Navy’s Projected Strike Fighter Shortfall in 2017 Based on Current Wars Usage Rates

The Navy held a conference call with reporters today to shoot down any rumors that it’s going soft on the carrier version (F-35C) of the Joint Strike Fighter in favor of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.

The Navy intends to buy 124 Super Hornets in a multiyear purchase plan between FY 2010-2013, for a grand total of 515 F/A-18E/F/G aircraft, said Rear Adm. Mike Manazir, head of naval aviation programs.

But the fact that the Navy continues to buy large numbers of Super Hornets does not mean it doesn’t plan to buy even more F-35s, a true “game changing” 5th generation stealth aircraft, he said.

The Navy and Marines planned buy remains 680 JSFs, Manazir said. How many of that total will ultimately be the carrier version F-35C or the Marine’s short take-off and landing version F-35B, remains a topic of discussion between the two services.

On the much discussed Navy tactical strike fighter shortfall, Manazir said the worst case projections see the shortfall sitting at about 177 aircraft peaking in 2017. By tweaking “mitigation levers” – which includes how long older versions of the F-18 continue to fly, the delivery rate of new Super Hornets, how soon F-35s can begin to roll off the production line in large numbers and the demand from combatant commanders for carrier strike – that shortfall can be reduced to about 100 aircraft.

The current demand for F/A-18A-D flying off carriers in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is “what is really stressing us right now,” he said. “If that demand signal was to decrease at some point then it would mitigate some of that shortfall.”

The Navy’s projections of a strike fighter shortfall are based on models that assume the Navy will continue flying carrier missions in support of counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan at current levels, Manazir said.

Asked if the expected drawdown in U.S. forces from Iraq, and thus reduced flight hours for carrier aviation in the Central Command area, could erase that shortfall, he said that any change in the “demand signal” would change that shortfall number. “I can’t predict that it will drop,” he said.

Asked if he would rule out buying more Super Hornets to reduce that projected shortfall, Manazir said right now the Navy is focused on extending the life of the “legacy fleet” of F/A-18A-Ds.

Ultimately, though, the Navy really wants a 5th generation strike fighter and is counting on the F35C.

The Navy has expanded the capabilities of the Super Hornet to about “4.2-ish” generation capability, Manazir said, which is the limit of how much it can be upgraded. While some 5th generation low observable features are built into the Super Hornet, the fact that its weapons hang-off the wings, it cannot internally store weapons, means it has upper limits of stealthiness.

“The F-35Cs sensor fusion, data fusion and the stealth characteristics… allow it to get in there on day one of an anti-access denial kind of a fight,” Manazir said.

The Navy plans to operate the JSF and Super Hornet in combination, covered by an E-18G in a jamming role, to maximize the abilities of both aircraft. While functioning as a stealthy strike aircraft able to penetrate enemy air defenses the F-35C will also operate as a communications “node” on the Navy’s battle network, providing and transporting data to other ships and aircraft.

The Navy’s long-range aircraft force structure requirements are based on the current fight, that is Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a heavier fight against a “near-peer competitor,” he said.

The first flight of the F-35C is planned for some time in the next couple of weeks and the aircraft’s initial operational capability remains 2016, Manazir said. “It should be in [Patuxent River] by the end of the summer and actively participating in flight tests.”

“We continue to closely observe and interact with the contractor Lockheed Martin, and tell them what our requirements are.” Those requirements have not changed, he said. The Navy plans to field ten F-35C in the first squadron.

  • Better get this plane funded for later use or our boys will suffer in Afganistan etc.
    To augment the FA18 alone.
    & use from LHDs to augment carrier use.

  • blight

    Blackmail lockheed. Since Hornets are a Boeing craft, tell them right now that Boeing is going to get the moola and lockheed will get nothing for incompetence. Kelly Johnson is rolling in his grave.

    JSF isn’t intimately linked with “our boys will suffer in Afghanistan”, since bomb truck functions can be done with a variety of aircraft.

    I don’t know if JSF has actually been launched from an LHD yet, so I’m just waiting for more bad news on that front.

  • Chops

    Remember the old days when they would use 2 prototypes for 6 months and if it passed they would start production——now it takes 10 planes and 3 yaers to test a plane.

  • STemplar

    I certainly hope the Marine version works, being able to fly from the LHDs adds a twist how many carriers we actually have when they LHDs can act as pocket carriers with the F35s.

    I am dubious on the need for the carrier version at all. We need the stealth for penetrating air defenses and yet any country with a legitimate air defense system, is also going to have anti access capability to push the carriers out to a prohibitive range. If they have neither anti access nor air defense why would you need stealthy at all?

    I hope the X47 concept works out, seems like it would begin to make a serious case for not bothering with a carrier F35 at all. It would conceivably have far better range, not endanger pilots, and satisfy the day 1 strike needs.

  • blight

    I imagine ucavs might be launch capable on flat tops and lhds. You’d think that experience programming f22 would help in jsf unless the two groups dont talk to each other, and have to make the same mistakes twice over and bill the government the difference. feels like healthcare…

  • John Moore

    F-35 is taking way too long and you just know it wqill end up costing close to if not more than f-22’s Isn’t there a way they can sign the contract now and say we pay this much for this many no uppinf the price for every year that goes by?

    I figure if its the best right now by the time if flies it will be done no?

  • mat

    One thing that strikes me is that F35C seems to be realy crapy preformer as that is only real explanation why not slash cost and dump F35A development altogether and force the Airforce to use C version as well ,if the loss of preformance isn’t that significant i am certain that would already have happened,many carrier planes preformed well as land based aircraft remember F4,F8. F18 developed from a loosiing F17 bid.
    Also its interesting to see that other manufacturers seem to be able to make carrier variant on minimal budgets ,Mig 29K ,SU-27 family,F17-18 ,now Saab seems to be ofering gripen in Carrier version and remember no one realy has a supercarier like US navy so all these planes need to land and take off in less space.

  • Bob

    Too expensive and too late. The military will be drastically downsized in the next few years. Depend on it. During his second term Mr. Obama was cut the military like you would not believe. He has no choice if he is going to pay for all his social welfare programs. Just like now, congress will do whatever the administration tells them to do.

  • BILL D

    Remember how many new planes came out that the navy would not take because they were single engine planes?With a little innovation the navy could have been flying F16s off of carriers for thirty years instead of continually trying to develop twin engine planes—now comes the single engine F35 and suddenly 1 engine is ok–why is that?

    • blight

      ’cause admiral so-and-so retired and no longer is in a position to block things. Or so-and-so retired thirty years ago, joined the board of a company and ensured they would only send in twin-engine designs. Basically, either some obstructionist retired or some obstructionist died of old age.

  • Brian H

    Bill D – 25 years of engine development happened. I’m no fan of single engine around the Boat, but the fact is that engine reliability has gone up drastically in the past 20 or 30 years. Just look at how two engine civilian transport ETOPS operations have pushed out farther and farther as engines have become more reliable in the past 2 or 3 decades.