Lots of rumbling over at the Pentagon about the possibility of NAVAIR cutting one of the F-35 variants on the books. This would be the vertical landing F-35B that is to replace the Harrier fleet and then some, or the F-35C which would be the Navy’s first deep strike stealth platform. This is a very hard decision to make, let me tell you why:
On one hand the F-35C is really the most relevant of all the F-35 types. It has a larger wing for better low-speed handling and more fuel inside of a beefed up airframe. As of now the Navy has never really had a low observable airframe that could penetrate deep into an integrated air defense system, as the USAF has the F-22 and B-2. In many ways the F-35C would make good on a two decades old promise made by the defunct A-12 Avenger program and would really allow the Carrier Strike Groups to work as an “air force in a box,” offering a robust first day of war capability beyond super expensive and unsustainable cruise missile launches.
On the other hand the F-35B has been the foster child of the whole JSF program. Although it represents a relatively small amount of the total projected buy, it has been the downfall of the whole F-35 design. Like so many military programs, the JSF started out as a flawed philosophy. Sure it sounded good, an aircraft that could replace multiple types so that economies of scale and commonality could be exploited to the fullest extent possible. The problem is that making a land based aircraft turn into a carrier born fighter is an accomplishment with precedent but making that same design takeoff and land vertically? That is a major challenge that would end up causing major capability tradeoffs and design compromises. Further, the F-35B is complex, very complex. Trap doors and swiveling exhausts allow it to operate from tiny airfields. But how realistic is it that a design this complex, covered in fragile radar absorbent material, will really be able to operate in such austere combat conditions. Further, the F-35B has a much lighter punch, only being able to carry 1000lb class weapons internally as opposed to the C and A model which can carry the heavy hitting 2000lb class of weapons. Further, with the addition of the B models super high-tech lift fan installed behind the cockpit where fuel would normally be stored, the combat radius has withered considerably compared to its cousins. Finally, with the UK cancelling its order for the B model, instead opting for the C model and fitting its future Queen Elizabeth class carriers with cat and trap equipment for fixed wing naval operations, the F-35B has only ONE customer, the USMC, and even they have opted to purchase more C models instead of B models recently.
But the F-35B is not all bad. It is a significantly more capable machine than the Harrier it would mostly replace. In effect it would turn America’s LHD helicopter carriers into true small aircraft carriers with similar capabilities as their massive super carrier cousins. These Marine Strike Groups could offer robust air defense and deep strike capabilities on the first day of war as opposed to being singularly focused on supporting Marines forward deployed on the ground. Finally, without the B model ever being put into production, the very case for the JSF is lost and left in its place are two aerodynamically and structurally compromised designs (the A and C model) and a total force structure that will benefit little from the design sacrifices made to incorporate the short takeoff and vertical landing mission. Some of these compromises go beyond aerodynamics and sheer performance. For instance the massive amount of cutting of mass from the airframe do to the B model’s tight vertical takeoff operating envelope, which could show up later in the A and C’s life-cycle via cracking and structural issues.
In the end, Aviationintel is going to side with the F-35C when presented with the choice. The Navy needs a stealth, deep strike capability. Tomahawk cruise missiles, at well over a million dollars a shot, are not a sustainable first strike capability. The F-35C would really bring a unique capability to the Navy and would allow Carrier Strike Groups to run a holistic attack campaign almost entirely on their own. The F-35B is just two limited in capability and two complex for its mission to justify the cost. Ideally, the whole program would be cancelled and the avionics, stealth coatings and other developmental elements would be used on other projects in an attempt to obtain a justifiable and affordable high-end/low-end fighter mix.
To see my plan on what this force would look like click on the link below:
Story about the Navy questioning the purchase of two JSF variants: