well isn’t that convenient. Sickening.
Hey American public, it is great that you now know that the F-35 is “on track” (are you kidding me!?!?!)and cool guys with beaming grins dressed like Maverick from Top Gun, a no-nonsense Marine, and a bureaucrat that was characterized as if on cue to be a staunch defender of your tax dollars, all think that the F-35 is just great and everything is going smoothly! It is especially wonderful that 60 Minutes told the entire country that no matter what happens with ongoing testing, timelines, technological developments or costs, that the F-35 will be bought in mass. So who really cares about this topic anymore anyway right?
60 Minutes has had a rough year, but I beg them to never to do another aerospace/defense technology story again as they are now just blatant proliferators of disinformation in support of corporate interests. We had Bezos’s stupid drones now we have the ultimate puff piece on, of all things, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Maybe next week they will tell us that Jay-Z has gone into the spaceflight business and has developed a new rocket that will take everyone to the moon for a dollar. Bottom-line, If you think this is a good example of investigative journalism than I would suggest watching Disney’s “The Jungle Book” to learn about jungle ecosystems.
In the end the name of this story should be changed to “Is Watching A Story About Aerospace Topics On 60 Minutes Worth It?” The answer is unequivocally NO.
Some of you who are linking into this story and are not familiar with the site may think that this is a rant by someone who “hates the F-35,” I can tell you that I hate no airplane. I dearly wish this program was a good investment for America, sadly it is not. Still, there is some silver lining regarding the F-35 program as it sits today, here is a fairly positive, and in depth article I recently posted on the Marine’s F-35B variant. For those who are wanting to learn much more about this troubled endeavor, here are over 175 articles, some very in depth, regarding this complex issue.
View this infomercial, I mean “news story,” for yourself:
Here is the “60 Minutes Overtime” on ALIS (it would not embed): http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/can-the-us-militarys-new-jet-fighter-be-hacked
I have no clue what it is, but my Facebook news feed on Sundays always delivers some fantastic aviation and military related video content. Today was especially good so I decided to share a few of the highlights with you guys:
Check out this quality video of the A-10 doing what it was put here on Earth to do, maneuver aggressively at low level while tearing crap apart with its GAU-8 30mm “Avenger” cannon! The fact that the USAF is going to can this marvelous machine, at the detriment to our ground combat forces, should be a criminal offense. The Army and Marines should have owned this platform, the USAF will only truly appreciate it when it is rotting by the hundreds in the Arizona sun.
I have said it a million times, Boeing makes one tough bird! Also, note those massive winglets on the 767:
Although it seems the piracy issue off of the Horn of Africa has subsided a bit, it still has not gone away by any means. Currently, an international coalition of warships patrols this area around the clock. Navy-Marine Expeditionary Strike Groups have kept a near constant presence in the area in an attempt to deal with this issue, as well as to monitor the instability in Yemen and other nearby nations. The cost of this joint operation is massive to say the least, and these ships are often only on scene after an incident has occurred. Therefore, I have never understood why security contractors are not embarked aboard the vast majority of merchant ships traversing the area, similar to how bar pilots are used for navigation, as a mandatory precaution. I do realize there are certain international and national laws that pertain to arming merchant ships but these are certainly extraordinary circumstances. Some nations and/or shipping firms may opt out of such a service, but at least the deterrence will be there for would-be raiders, and if enough attempted hijackings are thwarted by gunfire, it may collapse the piracy industry. And yes, I do realize the socio-economic realities that surround this sensitive issue. Regardless of them, this madness has to stop, and the most immediate way of accomplishing that goal is by hardening these fat targets, water jets and a radio just doesn’t cut it.
Anyways, here is a pretty wild video of armed contractors repelling an aggressive attack by pirates. It is amazing how the GoPro concept has revolutionized battle footage.
Check out this little early 1990′s throwback video of VFC-12 and their A-4 Skyhawk aggressors. These guys ruined the egos of many fleet aviators in their antiquated little “scooters.” Today the “Omars,” still based at NAS Oceana, fly the F/A-18A+ Hornet and continue their proud tradition of ”punishing the mistakes” of fast jet Naval Aviators.
After my recent piece about the Navy’s new LHA “America” class of amphibious assault ship’s inadequate thermal protection built into its flight deck, I think it is time for the Marine Corps, and the “Gator Navy,” to get serious about getting the most out of their soon to be fielded F-35B force. The ultra-expensive F-35B, with its unique capability to takeoff and land in short distances, while retaining a decent majority of the conventional F-35A’s range and payload, is really a fantastic capability that makes this particular model of the Joint Strike Fighter the most strategically relevant out of the three variants. With the fielding of the F-35B, the Navy almost doubles its theoretical “first day of war”, fixed wing capable, carrier force. This means that more ships capable of operating high-performance, low-observable, multi-role fighters, can be in more places at a single time. This enhancement to America’s naval power projection capability will complicate the war plans of any potential peer state belligerent, and will result in a highly relevant strategic boost for the US, especially in the dawning age of Air-Sea Battle and the DoD’s “pivot” towards the Pacific theater.
The short takeoff and vertical landing optimized F-35B is so capable because its close relatives, the USAF’s conventional runway operated F-35A and the Navy’s “cat and trap” configured F-35C, paid a huge price aerodynamically and conceptually in order to include the short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) requirement into the F-35′s basic airframe design. In the name of commonality, the F-35B, with its huge box-like central lift fan, along with its complex drivetrain and downward swiveling exhaust nozzle, basically handicapped the aerodynamics, and in essence the very concept, of its more conventional Navy and Air Force brethren. In other words, some would say that the F-35 was built as a STOVL aircraft first, and then adapted to a standard and carrier fighter second, instead of the other way around.
The design demands of lifting twenty plus tons, near vertically, on a pillar of thrust are simply so consuming that they compromised the potential performance of the other two less “engineering challenged” F-35 variants. Oddly enough, the Marine’s F-35B order only represents about 14% of the DoD’s total F-35 buy, yet the other 86% of aircraft will handicapped by the F-35B’s unique design requirements. When the JSF’s design was finally locked, the aircraft was left with a massive fuselage cross-section, as well as a single engine with a huge circumference. This, along with many other STOVL related design requirements, gave the more numerous A and C versions of the jet an airframe that is far less than optimal given their basic sub-design’s goals. This conceptual strategy, known as ”commonality,” was supposed to save money and speed the aircraft’s delivery to the front lines when compared with building two or even three separate primary designs that share avionics subsystems. This “strategy,” one that many predicted was more of a sales ploy than a relevant procurement and design concept, has now been proven to be far less than ideal, and its benefits borders on nil in actuality.
Once you set aside the constant flow of “it’s always sunny in Fort Worth” (where Lockheed builds the F-35) manufacturer propaganda, the stark reality is that if the Joint Strike Fighter program had not been bogged down with the STOVL requirement the Air Force and Navy, and the other nations that are now customers of the F-35, could have likely had a much better fighter. One that is more robust, features better range, super-cruise capability, enhanced payload and much greater agility, and all at a lower price tag. So, in the end the Marines will get the finest replacement for their AV-8Bs Harriers that they could have ever wished for, while the USAF, Navy and partner nations (over 90% of the F-35′s entire production run) will get an aircraft that has paid dearly for granting the Marines their golden short takeoff and vertical landing wish.
Now that the DoD is so heavily invested in this flawed design philosophy, and presumably will not cancel the F-35 program as a whole at this point in its “evolution,” the idea of not procuring the most strategically revolutionary model of the lot (F-35B), and the one that the other two more numerous sub-designs will pay a high performance and capability price throughout their design lives for, would be beyond stupid. The fact that some aviation “experts” and DoD big-wigs say we could, or even should, cancel the B model alone is absurd, as we would end up with two compromised designs (the A and the C model) without the unique strategic “payoff” of the third design (the STOVL B model) that made these compromises exist in the first place! The whole situation is really an odd scenario where aerospace design, politics, metrics, conceptual force structure planning and opportunity cost converge, and not in a pretty or organized way.
