The Navy’s USS America, the first of her class, was controversially optimized to handle the F-35, leaving out the multi-purpose well deck traditionally found on ‘Gator Navy’ flattops. Now, just months after her commissioning, she already needs 40 weeks of upgrades just to handle the very aircraft she was designed for.
The F-35 program has become something of a dark comedy. Yes, it has huge fiscal and national security implications, but sometimes you just have to laugh at how big of a fumbling mess it really is.
Not only has the jet itself been plagued by the absolutely shattered concept of ‘concurrency’ (building something en masse even before testing it), but as it turns out, some of its support infrastructure was too. This includes the 45,000 ton displacement USS America.
The $6.8 billion aircraft carrier ($3.4 billion unit cost) — and that is what it is, an aircraft carrier, not a amphibious assault ship — was commissioned last fall to great fanfare, yet now we learn it will be heading in to dry dock for almost a year.
Why, you ask? Is there a defect with the ship’s weapon systems? A propulsion or hull issue? Hardly, the class was actually based on the latest Wasp Class vessels, which in itself is troubling considering the America Class's much higher cost.
Instead it will receive myriad patchwork upgrades aimed at allowing it to operate the F-35B. Yep, you read that correctly, the same aircraft, along with the MV-22 Osprey, that the ship was specifically designed to accommodate, can't operate from its decks.
Not too astonishingly, the Navy and Big Defense, both of which seem to have a very loose grasp of the idea of budgets, play this off as an exciting thing, getting ready for the big game-changing F-35B. That is true, but almost another year in dry dock equates to big dollars and considering we already spent close to $7 billion on this design, of which only two ships will be made of it before returning back to the well deck concept, this seems outrageous.
Wouldn't it have been a better idea to just build these ships, if they truly are needed, after the F-35B was mature and its issues were known? How about instead just building another far less expensive Wasp Class vessel, which has a well deck, in its place? In fact, the Navy could have purchased a larger, much more capable and ideally suited vessel for the F-35B (ski jump included), a Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carrier and would have actually saved money!
So what does the Navy’s new F-35B carrier, the USS America, need to actually handle the F-35B? A pretty impressive laundry list of items, according to General Robert Walsh, the Navy's Director of Expeditionary Warfare, who was recently quoted by DoDbuzz.com:
"The ship's going through hull, mechanical and electrical mods for the F-35, including environmental mods. Some of it is deck related and some of it is lighting related. It lands on the deck differently than the Harrier"
Hmm. Well General Walsh, wouldn't those things been good to know before building the ship itself?
The flightdeck heating issue has been an embarrassing one for the F-35 program. Early on, it was assured that the heat from the F-35B's massive engine would not require any modifications for amphibious ship operations. Where the AV-8B Harrier could go, the F-35B could go.
This turned out to be a farce. The F-35B's hot exhaust has the capability to not just scorch these ships existing decks, they can melt right through them like a cutting torch, the purpose built USS America included. As a result, intricate structural members have to be added underneath spots seven and nine (F-35Bs will only be able to land on these two spots!) aboard the America, and a new deck surface coating must be added in hopes of keeping the jet's high heat signature at bay.
The heat modifications alone are a cause and effect proposition, as the extra structure added below the deck means that other components, some of them quite large, already installed there have to be moved deeper into the ship's bowels. This includes dropping lighting, ventilation, piping, wiring, mechanical systems and just about everything else you can imagine. Just like all the expensive patchwork retrofits that over 100 F-35s have required, the work on the America will be a costly and time consuming endeavor.
Then there are other issues, like the antennas, life rafts and other components that are located in the path of the F-35B's powerful and hot downwash. These all have to be relocated or hardened in order to not be destroyed by F-35 operations. This also leaves open the question, in an emergency or by a mistake, what happens if a F-35B lands on a different spot?
Maybe what is most startling is that not only is the ship that was designed for the F-35 not prepared structurally to operate that aircraft, but intellectually the ship is not prepared to deal with it either.
There are multiple quotes from higher-ups talking in wondrous, glowing prose about how the F-35 offers so much intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information that they need to figure out a way for the ship to use that data. It's as if this is an exciting new problem, when in reality, it is astonishing that the America was not launched to leverage this capability from the outset. Instead, costly new systems will be built and major upgrades and retrofits will be needed. The spending never ends.
