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Could the Marines Get F-35Cs?

by John Reed on November 24, 2010

Given all the bad news coming out about the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter program in recent weeks, I asked Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz if he is concerned that any cuts to the Marines troubled F-35B program could hurt the Air Force:

“If we don’t produce the same amount of airplanes, clearly there’s cost impacts” said Schwartz. “The F-35 is important to lots of folks [three U.S. armed services and eight international partners] and my expectation is that both government and industry will get after making this right.”

In the wake of Britain’s move to swap its F-35Bs for F-35C carrier variants and the recent suggestion by the presidentially-mandated deficit reduction panel that the U.S. should cut the F-35B, one has think that the Pentagon is at least considering swapping the B-model JSF and replacing it with the C.

This move would keep overall F-35 purchase numbers high and would redirect resources away from the troubled B and into the A and C-programs. The Marines would lose the ability to fly from smaller ships and austere ground sites, but with the C they would maintain a modern ship-borne fighter fleet. The Pentagon is likely asking how often the Marines’ fleet of AV-8B Harrier jump jets’s ability to fly from amphibious assault ships or random forward locations has been key to an operation?  In theory it gives the Marines a critical edge — but in practice … maybe not.

Check out this article from Armed Forces Journal weighing the merits of forward basing STOVL jets. It makes an interesting point about the cost of keeping a plane like the F-35B close to the front lines:

Forward basing is more than a logistical quagmire. As the price continues to climb and the number scheduled for purchase continues to descend, these aircraft will become national assets that are closely guarded, and the U.S. does not typically stage national assets within range of the enemy’s indirect fires.

In 2005, a rocket attack destroyed one British Harrier and damaged another while they sat on the ramp in Kandahar, Afghanistan. It seems unrealistic to expect $120-million, fifth-generation STOVL fighters like the F-35B to operate out of forward bases or austere locations. They may retain the capability to do so, but at the expense of range, useful load and a higher purchase price.

If the Marines lose the F-35B, they could try to rely on older F/A-18 Hornets and Harriers, but how useful will these legacy jets be in the coming decades against anything but insurgents? Another option is to buy new F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, a jet the Navy already plans to use in tandem with the F-35. This might make sense. The Super Hornet would give the Marines low-cost, quality fast jet air support that’s better equipped to deal with 21st Century air defenses than older F/A-18s.

However, either of these moves would reduce purchases of F-35s by the hundreds. This would increase the overall cost of the airplane — something no one wants to see given the government’s troubled fiscal climate.

Buying C-model jets would give the Marines modern, carrier-borne tacair jets with considerably more range and payload than the B and would help keep the cost of the overall F-35 program stable compared to rising fixed costs caused by dropping hundreds of jets. (There would still some financial waves via sunk costs from pulling out of the B). The amphibious service would lose its ability to operate from certain ships or bases, but it would retain a stealthy fighter capable of being deployed on ships that’s cheaper (on a per-unit basis) than the F-35B.

I’m not saying this is the best route or even what will happen. But like I said earlier, F-35 Program Manager Vice Adm. David Venlet and his team have got to be at least weighing these factors as they plot the future of the F-35 program. 

– John Reed

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