So with all this in mind, my advice to the “gator navy” and the Marine Corps is to get behind the F-35B in a big way, and this goes far beyond fighting to see that the aircraft is not cancelled and rushing it past an erroneous “initial operational capability” goal line. The Marines need to immediately highlight to the public the strategic opportunity that the F-35B presents to the nation, and prioritize funding to an “ecosystem” of uniquely F-35B centered support infrastructure and force multiplying capabilities that will allow the jet to realize their full potential. In doing so, the F-35B force could positively revolutionize the Marine Expeditionary Strike Group’s utility forever.
The idea that the F-35B will work like its predecessor, the AV-8B Harrier, on the decks of Navy amphibious assault ships really does not give the aircraft’s attributes the credit they deserve. Deploying a state of the art, low observable, supersonic and highly networked asset like the F-35B in place of the Harrier is like trading in a 1960′s Mustang Cobra for a brand new Corvette. A metaphor that is both accurate in regards to the aircraft’s capability and it’s complexity.
The AV-8B is missionized and tasked as primarily at close air support asset, although the classic jump jet has just received the ability to employ the AIM-120 AMRAAM operationally. Seeing the F-35B in the same light, as primarily a close air support asset, is ridiculous. This aircraft was built to penetrate enemy air defenses and strike at the heart of their ability to wage war via direct attack for low and medium class counter-air environments, and via the use of standoff weaponry for extremely high-threat scenarios. And yes, it can provide close air support as well, but you do not need a stealthy F-35B to do that in the vast majority of foreseeable combat situations. For instance, the probability that we are really going to be landing hundreds, if not thousands of Marines on beaches where we do not have air superiority above their heads is quite low. Such a dire circumstance, especially at first glance, seems to represent a fairly antiquated view of amphibious operations. Even if a lightning fast, over the horizon, sneak beach landing on an enemy’s shore were realized, things like LCACs (Landing Craft Air Cushion), amphibious fighting vehicles and thousands of Marine infantrymen are hardly stealthy. Thus, the F-35B’s ability to leverage the “element of surprise” will be all but eliminated.
With this in mind, the question arises, do we really need stealth assets overhead during a beach landing at all? In a time of emerging long-range precision naval fire support and Helicopter gunships bristling with guided munitions, there are many other, and far cheaper, options for close air support than a relatively short ranged and high-speed stealth fighter. In most circumstances, the F-35B will do the close air support job far better than an upgraded AV-8B Harrier, but where the F-35B’s real talents lie are in its ability to give the Marines and the ”gator navy” much more than just a new high-speed precision close air support platform.
SEAD/DEAD (suppression/destruction of enemy air defenses) ”wild weasel,” advanced counter-air, and electronic attack to some extent, are all capabilities that the Marine Expeditionary Strike Group does not current possess in an organic fashion. Instead, these flotillas would rely on “external assets” to get the job done during a time war. Currently such capabilities are provided by Navy or even Air Force aircraft, such as the F-22 Raptor, Block 50 F-16CM Viper, E/A-18G Growler and so on. With the addition of the F-35B to the Marine’s inventory, varying levels of these capabilities will now be within the Marine Expeditionary Strike Group’s own repertoire. But that is not all the F-35B provides.
For the first time, the Marine Expeditionary Strike Group will have a ship-deployed fixed-wing platform that can provide deep strike, counter air, advanced penetrating reconnaissance and advanced signals intelligence far into highly contested territory. In other words, these Marine-centric flotillas will possess the same baseline capabilities as their larger cousins, the Carrier Strike Group will have, although in a lower density format. Also, whereas the F-35B’s ability to deliver close air support during a traditional beach landing is less than unique, its ability to do so while operating within the outer “spheres” of inland enemy surface to air missile batteries is. Also, with the F-35B, the Expeditionary Strike Group may not land on a beach at all during a ground assault. Instead, they may insert forces deep behind enemy lines for pinpoint raids, in which case the F-35B would potentially be able to operate in a DEAD/Jamming role to “clear the way” for MV-22 Ospreys, while also providing offensive counter air and close air support duties for the mission. In effect, with the F-35B, the ESG is no longer beholden to coastal assaults against enemy’s with capable air defense systems. Paired with the MV-22 Osprey’s range and speed, against certain foes, the ESG can put hundreds of miles on inland territory under direct threat, both from the air and the ground.
Because of the fielding of the F-35B, the Expeditionary Strike Group can now transform into a “first day of war” force, capable of operating independently of the USAF and a nuclear powered aircraft carrier deployed air wing, even against a formidable foe. An ESG will now be able to provide its own highly capable combat air patrols, its own destruction of enemy air defenses, its own penetrating airborne reconnaissance, and its own manned deep strike capabilities. Simply put, F-35B breaks the ESG’s dependencies on multitude of external assets, many of which will be already taxed to the limit during a serious conflict against a credible peer state foe which may occur over a vast theater. No longer will close proximity land bases or massive aerial “tanker bridges” for USAF F-22s or F-16s be a mission breaking issue for an ESG. And most importantly, traditional Carrier Strike Groups, and their massive air wings, can be decoupled from the expeditionary strike group during operations against a serious threat. In effect, the F-35B not only gives the Expeditionary Strike Group a major capability boost, but by giving the ESG operational independence it also boosts America’s “total force” far more than the sum of its parts. High value assets that would traditionally be needed to work in conjunction with an ESG against a hardened enemy will be free to go other places and do other things. One of these things is simply staying home, thus saving precious airframe time and cost.
Once the F-35B is in service, and considering the unique air, sea and land forces that Marine Expeditionary Strike Group and its flotilla provides, many smaller engagements will be able to be handled without a huge and costly Carrier Strike Group’s presence. Thus, giving much greater flexibility to commanders who may have to deal with multiple missions, in multiple theaters, at a single time. Additionally, because the ESG now has an aircraft capable of surviving in denied airspace, America’s contribution to coalition operations, where the majority of the air combat force may not be supplied by the US, no longer dictates expensive USAF or nuclear carrier deployments. Once again, this saves money, fleet hours and also lower’s America’s geopolitical ”exposure” to such an operation. role fighter’s first day of war, “door kicking down” capabilities.
Currently, ESG’s often deploy “helicopter heavy,” where an LHD’s composite air wing is mainly made up of AH-1s, UH-1s, MV-22s and CH-53s, with only six Harriers included. Although this is common, it is in no way a rigid rule. Depending on the operation at hand, a LHD, and soon an LHA, is able to mix and match its air wing inventory at a commander’s will. During multiple conflicts these flattops have been used as “Harrier Carriers,” where dozens of the jump jets were packed aboard for sustained operations. The F-35B will make this concept even more relevant with its ability to accomplish a full range of missions, including taking the first shots of a conflict, in effect tearing down the surface to air missile, enemy aircraft and sensor network barriers so that other, less survivable aircraft can eventually operate over enemy territory in a safer manner. The new LHA “America” class of amphibious assault ships was built with just this in mind, doing away with the traditional well deck to carry a larger air wing with more fuel and munitions stores. Some concepts exist where a pair of amphibious assault ships work together within a single, albeit larger, ESG. One carrying a couple dozen F-35Bs and the other carrying a few dozen helicopters. Such a concept would allow for a continuous F-35B presence over the battlefield, and would even allow for the ESG to mount fixed wing “alpha strikes,” where the majority of the F-35B force prosecutes a set of strategic enemy targets, much like a Navy carrier air wing currently is capable of. An ESG configured in this manner is in many ways even more capable than a nuclear carrier deployed air wing as it also retains an incredibly powerful ground assault capability. This ability to ”surge” assets and integrate them directly into a single ESG represents a true multirole flotilla, able to flexibly threaten any foe within hundreds of miles of the ocean, not just via air strikes but also via amphibious assault.
