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.
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 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.
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 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.
The 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.
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 "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.
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 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.
The 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.
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 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.
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. 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.
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 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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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 grossly 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, which gave up its ability to launch Marine landing craft from its stern in the process, will also be similarly effected.
The Navy says future ships will not have this issue, but they also made this claim about the USS America long ago. The truth is that when the F-35B was still in its early developmental stage, the Navy and Lockheed Martin downplayed the possibility that there would be deck related thermal issues from its super-heated exhaust. Sadly, and as many have predicted, the contrary was proven to be quite true. Even many runways may be severely damaged during the F-35B's STOVL operations.
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. Even crowd-sourcing a solution should be on the table at this point. 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, 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 anywhere near 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 from a forward deployed asset 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 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, such as securing certain aerials and life-rafts etc, will be needed to make these ships suitable for STOVL operations.
In the end, the F-35B's thermal issue is a real deal breaker for creatively maximizing the usability of these jets. We need to find a solution fast, whatever the cost.
Currently, the F-35B's engine is so large it will not fit inside the cabin of an 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 complex lift-fan cost almost as much as an entire Harrier cost years ago, the opportunity cost of having precious F-35B airframes sitting in a hangar deck without a working powerplant, especially during a time of war, is unfathomable. This is especially true during times when LHDs sail with only half a dozen or so 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 a fleet of new aircraft as a spare parts bin. This practice, known as cannibalization, is becoming all to prevalent for cash strapped modern air force. Such a situation is simply not acceptable, and the practice would be a terrible stewardship of the US taxpayers' dollars. If Congress and the DoD are going to fund the jets then they 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.
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. 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 deep into enemy territory. Luckily an 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 pair to every Expeditionary Strike Group should a F-35B pilot's worst case scenario become a reality.
The loss of one pilot deep into enemy airspace is bad enough, sending many more aircrew and soldiers into that same 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 territory via the F-35B, they should retain the proper combat search and rescue platforms that could actually pluck its pilot to safety. During times of deployment, these specialized aircraft could work just as any Osprey does, and would offer an enhanced "missionized" airframe for embarked MARSOC (MARine Special Operations Command) and FAST 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 not be 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 $170M stealth super fighter could not survive over the same territory that they are about to attempt to infiltrate in search of its pilot, with anything but the element of surprise no less. At least give these brave folks the best tool necessary to get the job done. The current MV-22B in its current form simply is not that tool.
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 some takeoffs and landings, is that its weapons bays are smaller than those of the F-35A or F-35C. The B model can pack a 1,000lb class weapon and an AMRAAM in each of its bays, as opposed to the A and C versions which can fit a much larger 2,000lb class weapon and AMRAAM in each of their bays. This is all fine and good, but for many missions, weapons 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 ten plus years of war have proven that sometimes only precision targeted direct fire from an aircraft's cannon is acceptable when troops are in very close contact 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 bays, will go a long way at replacing a cannon's ability to surgically attack an enemy force in close contact with allied troops, and multiple times over if need be.
Not only do these weapons offer more flexibility and especially more "attacks" per sortie, while also maintaining the jet's low radar signature, but they could also allow the F-35B to potentially operate in vertical lift mode from tight forward operating locations and ships. Such operations, where vertical takeoffs and landings greatly reduce the weight at which the F-35B can launch and recover at, are even more feasible if an Osprey tanker is also forward deployed near the F-35B for quick post-takeoff fueling. 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 V-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, targets 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 each aircraft would have to manually target their objectives using their laser designators. With the advent of GPS guided munitions the laser designation was no longer needed and launching from standoff distances is even possible. 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 each munition individually with a target located around an enemy airfield, could potentially allow for wholesale destruction of the entire airfield on one single pass. The F-35Bs, loaded with their targeting information before the mission is launched, would automatically release each small bomb or missile in specified order as they pass over the target area, allowing for the jet's weapons bay doors to be opened the minimal amount of time possible. So instead of say two, or even four targets being destroyed per aircraft assigned to the mission, a dozen or more may be struck by each aircraft. In other words, no longer do you need to prioritize just the most pressing "primary" targets for an 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 attack run (2X F-35B with 2X 1000lb penetrating JDAMs each, 2X F-35B with 8 SDB each, 2X F-35B with 16 small guided munitions each). Not only could those six aircraft provide that much destruction over a single strategic target, but they could also escort themselves in and out of the target area as well as they would still retain a pair of AIM-120 AMRAAMs each.
F-35B will would not only benefit from smaller, lighter munitions for just its air-to-ground mission set, its air-to-air capabilities could benefit from similar munitions miniaturization as well. 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 many 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 as a beyond visual range one, 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 carrying many 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 ranges.
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 Marines 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.
Although this is not necessary relevant 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 its 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. 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 ISTAR 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. Under 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 of any sort.
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 identification markings of commercial ships to dropping munitions on the enemy in support of Marines deployed ashore.
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.
Even a more rudimentary, smaller and lighter STOVL UAVs 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 F-35B's entry into operational service and the time it would take to make something like VARIOUS an operational reality.
Currently, the Marines' 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 dozens of billions of dollars 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 has the potential to greatly magnify the lethality and independence of our entire "Gator Navy" just by fielding a relatively small number of supporting weapon systems, as well as modifying existing infrastructure and integrating new munitions onto that aircraft, doesn't it make sense to invest in these areas in a rapid fashion? I would posit that it is better to have a smaller fleet of F-35Bs than currently planned in order to fund the enabling "ecosystem" of the unique improvements and force-multiplying capabilities discussed above.
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, 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 currently available 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 long ago. 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 their 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.
The F-35B is not just a way better Harrier or Hornet, it is a gateway to get so much more out of so many other very expensive but loosely related assets. Although this complex "cause and effect" equation that surrounds the F-35B is not an easy one to convey, it is essential that it is, otherwise the cost-benefit analysis on a F-35B vs AV-8B level does not really add up positively. But when you factor in the larger strategic picture, especially when combined with the seven suggestions above, there is no question that the F-35B is a game changing bargain for the US taxpayer.
In the end, it may not have been good for the USAF or the Navy, but the Marines have got the jet of their dreams, and at a very high cost. It is now time to make the most out of America's massive monetary and opportunity cost investment in the F-35B, 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, the weapons they carry and especially the mindset surrounding their employment, remain locked in the past.
Adapted from a previous post from Aviationintel.com
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer that maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com
Photo credits: US Navy/Marines, Lockheed Martin, Bell-Boeing, Aurora Flight Services, MBDA