General Walsh describes this strangely unknown frontier of F-35 information exchange:
"Exciting but a real challenge... By fiscal year 2018 we'll have the first ever F-35s deployed... The integration council is really drilling down into what those requirements are... It's not going to be how we operated the Harrier. This is fifth generation… What's the requirement for the F-35 to be able to communicate and disseminate data across the battle force?
Peter Fanta, the Navy's Director of Surface Warfare, was quoted in National Defense Magazine as saying:
"We will not be able to bring that data (the F-35's) completely onboard in that first deployment.. We will learn where our holes are in our first deployment... Aircraft will talk to each other, will pass data back and forth to the ship, and we'll have to figure out how to do without driving the ship to its knees."
So even though the F-35 has been flying for almost a decade, its avionics testbed the CATbird flying long before that, and the fact that dozens of jets are serving in multiple non-test squadrons today at places like the USAF Weapons School, AND with the reality that the USMC is going to declare this aircraft operational in a few months, how doesn't the Navy know what tech it needs to exchange information with it?
Even worse, maybe they never really got to finding out how to share information with the ship at all, and now it is being played off like a grand adventure of some sort?
The F-35's data-link, known as Multi-function Advanced Data Link, is stealthy in nature as it uses low power, has low probability of intercept functions (jumping frequencies, quickly bursting data etc) and utilizes a series of antennas mounted all around the jet under the aircraft's skin to send data directly to other F-35s within line of sight.
These F-35s create an invisible 'daisy chain' of information flow, drastically increasing their situational awareness and tactical options. In contrast, Link 16/MIDS, an other forms of popular data links and waveforms are omni-directional, use more power and not necessarily low-probability of intercept (stealthy).
For aircraft carriers or large land forces that include F-35 operations, fusing MADL's information with Link 16 information will be done via connectivity node, such as a E-11 BACN, E-2D Hawkeye, E-3 Sentry or even an unmanned aircraft such as a EQ-4 Global Hawk. The problem with expeditionary warfare as part of a Gator Navy Expeditionary Strike Group is that they do not have an E-3D Hawkeye to fuse and relay beyond line-of-sight information like the Navy's super carriers do. That is unless they want to be tied to USAF or Naval Aviation assets, which would hamper their flexibility and independence.
As a result, either the USMC has to come up with some new unmanned aircraft that can pack a relay system and that can be launched off the deck of an LHD or LHA, or they need to outfit the Osprey with such a system. On the high-end this could be a Airborne Early Warning & Control variant of the V-22 itself, or at the very least, a modular roll-on, roll-off relay system that can be installed in any Osprey's hold.
I have identified these solutions and many others in great detail in this post, but the reality is that these should have been top priorities long ago so that the huge cost, both in dollars and in opportunity cost (all F-35 variants are handicapped by the inclusion of STOVL in the JSF design) that the F-35B represents, are offset by squeezing the most capability out of it and the Expeditionary Strike Groups it will be assigned to.
So why is all this now becoming an issue? How were these problems not addressed during the USS America's initial design and construction phrases? Frankly, I have no way to answer this, but considering that the USMC is actually trying to sell the fact that the F-35B will be operational later this year, yet won't embark on a cruise until 2018, is just another reason why not to drink their brand of Kool-Aid.
In the end, the USS America is another victim of the F-35's high risk concurrency procurement strategy, and quite honestly, it may be the biggest example of the whole debacle in both size and cost. Logic would dictate that developing key enabling technologies early on and waiting to test those technologies along with the new fighter aircraft they work with would be essential before putting any of them into production, let alone a $7 billion aircraft carrier.
Instead we're busy playing a very expensive catch-up game in reverse, to the point of building entire capital ships that cannot even exchange data with let alone operate the very fighter aircraft they were specifically designed for!
Maybe the saddest part of all of this is that the Navy named the F-35B's tailor-made ship the USS America. Then again, considering how seemingly mismanaged our country has become, this may actually be a fairly accurate title.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who 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