Seeing as the F-35B has the potential to almost double America’s “first day of war” carrier footprint, a great thing in a time when the nuclear carrier force will most likely continue to shrink, and it will it allow an ESG to operate much more independently than ever before, the Marine’s have to look seriously at maximizing this game changing technology. In order to really get the most out of the F-35B fleet, the Marines and Navy must be willing to aggressively invest in tailored capabilities that will enable this aircraft to reach its true potential and thus maximize the ESG’s utility. If the measures laid out below are taken, a Marine-centric flotilla, with embarked F-35Bs, should be able to operate as a smaller carrier strike group on its own, even against a robustly equipped foe. All without having to deploy throngs of land based tactical, or even possibly strategic aircraft, and/or a nuclear aircraft carrier, to the same area of operations for support.
1.) Field aerial refueling “tanker” capability for the V-22 Osprey- The F-35B, although it possess superior range over the AV-8B Harrier it replaces, still only possess a combat radius of around 450 miles. Although this is the plague of many modern fighter designs, for a low density, high demand asset, like the F-35B, more fuel is a must. Buddy tanking, using an F-35B to refuel another F-35B, will eventually be possible, but there are diminishing returns when it comes to using one high performance and fuel hungry jet to tank a another high performance and fuel hungry jet. Also, F-35 buddy refueling will require one asset to fly with external tanks and a “hose and drogue” refueling pod, which would leave that aircraft vulnerable due to its external stores compromising its low observable attributes. In a time of growing surface to air missile engagement envelopes and the proliferation of airborne early warning aircraft around the globe, this is not the best scenario. The F-35B’s ability to gain the element of surprise is among its greatest strengths, giving this up for a few thousand pounds of gas would be a shame.
When it comes to aerial refueling, the F-35B is an inefficient way of enhancing the type’s on station time or striking range, as only limited amounts of gas are actually available for offload as the tanker F-35B reaches it’s own combat radius limits. Adding external tanks helps, but the drag from these tanks and their weight diminishes the net fuel increase they offer. There also remains the question of how much weight can the F-35B haul off of a LHD or LHA? A full fuel load, large external drop tanks, and a buddy refueling pod may simply be outside of the aircraft’s STOVL launch envelope. Another factor to consider when it comes to the possibility of an organic tanking capability for ESGs is that during normal deployments as little a six F-35Bs will be embarked aboard Navy ”amphibs.” Of these six aircraft, at least a couple will be down for maintenance at any given time, especially during sustained operations. Thus, using a F-35B to tank a F-35B will vastly suffocate the available use of these assets for tactical missions.
The V-22 Osprey’s tilt-rotor technology may offer a fantastic synergistic capability when paired with the F-35B. Currently, Bell/Boeing is testing a drogue system deployed from the rear ramp of an MV-22. This system is said to have up to 12k pounds of fuel to offload, although this number will certainly increase as the system evolves. Even if half that amount of gas is available under normal operating conditions, the MV-22 would be useful as a recovery tanker, for refueling F-35Bs returning from missions, or as a tanker that will give an F-35B a couple hundred miles extra gas before “fencing in” to enemy territory. The MV-22′s ability to forward deploy on various platforms, such as the stealthy DDG-1000 “Zumwalt” Class Destroyer, or even the Littoral Combat Ship, may allow for a pre-positioned “KV-22″ configured Osprey Tanker to be right under a group of F-35B’s enroute to their targets. Under such a circumstance, the MV-22 could offer the maximum offload potential to these jets as their transit times from their base of operations to offloading their fuel would be measured in tens of miles, not hundreds. With careful mission planning, MV-22 tankers positioned along an F-35B’s flight path could almost double the jump jet’s range with a single tanking evolution. Such a scenario would allow the F-35B to fly a combat radius close to 1000 miles, which may be necessary in order to keep America’s carriers, both nuclear and conventional, out of the enemy’s striking distance.
I would argue that rapidly developing the Osprey as a tanker, and increasing its fuel-offload potential, while also planning to forward deploy them along the F-35B’s interdiction route, should be an absolute priority for the USMC. In fact, this should already have been a priority as the existing AV-8B Harrier fleet suffers from a much more acute range issue than the F-35B ever will. Even if the F-35B were to miraculously get cancelled, the Marines, and their existing AV-8B Harriers, would be better off as they would finally have a way to organically in-flight refuel their jump jets in and around the proximity of the Expeditionary Strike Group.
2.) Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft- Currently the E-2C/D Hawkeye provides AEW&C and airborne networking relay functions for the Carrier Strike Group with outstanding results. The aircraft’s ”big radar picture,” and its ability to work as an airborne networking node, is invaluable. The F-35B, even with its fantastic avionics and networking capability, along with the ESG’s AEGIS equipped cruiser and/or destroyer companions, are highly capable, but a persistent standoff AEW&C capability would really be a huge plus to the ESG and the F-35B during operations. This is especially true in cases where Navy or Air Force AWACS/AEW&C aircraft, such as the E-3 Sentry, or E-2 Hawkeye, are not available. Additionally, having an advanced radar perched high above, or forward of the ESG, will allow for enhanced detection and engagement of aerial threats, including subsonic and high-speed cruise missiles.
The V-22 Osprey, with its enhanced range and loiter capability over classical rotary wing assets, would be a great choice for the AEW&C role. Modifying the V-22 with “conformal” electronically scanned arrays, a dorsal radar array, or even a drop down radome for the Osprey’s rear ramp are all potential avenues to retrofit such a capability. Additionally, the Osprey, in its current state, has ample interior volume for more fuel, electronics, and radar control officers. Another option would have the radar operators situated remotely, on one of the ESG’s surface combatants, and the info gained from a ”EV-22″ Osprey beamed down for interpretation and exploitation in real-time via data-link.
Such an asset, loitering high above the ESG, could also deliver a beyond line of sight “active-net” over the battlefield. Such a system, would have the ability to fuse and rebroadcast various platforms’ sensor pictures via data link. This would greatly enhance the situational awareness of all the ESG’s players’ “picture” of the battlespace, which is a huge force multiplier. If a Osprey configured in this manner utilized powerful AESA arrays for its AEW&C function, the EV-22 Osprey could also potentially be used for standoff pinpoint electronic attack, giving the stealthy F-35B the additional coverage it needs to operate within hotly contested airspace. Finally, such a system need not be a single role capability. Depending on the type of radar used and its processing power, moving target indicator (MTI) functions could also be added for times when air defense is not of the utmost importance. This capability would be an obvious advantage for Marine ground operations, as a “EV-22″ could “call out” enemy mechanized, and even foot soldier movements from many miles away. Under certain circumstances, this capability can also be used for detecting small boat movements in the littorals of areas of interest. In addition to MTI capability, high quality “synthetic aperture” radar pictures could be taken of enemy beach and inland territories in preparation for a beach landing or a strike, whether it be by precision naval gunfire, F-35B or BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missile attack.
3.) Fortify the deck of the Navy’s Amphibious Assault Ships- Our amphibious assault ships need to be able to handle the F-35B’s hot exhaust during high tempo operations. It is crazy to think that the Marines are going to procure hundreds and hundreds of expensive F-35Bs, yet the very aircraft carriers they are supposed to operate from during expeditionary deployments cannot sustain their use over long intervals of time.
Under the current situation, not only will all of the prior LHD “Wasp” class of ships have issues with deck heating from sustained F-35B and MV-22 operations, but the very ship that was tailor built for these aircraft, the new $6B LHA ”America” class, and which gave up its ability to launch Marine landing craft from its stern in the process, will also be similarly effected (more on this issue here). The Navy says future ships will not have this issue, but they also made this claim about the USS America long ago. Additionally, when the F-35B was in its early developmental stages, the Navy and Lockheed Martin downplayed the possibility that there would be deck related thermal issues from the F-35B’s hot exhaust. Sadly, and as many have predicted, the contrary was proven to be quite true.
