7 Things The Marines Have To Do To Make The F-35B Worth The Huge CostTyler Rogoway5/31/14 10:51amFiled to: F-35 SagaUSMC30529EditPromoteShare to KinjaToggle Conversation toolsGo to permalinkGIF After years of passing more conventional capabilities by, I think it is time for the Marine Corps, and the "Gator Navy" for that matter, to get serious about getting the very most out of their soon to be fielded, extremely expensive and controversial F-35B force. At $150 million a pop, they need to be more than nicer Harriers.Treating it as an advanced Harrier will hardly leverage the huge investment in opportunity cost and treasure that this aircraft represents. The uber-complex 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. AdvertisementWith 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 Obama Administration's attempted "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 catapult and arresting gear ("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 Joint Strike Fighter's basic 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 F-35B design demand of lifting twenty plus tons, near vertically, on a pillar of thrust, are simply so consuming that they compromised the potential performance, and to some degree the cost, of the other two more traditional, 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 baseline 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 results, 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.AdvertisementOnce 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 fifth generation fighter 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 some Washington 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 jets 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 it deserves. 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 and then just using it to do burnouts. A metaphor that is both accurate in regards to the aircraft's capability and it's complexity.AdvertisementSponsoredThe AV-8B is missionized and tasked primarily as a close air support asset, although the classic jump jet, at least those AV-8B+ jets equipped with second-hand APG-65 pulse doppler radars, have recently 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. The F-35 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.Suppression/destruction of enemy air defenses (SEAD/DEAD), also known as "wild weasel" operations, advanced counter-air and electronic attack to some extent, are all capabilities that the Marine Expeditionary Strike Group does not currently possess in an organic fashion. Instead, these flotillas would rely on "external assets" to get the job done during a time war. Even deep strike missions are more a job of BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles deployed on escorting Cruisers and Destroyers than by the Marine Strike Group's composite air wing. Currently, such capabilities as SEAD/DEAD, counter air and electronic warfare (EW) are provided by Navy or even Air Force aircraft, such as the F-22 Raptor, Block 50 F-16CM Viper, E/A-18G Growler, F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and so on. With the addition of the F-35B to the Marine's inventory, varying levels of these capabilities, all of which are potent, will now be within the Marine Expeditionary Strike Group's own repertoire. But that is not all that 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 electronic intelligence far into highly contested territory. In other words, these Marine-centric flotillas will possess the same baseline capabilities as their larger cousin, the Carrier Strike Group will have, although in a lower density format. AdvertisementAlso, 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 "engagement rings" of inland enemy surface to air missile batteries is. In other words, a beach landing, supported by the F-35B, could occur while there are still long range surface to air missile batteries that would traditionally be within engagement range of non-stealthy high flying fixed wing fighter aircraft. Also, these same SAM batteries could be prosecuted and destroyed by the F-35Bs deployed as part of the Expeditionary Strike Group, something that would be very dangerous for the Harrier to attempt today.Additionally, 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 enemies 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 of 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's 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 in such a high-threat combat situation. And most importantly, traditional Carrier Strike Groups, and their massive air wings, can be decoupled from the expeditionary strike group during such operations, making them free to fight the enemy from another location.AdvertisementAdvertisementIn 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 may be simply staying home, thus saving precious airframe time and operating costs during lower intensity conflicts.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" during such an operation.Currently, ESG's often deploy "helicopter heavy," where a Land Helicopter Dock's (LHD) composite air wing is mainly made up of AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters, UH-1 twin-Huey logistics and scout helicopters, MV-22s medium lift and CH-53s heavy lift aircraft, 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 is able to mix and match its air wing inventory at a commander's will. During multiple conflicts these Gator Navy 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. AdvertisementThe new LHA "America" class of amphibious assault ships was built with just this in mind, doing away with the traditional well dock 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 during a single mission, 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 or inland assault.Seeing as the F-35B has the potential to almost double America's "first day of war" carrier footprint, a great thing during a time when the nuclear carrier force will most likely continue to shrink, and it will allow an ESG to operate much more independently than ever before, the Marines 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 over a relatively short period of time, and thus maximize the ESG's utility every time one sails. 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 trategic aircraft, and/or a nuclear aircraft carrier, to the same area of operations for external support.1.) Upgrade the MV-22 fleet with tanking capabilityThe 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 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 far from an optimum scenario.AdvertisementAdvertisementWhen 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. The question also remains 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 another F-35B will vastly suffocate the available use of these assets for high-demand 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 and hose 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 may 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 worth of extra gas before "fencing in" to enemy territory. AdvertisementThe 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 that are en route to their targets. In such a circumstance, the KV-22 could offer the maximum fuel offload potential to these jets as their transit times from their base of operations, a ship right under the F-35B's flightpath, to offloading their fuel would be measured in tens of miles, not hundreds. With careful mission planning, forward positioned KC-22s 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 of close to 1000 miles, or double that of its unrefuelled radius, which may be necessary in order to keep America's carriers, both nuclear and conventional, out of the enemy's anti-access 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 aboard Littoral Combat Ships, 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, of which they have plenty for decades of further operations, 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.) Develop an organic airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) aircraftCurrently, 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 increasingly deadly subsonic and high-speed cruise missiles.The V-22 Osprey, with its enhanced range and loiter capability compared to 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 on 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, or even an unmanned asset, beamed down for interpretation and exploitation in real-time via datalink.AdvertisementAdvertisementSuch 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 an Osprey were configured in this manner, utilizing a powerful AESA array for its AEW&C sensor 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. GIF 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, which is becoming a high-priority not just for the Army but for the Navy as well, would be an obvious advantage for Marine ground operations, as an "EV-22″ could "call out" enemy mechanized, and even foot soldier movements from many miles away. Under certain circumstances, this capability could also be used for detecting small boat movements in the littorals of the area of operations. In addition to MTI capability, high quality "synthetic aperture" radar pictures could be taken by an EV-22 at standoff ranges 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.