Solving this issue should be a top priority for the US Navy and especially the USMC. They should treat this as a mini-Apollo project and work with cutting edge material science firms to find a retrofittable solution. Otherwise, the idea that during certain missions the F-35B could be deployed aboard an amphibious assault ship in large numbers, and thus a Marine Expeditionary Strike Group could truly be used as a smaller Carrier Strike Group, could fall apart. You need to be able to operate fixed wing fighter aircraft continuously during a time of war, especially during a unpredictable conflict against a serious peer-state competitor. It is just sad, and embarrassing really, to think that a potential strategic force multiplier, and a very expensive one at that, like the F-35B would be handicapped because the carriers it is supposed to operate from literally cannot take their heat.
Non-flattop Navy ships that directly support the Marine’s mission, such as the San Antonio Class LPD and sea basing platforms, should be examined for similar deck modifications to allow for potential “lily padding” F-35B operations, or to be used as a forward arming and refueling point for these aircraft. It is very unlikely that an air to ground munitions laden F-35B could vertically depart an LPD’s deck with full fuel, but an F-35B in counter-air configuration (with four internal AIM-120 AMRAAMS, later potentially six) may be able to accomplish a near vertical takeoff with a relevant fuel load. If an Osprey tanker were fielded, a weapons laden F-35B could takeoff vertically with minimal fuel, and top off via KV-22 once safely airborne. With this in mind, Combat Air Patrols, or long-range surveillance missions could greatly benefit from this refueling capability and would allow for a marine flotilla to once again operate more independently of direct USAF and Carrier Strike Group support. Because of the low-frequency of operations from these ”non carrier” ships, it may be that no additional thermal protection will be needed at all, although certainly modifications related to the F-35B’s powerful pillar of thrust will be needed to make these ships suitable for STOVL operations.
4.) Purchase and deploy plenty of spare F-135-PW-600 STOVL engines- Currently, the F-35B’s engine is so large it will not fit inside the cabin of a MV-22B Osprey. Considering how incredibly complex these motors are, and how far they operate on the edge of their envelope, the Expeditionary Strike Group should be stocked with plenty of spares so that sustained operations are not curtailed because the logistics train may end at the shoreline.
The MV-22 can sling load the F-35′s motor during ideal weather conditions, although this mode of delivery will greatly limit the MV-22s potential range, which is not a good thing when the vast Pacific theater is supposedly the Defense Department’s future focus. Additionally, regularly sling loading a fragile $20M+ state of the art jet motor may not be the best idea. So, with this in mind, the USMC has to come to terms with the fact that ample spares need to be embarked aboard LHD/LHAs before they, or their logistical ship companions, leave port. Although such a proposition is very costly, especially considering that a single F-35B motor, drivetrain and lift fan cost almost as much as an entire Harrier years ago, the opportunity cost of having precious F-35B airframes sitting in a hangar deck without a working power plant, especially during a time of war, is much greater. This is especially true during times when LHDs sail with only half a dozen F-35Bs embarked.
Buying plenty of spare engines, at tens of millions of dollars a pop, is no small requirement during these tight fiscal times. Yet in order to get the very most out of the F-35B we must invest in curing its known logistical ills before they become an issue, not after. Although it is not glamorous, having a smaller fleet of fighters but plentiful spare parts, no matter what they cost, is better than fielding a larger overall fleet that is constantly under availability pressure due to insufficient spare parts procurement. Even worse, using an existing fleet as a spare parts bin, known as cannibalization, a custom that is becoming all to prevalent in cash strapped modern air forces, is simply not acceptable, and the practice would be a terrible stewardship of the US tax payers’ dollars. If you are going to fund the jet then you need to fund the extra parts needed to keep them flying while embarked on expeditionary operations, even if this includes a multitude of entire propulsion systems, it is as simple as that.
5.) Outfit a number of MV-22s specifically for high-risk Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) duties- The F-35B has just about the latest in manned deep strike capabilities available. Considering that it could potentially penetrate hundreds of miles into defended enemy territory, it would make sense that the Expeditionary Strike Group would need to be prepared to pluck a downed aircrew out of an enemy’s clutches, should one go down. Currently, the Marine’s version of the Osprey, the MV-22B, lacks the terrain following radar, advanced navigational avionics, top of the line electronic warfare suite, advanced infra-red countermeasures system, and cutting edge communication capability that may be required to successfully retrieve a F-35B pilot shot down over enemy territory. Luckily and answer to this issue already exists in the form of the Air Force’s CV-22B special operations configured Osprey. The USMC should procure a couple dozen of these modified airframes and deploy at least a trio to every Expeditionary Strike Group should a F-35B pilot’s worst case scenario become a reality.
The loss of one pilot is bad enough, sending many more aircrew and soldiers into densely defended airspace guarded by an integrated air defense system, that would be on extremely high alert, is a huge risk that requires the best assets available to achieve the best possible outcome. I have discussed this situation to a much greater degree in a recent piece about the HH-60G Pave Hawk replacement saga. Seeing that soon the Marines will have the ability to strike deep into the heart of enemy via the F-35B, they should retain the proper combat search and rescue platforms that could actually pluck its pilot to safety that deep into “Indian Country.” During times of deployment, these specialized aircraft could work just as any Osprey does, and would offer an enhanced “missionizes” airframe for embarked MARSOC (MARine Special Operations Command) units to train with or use during high-risk missions.
Although the F-35B features a low observable airframe, optimized to stay invisible from certain angles and to certain radar bandwidths, and is equipped with the latest in electronic warfare and situational awareness aiding avionics, it is not invincible by any means. It will be not if, but when, in regards to losing an F-35B over enemy territory. Considering that the USAF has already paid dearly for developing a platform incredibly well suited for the CSAR mission, and one that the Marines fly in a simpler format by the hundreds, it would be shameful if the USMC did not procure some CV-22s for their own use. It is a pretty hard sell to Marines flying standard Ospreys, and the troops that will go along for the mission inside them, that a $150M stealth super fighter could not survive over the same territory that they are about to attempt to infiltrate in search of its pilot. At least give these brave folks the best tool necessary to get the job done. The current MV-22B simply is not it.
6.) Rapidly integrate small and micro sized munitions into the F-35B’s arsenal- One of the sacrifices that the F-35B pays for its STOVL capability, aside form lugging around a huge lift-fan that is only used for takeoff and landing, is that its weapons bays are smaller than those of the F-35A or F-35C. The B model can pack a 1000lb class weapon and an AMRAAM in each bay, as opposed to the A and C versions which can fit a much large 2000lb class weapon and AMRAAM in each of their bays. This is all fine and good, but for many missions, weapons in measured in thousands, or even hundreds of pounds, are simply overkill. Smaller munitions that can be modified for internal carriage within the F-35′s bays, like the MBDA SABER and the Lockheed Joint Air to Ground Missile, allow for precision strikes against vehicles, small buildings and enemy combatants at a fraction of the weight, and especially volume, of the common 500lb laser or GPS guided bomb.
Even munitions currently in service, such as the sub 50lb class Griffon small tactical munition, should be aggressively fielded as the F-35B does not feature an internal cannon, and the last 10 plus years of war have proven that sometimes only precision targeted direct fire from a cannon is acceptable when troops are in very close combat with the enemy. The F-35B will feature a detachable ventral gun pod, but this system will increase the aircraft’s radar cross section and it only houses a fairly small amount of ammunition. Sub-50lb smart munitions, if developed to be housed within the F-35′s weapons bay, will go a long way at replacing a cannon’s ability to surgically attack an enemy force in close contact with allied troops, multiple times over.
Not only do these weapons offer more flexibility and especially more “attacks” per sortie, while maintaining the jet’s low observable nature, but they could also allow the F-35B to potentially operate in vertical lift mode from tight forward operating locations and ships. Such operations are even more feasible if an Osprey tanker is also fielded and forward deployed near, or with, the F-35B. The F-35B could takeoff vertically with a weapons bay full of lightweight munitions and a small amount of gas, and immediately refuel via a tanker configured MV-22. Such a synergistic capability would allow for incredible flexibility of operations, would help improve the F-35B’s range limitations, and would make it very challenging for the enemy predict and to target the aircraft’s base of operations.
Small munitions also have their clear advantages when it comes to targeting not just close air support oriented targets, such a vehicles or enemy formations, or when striking targets in densely populated areas where collateral damage is unacceptable. In the past, things like airfields required massive armadas of tactical aircraft to destroy. Even in the modern days of precision guided munitions, each aircraft would have one, or maybe two targets, of which until the advent of GPS guided munitions, each aircraft would have to manually target each of these objectives using their laser designators. In the not so distant future, if small guided munitions are quickly integrated with the F-35B, just a handful of F-35s could do the job that once required an entire carrier air wing, if not more.
Loading a dozen or so small GPS guided munitions onto a small force of F-35Bs, and programming them individually with each target located around an enemy airfield, could potentially allow for wholesale destruction of the entire objective. The F-35Bs, loaded with their targeting information before the mission is launched, would automatically release each small bomb or missile in specified order, at the right location, on a single pass over the target area, allowing for the jet’s weapons bay doors to be opened the minimal amount of time. So instead of say two, or even four targets being destroyed per aircraft assigned to the mission, a dozen or more may be struck on a single pass, by each aircraft. In other words, no longer do you need to prioritize just the most pressing “primary” targets for attack, and then send multiple waves of aircraft to hit each individual aircraft or armored personnel carrier scattered around the target. Instead, a relatively small force of stealthy aircraft can not only hit the base’s runways and hardened structures with heavier munitions, but every other thing of military value sitting around the field could be destroyed efficiently as well. When combined with cruise missile attacks on known surface to air missile sites surrounding the hypothetical enemy airfield, just a half-dozen or so F-35Bs could not only crater the airbase’s runway, but also take out 16 hardened structures, and 32 small structures, aircraft or vehicles, all on a single sneak pass (2X F-35B with 2 1000lb penetrating bombs each, 2X F-35B with 8 SDB each, 2X F-35B with 16 small guided munitions each).
The F-35B will not only benefit from smaller, lighter munitions for just its air to ground mission set. Currently, Lockheed is quietly working on the “Cuda” air to air, hit to kill, missile. By removing the warhead from the air to air missile concept, the F-35 will be able to carry as much as double, if not triple its current internal air to air loadout. Additionally, a CUDA type concept would allow for a missile that is lighter and more maneuverable than traditional medium range air to air missiles. These properties should allow the Cuda to be used as an internally stored and effective short-range air to air missile as well, something that the F-35 is currently lacking. Under many circumstances, the F-35′s low observable and advanced situational awareness capability will allow it to engage targets at shorter ranges without being detected. Thus a larger arsenal of weapons carried in stealth mode may be a priority over carry much fewer weapons that feature longer range. By mixing and matching internal air to air loadouts, such as carrying a pair of long-range AIM-120Ds and eight Cudas, the F-35B would be able to engage numerous targets, both larger and small, and from long to close-intermediate range.
In short, pairing the F-35B with “legacy” munitions is far from ideal. The aircraft needs to be tactically elevated via the rapid integration of smaller, more flexible weaponry. This is especially true considering the B model is supposed to be focused on close air support for Marine’s in combat. Having to quickly return to base after a coupe of air to ground weapons are exhausted is bewildering misuse of this unique and expensive asset. There is no way around it, if the F-35B has the ability to give the Marine Expeditionary Strike Group revolutionary capabilities, then it needs revolutionary weaponry to go along with it, and bulky old bombs and missiles, that were largely intended to be used on aircraft with only external mounting capabilities, simply won’t do.
7.) Begin serious research and development for a stealthy STOVL UCAV Although this is not necessary in the short-term, a short takeoff and vertical landing unmanned combat air vehicle would be an incredibly useful tool to work in addition to, and alongside, the limited numbers of F-35Bs deployed with a classically configured Expeditionary Strike Group. On the high-end, something akin to Lockheed’s VARIOUS concept would allow the Expeditionary Strike Group to save the F-35B fleet for specific and targeted operations, while still providing intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR), and even light strike capabilities over denied airspace without risking a pilot. Additionally, a VARIOUS like UCAV could operate in a “tethered” fashion to F-35Bs (see #7 of Tyler’s Ten Thoughts On The Future Of Drone Warfare). The reality is that most tactical air combat missions do not require a F-35B, but some are also too risky for a manned AH-1 Cobra, or require more endurance than either of these attack platforms possess. This is where such a system would be of great value. Speed was once the measuring stick for not just a tactical aircraft’s survivability, but also its utility. Now persistence is the name of the game, and a VARIOUS like STOVL UCAV concept would give the ESG such a capability when it is needed.
Although a STOVL UCAV operating from the expansive decks of the Navy LHD/LHAs would be a great start, this same concept could be potentially fielded aboard San Antonio Class amphibious transport docks, or even smaller Littoral Combat Ships and other surface combatants. In essence, this would give all these ships incredible “over the horizon,” survivable ISR and light strike capabilities. In many ways, such a system would also be complimented by the Navy’s blossoming MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned helicopter program. In such a scheme the Fire Scout would be used for lower end, closer in tasks, while the STOVL UCAV would be a higher-end capability, for use over greater ranges, at faster speeds, and against more ”uncooperative” targets. Packed with a few AMRAAMs or even ASRAAMs (AIM-9x would work but its range is limiting), such a UCAV could also provide rudimentary air defense for the more meager of surface combatants, such as the Littoral Combat Ship, which currently lack any organic standoff air defense capability.
In essence, a low observable STOVL UCAV would help take the pressure off of the F-35B fleet embarked with Expeditionary Strike Group flotillas, and could serve in many roles, from checking the IDs of commercial ships to dropping munitions on the enemy in support of Marines deployed on shore. Such a system’s uses would be plentiful, and paired with the F-35B, it could fill in the last element of near parity between the Expeditionary Strike Group and its much larger brother, the Carrier Strike Group, who will see a fighter sized UCAV come online operationally in the coming decade. Yet even a more rudimentary, smaller and lighter STOVL UAV would be well worth pursuing. Something that can haul a payload or sensor system high enough and/or far enough to provide a serious return on investment for the ESG. A system such as Aurora Flight Sciences “Excalibur” could fill such a capability gap. The jump-jet UAV could be evolved to be both simple and capable, with estimated cruising speeds up to 400kts, and the ability to loiter for hours on end at a much lower speed. Such a weapon system, although not nearly as capable as a VARIOUS like concept, could help bridge the gap between the entry of the F-35B into true war ready status, and the time it would take to make something like VARIOUS an operational reality.
Currently, the Marine’s almost myopic focus on just trying to get the F-35B off the chopping block seems to have limited their imagination as to how the aircraft could, and should, be employed. It seems that the USMC envision the F-35Bs as being used much like the Harrier force it replaces was, at least to the public at this point, which is a total waste of the aircraft’s advanced capability. Sure, over time combat doctrine, weapons and support infrastructure can be developed and improved upon, but spending tens of billions just to get similar, albeit more survivable, capabilities out of a $150M asset that an already paid for $30M asset (AV-8B Harrier II) provided before hand is ridiculous. Each flight hour is precious on these incredibly expensive machines, why limit those hours’ return on investment because of lack of creativity and fiscal prioritization?
If we know that an aircraft can be so much more capable than it currently is just by fielding ”low density-high value” supporting weapon systems, as well as infrastructure and weapons improvements, doesn’t it make sense to invest in these areas in a rapid fashion? Especially as these items will cost just a fraction of the F-35B’s total fleet cost, but will make that fleet so much more valuable to America. I would posit that it is better to have a smaller fleet by 20%, but one with a tailored supporting “ecosystem” of the unique improvements discussed above funded in full. Sadly, in an era where the most advanced fighter in US inventory, the F-22A Raptor, packs around Sidewinders designed in the 1980′s due to the lack of helmet mounted sight, a system that is found even on Air National Guard F-16s, and our newest DDG-1000 stealth destroyer lacks missiles that ships built 30 years ago are fielded with in mass, and thus cannot provide area air defense, it would seem that such common logic rarely prevails in the halls of the Pentagon.
Although budgets are tight, the chance at expanding America’s “first day of war” aircraft carrier force by almost double the hulls is a prospect worth investing in. In fact, if the F-35 program is to continue, getting strongly behind the F-35B in particular is absolutely necessary as the rest of the US F-35 fleet, some 2100+ jets in total, will pay the acquisition, operating, and performance penalty that the STOVL capable F-35B taxed from their design potential. Getting the most out of a jet that incurred so much opportunity cost to the rest of the services’ fast jet inventory is not only “good business,” it is strategically imperative.
If the Marines do have similar plans for the F-35B as those listed in this article then they should do a much better job of publicizing them, and explaining just how much impact the F-35B can have on America’s “total expeditionary force.” Justifying the aircraft in a similar light as the rest of the F-35 stable does the B model a great disservice and does not underline how these $150M jets are investment for our nation that is greater than the sum of its parts. One would be hard pressed to argue the same in regards to the much more numerous, but questionably relevant, F-35A and C models.
In the end it may not be good for the USAF or the Navy, but the Marines have gotten the jet of their dreams, and at very high cost. It is now time to make the most out of America’s massive monetary and opportunity cost investment, as it makes no sense to spend over $50B on “revolutionary” stealth jump jets if the assets that support them, the infrastructure for which they are deployed from, and the weapons they carry, remain fiscally locked in the distant past…
Hey guys, I have a couple of cool pieces going up today, one is a big one, but I am having an issue with my “publish” function on the website’s backend. Not to worry! I have my computer geek working on the problem and should be able to get these up by the end of the day. So if you see some weird changes on the website momentarily, it is just us trying to get WordPress to answer our hails!
The Westland 30 is one of those aircraft that made it to production but probably shouldn’t have. On the outside the aircraft looked like a flying barn, short and squat, and that is probably how she received the unglamorous but fitting nickname “The Shed.”
In the late 1970s, Westland was trying to punch into the civilian market and thought there was a growing demand for a VIP, passenger, cargo, oil rig transport type of helicopter. With this in mind, they decided that they could bring such a machine to market faster and far cheaper by basing it on their successful military optimized Lynx design instead of starting with a “clean sheet.” The aircraft shared many components in common with the Lynx, including its drivetrain and rotor system, but its fuselage was an all new, and a far boxier design. The aircraft could seat up to 22 passengers in a high density configuration and it could also be fitted with a VIP interior, or setup as a medevac helicopter with plenty of room for multiple patients in stretchers. Additionally, the aircraft’s fat cabin dimensions allowed for outsized cargo, traditionally too large to fit into a medium helicopter’s interior, to be carried.
After a fairly abbreviated design, development and testing phase, the first production Westland 30-100, originally called the WG-30, was delivered in 1982. In all, about 40 of these helicopters were built, with the later “-200″ getting some minor, but relevant upgrades. The Westland 30 worked in scheduled passenger service around the globe in fairly limited numbers, yet this was still a limited accomplishment as this sector of the airline industry had historically proven to be almost impossible to make a profit from, so helicopter types put into service in this role were, and are limited.
The Westland 30 flew with operators in the US, Europe and India. She flew with Pan Am in New York, mainly between the 60th street heliport and JFK, and with Airspur Helicopters, which provided passenger service around Southern California. Overseas, the type flew with British Airways for limited use in the offshore oil platform logistics mission and for passenger service between Penzance and the Isles of Scilly. The largest operator of the Westland 30 was the Indian firm Pawan Hans. Close to two dozen of the helicopters were part of an aid package to India and were to be used for offshore oil exploration support duties.
Although the Westland 30 was deployed around the globe, albeit in limited numbers, the aircraft’s weaknesses and lack of a more thorough design and testing phase became clear. The type was heavy, noisy, and had problems with its Rolls Royce Gem 60 powerplants. Namely they were finicky and lacked power. Hot and high performance was unacceptable in anything resembling a challenging conditions, especially while carrying a payload suitable for the aircraft’s large internal volume. Its mission radius with a decent payload was just over 100 miles, which really hampered its relevancy for the majority of oil platform work. Additionally, the aircraft had issues with its auto-stabilization system and autopilot, and was maintenance intensive, and in effect, expensive to operate. Making matters worse, Westland’s product support was lacking, with spare parts becoming increasingly challenging to obtain as time went on. Also, there was some “bad news” surrounding the Westland 30, although in retrospect the aircraft was really not the only direct cause of this bad publicity.
The relatively small Westland 30 fleet was involved in some accidents. One crash happened in California and was due to a tail rotor failure. Although this crash was not fatal, it led to a nasty lawsuit and a grounding order from the FAA for a period of time. In India there were two crashes, as well as other minor mishaps, and fatalities were involved. Yet the Indian events were due more to human error than from the helicopter’s mechanical nature. None the less, the aircraft’s dismal performance, reliability, and bad publicity caught up with it within a decade of the type entering service, and the future of Westland’s “flying shed” was seriously in doubt.
In the end, things simply did not work out for the Westland 30 and many went back to the manufacturer for one reason or another. By the early 1990s all of the aircraft were pulled from service and left to rot in boneyards both in England and in Central Asia. On paper, the Westland 30 was a real loser, but I would argue that it is not because it was a terrible design concept or that there was not a market for its potential capabilities. Quite the contrary, it just needed more development and better components and subsystems. Westland knew this, and they came up with the Westland 30-300. This new variant was supposed to be powered by a more powerful, fuel-efficient and reliable GE-CT7 motors. It would have sported a state of the art (at the time) five bladed rotor system and a new lighter and stronger fuselage. Additionally, the Westland 30-300 was supposed to be upgraded with a much more mature and capable avionics suite. This penultimate version of the aircraft, said to have cost over $100M to develop and test, would have given the aircraft impressive performance and range. But this investment was not possible for a very cash strapped Westland, or an external investor, as the aircraft had already gained a bad wrap and even its few operators had zero interest in buying more of the type, no matter how much improvement was said to have been possible. Even the military just did not have an appetite for the aircraft by the mid to late 1980s. Simply put, although Westland may have finally had the right recipe for success for its model 30, it simply had no customer or any interested parties willing to risk the cash on what should have been the aircraft’s original configuration.
By the later half of the 1980′s, Omniflight Services, the firm that operated helicopters on behalf of Pan Am, was found to be lacking training, accounting and even airmanship discipline in their operation. From what I can tell, the FAA grounded their operation, which really was the last nail in the coffin for the helicopter’s passenger service on America’s eastern seaboard. It appears that towards the end of the 1980′s the manufacturer, Westland, requested that the FAA pull the aircraft’s type certificate (an incredibly rare occurrence) as they were no longer interested in supporting the handful of aircraft that were still flying in the US. This same request was made for the Civil Aeronautics Authority overseas, and with that the Westland 30′s fait was finally sealed. Just ten years and less than four dozen airframes produced and the once promising aircraft would fly its way into the ash heap of aviation obscurity.
Although the Westland 30 program is now considered an aviation blunder, in many ways it was actually ahead of its time, although a the same time it was also “behind” its own design goals. Westland’s push to rush the aircraft onto the market with dismal performance was the aircraft’s true detriment to its potential success. Many of the features seen on the Westland 30 are now common in commercial helicopters, namely its large square cabin. Look at the S-92 Superhawk, the EH-101 or even the AW130, all features a similar boxy cabin like the model 30.
If Westland had just taken its time, and waited for the right pairing of powerplants and avionics, while refining the -30′s general design for greater ease of maintenance and reliability, it may have been considered as an aircraft that changed the way we think about multi-engine helicopter design and implementation, instead of being the massive failure that it is perceived of being today.
This picture makes me feel a couple of things:
1.) All warm and fuzzy due to the friendly “jointness” of this obscure endeavor. Seeing a pair of “standard issue” USMC CH-53Es Super Stallions suckling gas from a AFSOC MC-130 Combat Talon really shows just how far we have come when it comes to ending divisions between the various branches of the military.
2.) I am always just a little shocked at just how damn powerful the big tri-motor CH-53Es really are. I mean they are hauling along fast enough to form up behind a fixed wing MC-130 while slinging two 6,000lb HMMWVs each. Wow, that is one powerful son of a bitch times two!
The USS Tripoli was first commissioned in 1966 and proudly served as an integral member of America’s “Gator Navy” for three decades. Amongst her many accomplishments were three tours off the coast of Vietnam, acting as a test carrier for the Marine’s new (at the time) AV-8A Harrier jump jets, also being the test carrier for the experimental XV-15 which would lead to the development of the MV-22 Osprey, and operating as the flagship for crucial counter-mine operations during the buildup to Operation Desert Storm, during which she was actually struck by a mine. By 1995 the Navy and Marines required updated amphibious surface combatants, namely those with modern sensors, well decks for deploying hovercraft and beach landing craft, as well as a flattop for launching helicopters and Harriers. With this in mind, and considering the Tripoli’s age, as well as the end of the Cold War, the Navy retired the proud ship.
A decade later, the USS Tripoli, now a rusting hulk that had been long docked at the Mare Island shipyard in Vallejo, was mysteriously transferred ”on loan” to the US Army. Activity started to sprout up around the once all but abandoned floating giant and she began to receive peculiar modifications to her deck and island structure. Large temporary (but often permanent in actuality it seems) clamshell hangars were erected on her flattop, similar to the ones seen all over US bases in the Middle East, and her island structure began to receive new aerials and communications domes. Then, in 2006, she was towed out of port and across the Pacific to Hawaii. Here her new and highly unusual purpose would come into focus.
Ballistic Missile Defense development was in full swing during the heyday of the Bush Administration and these new multi-billion-dollar systems needed to be tested under real world conditions. Seeing as BMD capability was increasingly fulfilled by upgraded AEGIS equipped Destroyers and Cruisers, there was a demand for a location to act as a simulated enemy launch site for short to medium range ballistic missiles to adequately test these emerging systems. Building a site in Hawaii, where a large portion of the theater ballistic missile defense tests were to take place, was almost totally out of the question. Even if the DoD could get approval for the construction of such a site it would cost millions of dollars a year just to maintain it. So, the DoD decided that a laid-up old flattop was the best and most cost-effective option available. That flattop being the rusted but stout USS Tripoli.
After being towed out of San Francisco bay, the USS Tripoli stayed in Hawaii for two years performing various test launches and tracking missions in support of America’s Ballistic Missile Defense initiative before she was towed back to her stateside berth in 2008. In 2010 she headed back to Pacific Missile Range Facility off the coast of Hawaii to support the Theater High Altitude Are Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system, once again primarily playing the ”adversary” missile launch site, known as the Mobile Launch Platform, as well as acting a mobile sensor platform to support other ongoing BMD tests.
Today, the ship has been highly revitalized and extensively modified for her unique new role. She has a fresh coat of paint and sports a multitude of sensors and communications balls, aerials, dishes and other sensor installations, along with her deck mounted retractable clamshell “hangars.” The USS Tripoli’s resurrection is truly a great example of how the DoD and other US agencies can recycle an old antiquated asset, that is already paid for, to do some very unique and high-tech work at a fraction of the cost of procuring a new purpose-built ship or outfitting a less flexible landside installation for such tasks. Considering her historical use as a test platform during her active career, I can hardly think of a more suitable role for this old, but now incredibly valuable, juggernaut of the high seas.
In the end the USS Tripoli escaped the scrapper’s torch while still providing invaluable service to her country and staying true to her proud motto “Semper Princeps” – Always First.
Concurrency, in defense procurement parlance means putting something into production while the weapon system is still in testing, or not even tested really at all. The inaction of this crazy concept may be the result of the best sales job of all time by defense contractors and over-eager DoD leadership. The idea that a weapons manufacturer, and its associated DoD program office, aided by computer modeling and other gadgetry, can design something so complex, yet so perfect, on the first try, that testing is more of a formality than a necessity or prudent measure is totally outrageous. This notion literally goes against every historical trend when it comes to weapons procurement. Furthermore, it goes against logic. Why purchase something in mass, especially something very expensive, extremely complicated, and that has massive national defense implications, without even testing it first? How this totally arrogant and naive concept came to pass is a totally different story unto itself, but let’s just say that “concurrency,” in some circles, is a bigger threat to national security than what the potential enemies, for which products built under this disastrous idea were designed to fight, represent.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a weapon system that is so over budget and behind schedule, that like so many other major military decisions made in the 2000′s, many wish it simply had never happened. This is especially true now that studies say developing individual airframes for each services’ needs would have cost less, offered more capability and have been fielded sooner than the Joint Strike Fighter. Instead, with the F-35 program, we have a compromised design (at least for the USN and USAF) and an uncertain air combat future. In fact concurrency, another bright idea of the early first decade of this century, is such a miserable failure that the original F-35 calendar of events speaks for itself:
Fast forward to today and the F-35 program’s proposed calendar of major events looks noting like the one shown above. Not to mention the aircraft’s massively increased cost and declining performance goals. But hey, it’s an airplane, one that the DoD plans to buy a lot of, close to 2500 to be more exact. But, that 2500 number is a pipe dream that will never happen due to declining defense budgets and rapidly changing technologies (drones). None the less, the only saving grace of this program is that you can make some very expensive changes to the lemons already built as aircraft are meant to be taken apart and put back to together. Although even with these changes these substandard aircraft won’t last long in actual service.
More importantly, when it comes to aircraft, you can make changes and build them directly into the next batch of jets that get ordered, so eventually you should end up with a relevant production example that will meet the original design requirements. At least this is the theory. The reality is that concurrency fixes are very messy and expensive when it comes to fleet management and sustainability. They are also a very expensive opportunity cost as even with these fixes, you end up buying literally dozens, if not hundreds, of incredibly costly patched up aircraft that will never meet their later production cousins design capabilities or lifespan. So to clarify, because of the large production run of the item, concurrency is fiscal and organizational insanity, but the problems are theoretically solvable if you are willing to throw away $150M jets and burn through lots of time (and flying hours on existing and aging fighters) in the process…
Now take this same brilliant procurement strategy and assign it to a thirteen plus BILLION DOLLAR super carrier (more like $17B with research and development cost rolled in) and you have a huge problem, both in size and dollar figures. This gigantic weapon system, the world’s largest military combat vehicle, that the US builds maybe two of a decade at best, is about the worst place to apply the concurrency myth as imaginable. In other words, if you want to insert “new technology” into one of these 100,000 ton water-tight welded beasts, then you better be certain that this technology works, as you do not have another hundred “production prototypes” to make it right.
This is especially true if this new technology is directly related to one of the ship’s critical systems. In other words, something that the vessel absolutely need’s to accomplish its mission. On a super carrier, this could be some of the same things found on other ships: propulsion, steering, communications and other essentials, but also includes specific items unique to a conventional carrier’s mission, namely catapults and arresting gear. The fact is a nuclear super carrier is a huge waste of money if it cannot launch and recover aircraft right? Well if that is the case than the new USS Ford, of the new “Ford Class” of nuclear carriers, has a major problem.
While the ship sure looks cool, with its smaller “island” set farther back on its enlarged flight deck, and its big electronically scanned array radar apertures, the USS Ford’s sci-fi looks mask its major issues. In particular are the two most basic enablers of an aircraft carrier beyond the basic “any boat” specific gear, the arresting gear and the catapult system. EMALS, standing for Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System, uses electrical current and a set of magnets (called a linear induction motor) to linearly accelerate the “shuttle” that attach’s to the aircraft’s nose wheel. The tremendous power needed for this system to work comes from the ship’s nuclear reactors and is stored in large capacitors below deck.
The EMALS replaces the seemingly archaic, but reliable, steam catapult systems that have been in service since the dawn of the jet-age. Simply put, this device has to be incredibly reliable, as a “cold cat-shot,” one that does not produce enough forward momentum to get the aircraft in the air, can results in a $50M+ jet in the water, potentially a dead aircrew and a full stop to what could be critical operations. Currently, EMALS, which has been in full-scale testing for about four years, is far from reliable, even though the concept was supposed to be much more reliable and less labor intensive than its steam predecessor. Additionally, EMALS is supposed to be smaller, lighter, and less complex than the steam system, while providing greater forward thrust, and a larger launch envelope for significantly different aircraft weights. The bottom line is that it is simply not as near as promising as the brochure says it would should be.
EMALS dismal record speaks for itself. 201 out of 1967 launches have failed. That is roughly over 10% of test launches. Factoring in the current state of the system, the most generous numbers available show that EMALS has a mean time between failure rate of 1 in 200. In other words, one out of 200 launches fails. Considering how many aircraft can fly off of a super carrier during cyclic operations, especially during a time of war, this number is startling. Keep in mind these numbers do not reflect a deployed system that is constantly battered by the harsh salt water environment and continuous cycles, not to mention being maintained by sailors at sea!
I remember when the Navy and industry were pushing this concept so hard, stating that similar systems are in use at theme parks across the US (Curse of the Mummy and Aerosmith Rockin Roller Coaster to name a few) and will be reliable. Well, either the imagineers at Disney should be building aircraft carriers or this analogue is highly misleading. A roller coaster EMALS does not operate in the harshest conditions in the world for months on end, and a failed stroke from a unit installed at a theme park does not result in a 25 ton super-fighter being dropped in the ocean with a human or two inside! I am not saying that EMALS technology should not be pursued, but it should definitely not have been a major component for which a whole aircraft carrier, and its class, were designed around before it was highly vetted.
Another critical issue the USS Ford is having is with its other key system that is essential to flight operations, its arresting gear. Traditionally, a super carrier’s arresting gear works via a series of hydraulic “engines” that are pressurized to different levels depending on the weight of the incoming aircraft. These are massive apparatuses that live within the bowls of the ship, and although they may seem archaic, they work. The Ford’s new arresting system does away with much of this bulky technology in the form of the Advanced Arresting Gear system. This system, made by General Atomics, the same folks that make the Predator and Reaper drones among a ton of other diversified products, is having even worse teething problems than EMALS. For instance, during testing the AAG failed nine out of 71 times! currently, the mean time between failures for the AAS is projected at 20 cycles. Yes, you read that right, at best the system fails 5% of the time based on its current reliability. This is almost 250 times worse than what was expected!
There are many other issues with the Ford Class as well. For instance, the ship’s innovative AN/SPY-3/4 radar system is not even close to being ready for prime time. Even the ship’s “improved” flight deck design concept, said to offer a large jump in potential sortie rates, is now suspect. The ship’s weapons elevators are also an issue, and these are just some of the ship’s major headlining problems. With all this in mind one has to wonder why we would put such a large asset, both in expenditure and size, into production when its core subsystems, for which the ship was literally designed around, were so immature. Unlike the F-35, we do not have the luxury of building dozens, or hundreds, more Ford Class carriers in the near term in order to “get it right.” What happens if the ship’s core technology, namely the launch and recovery systems, are simply not in an operational state by the time the USS Ford is supposed to formally enter service, and at what cost will such delays bring to the program’s already ballooning budget overall?
I do not believe it is even possible to retrofit this giant machine with legacy, proven systems, such as hydraulic arresting gear engines and steam catapults. It would seem that the ship would have to be cut apart to install such systems and let’s be honest, retrofitting a brand new super carrier with systems it was never designed to be deployed with, just to fit them back again when they are mature and ready for deployment, is not a good start to what should be a 50 year sailing career. Additionally, what about the cost of such dramatic retrofits? How much are theoretically lower maintenance and more operationally flexible arresting gear and catapults really worth? Are they worth delaying a super carrier’s induction into service? How many millions, or even worse billions, are these new “whiz-bang” technologies really worth in relation to their ability to potentially improve a carrier’s overall effectiveness? Is a highly questionable increase of 30% in sortie rates under ideal conditions (some say 10% at best if everything works perfectly) really worth risking the usability of a $17B weapon system? Why not work the bugs out of these critical systems and then install them on the next aircraft carrier of the class, or whenever they are truly vetted and ready for operations?
Concurrency so seriously damaged the reputation of the majority of major DoD procurement programs originating from the last decade or so that the word alone is like a cuss word among many in the defense apparatus. Sadly, many of us “on the outside” of the Pentagon’s five walls predicted this exact scenario concerning this idiotic concept. Currently, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Littoral Combat Ship, certain components of our ballistic missile defense system, even the P-8 Poseidon to a certain degree, and now the Ford Class of super carrier, among many other smaller programs (everything is relative in defense procurement terms) have suffered horribly under the concurrency concept. In other words, this is a dismal procurement strategy that has to end immediately.
Although concurrency looks great on paper, as it shows that you can replace old assets with new ones on an incredibly tight schedule with usually insanely optimistic cost predictions, in reality it ends in fleet management, fiscal and political hell. With many programs that have adopted a concurrency like design, testing and production strategies, you have weapon systems that have already accrued rapid investment with little to show for it. Thus Washington’s decision makers, and their industry partners, are either faced with admitting their grave mistakes and/or unrealistic goals, not a good thing for law-maker’s reelection or for the careers of DoD and the defense industry leadership, or you have to continue ”doubling down” on the program in question in hopes that it will even be usable one day, let alone on time or on budget. These delays also require that the existing and proven force of weapon systems that those in development under a concurrency-like strategy aim to replace are upgraded to “bridge the capability gap” until their troubled replacements eventually come online. The problem is that the failures of concurrency, and the avalanche of delays and cost overruns it causes, sucks up so much funding that during a time of tightening budgets there simply is no money to provide necessary upgrades that keep the existing fleet strategically or tactical. The whole situation really turns into a complex game of negative cause and effect that is as complex as it is detrimental to our military’s ability to fight conflicts that could arise today.
In the end, Washington has to impose a “fly before you buy,” “float then vote,” “drive then buy,” procurement policy. Who would buy a car without test driving it, or purchase a home without inspecting it first? The whole thing is lunacy that many who do not receive a paycheck from Lockheed Martin, its subsidiaries, or the Joint Strike Fighter program office predicted in great detail years ago. Under the currently fiscal conditions we simply cannot afford to pay for this totally foreseeable mistake called concurrency. Sure the defense contractors and those trying to make their career in the Pentagon may love its ability to package many myths and unrealistic goals into a neat concept, but really it is as fruitless of a concept as dynamically projecting theoretical income to fit a static budget. Furthermore, concurrency has such a bad track record, realized in such a short period of time, that continuing with it is almost criminal in regards to the US tax payer.
If this fantastical procurement concept really makes sense than let the defense contractor who is pitching their product foot the bill for it. Otherwise Americans should demand change, especially in the form of firing, not promoting, those responsible for such a stupid waste of money in the first place. Our military is already a shadow of what it was a decade ago, and due to the concurrency blunders of yesterday, today and the near future, our forces will eventually collapse in on themselves. Alternatively, at best, we will own 2500 F-35s and a handful of Ford Class carriers that we cannot even afford to operate.
Demand change from your lawmakers and those in power at the Pentagon regarding this volatile issue. It has, and continues to put America’s military superiority at real risk of being a part of our history and not our future.