The Future of the F-35B
By Taylor Marvin
The F-35 program is delayed, again. This is a major problem: the F-35 is the Pentagon’s single largest development program and is planned to make up 90 percent of the United States’ future air power. This is part of what makes the F-35 so complex and its development so problematic — unlike the largely single -role fighter aircraft of the past the F-35 is designed for a variety of missions and is planned to replace aircraft as varied as the heavily armored and slow close air support A-10, the light and fast F-16 air superiority and attack aircraft, the Navy’s mainstay F/A-18 fighter, and the Marine’s STOVL AV-8B. To enable it to successfully fulfill these varied roles the F-35 was designed as three distinct versions: the F-35A for the Air Force designed for air to air combat and attack missions, the Marine’s F-35B featuring an entirely innovative STOVL system, and the naval F-35C with the wider control surfaces and rugged landing gear necessary for carrier landings.
The multirole aspect of the F-35 is absolutely necessary, despite how difficult it’s made the aircraft’s development. Because the cost of combat aircraft continually increase the military simply can’t afford to continue to develop separate aircraft to meet the needs of all three flying services. Building common use aircraft has been tried before — during the 1960’s Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, in an effort to cut costs, tried to spur the development of a common Air Force and Navy fighter aircraft. Like the F-35, the two services had radically different requirements: the Navy needed a high altitude missile launching air superiority aircraft, while the Air Force wanted a low-level attack aircraft. The program ended in failure: the Navy, opposed to the idea of having to share an aircraft design that didn’t really fit their needs never adopted the aircraft, which eventually became the Air Force’s successful F-111. However, the F-35 program was designed especially to avoid these problems. It was hoped that by offering three optimized versions of essentially the same fighter the Pentagon could create an aircraft effective enough to comprise essentially all of the United States’ future air power at a relatively affordable cost. That’s why this program is so vital. If the F-35 program continues to see cost increases and is eventually cancelled the United States will literally have no new aircraft to fill the void. Aircraft development cycles take decades — the F-22, which is just now entering service despite being designed in the 1980’s to counter the Soviets — and without the F-35 the Pentagon will have to depend on its current force of 1970’s designed aircraft for decades longer.
However, the F-35 program has run into significant problems. Despite being originally sold as an affordable aircraft, the cost of individual F-35s has ballooned by 81 percent to over $110 million each. Additionally, each F-35 will likely be as much as 150 percent more costly to maintain than the aircraft they replace. The program with the most problems is the F-35B. Part of this is expected. The Marine’s aircraft is designed to be capable of taking off and landing vertically in addition to high performance supersonic flight. This is unprecedented- the AV-8 Harrier, originally designed by the British and enthusiastically adopted by the Marines, isn’t capable of supersonic flight and can’t function as an air superiority fighter while late Soviet experiments with supersonic STOVL aircraft were laughably awful. In light of the F-35B program’s delays — which just increased by another 2 to 3 years — many critics are calling for the cancellation of the program. These criticisms have some merit: the F-35B’s STOVL capability come at steep costs to performance and range, make the variant the most expensive of the three, and are an extremely complex system guaranteed to suffer reliability issues in service. Additionally, the whole point of the aircraft’s STOVL ability is to allow the F-35B to operate from smaller helicopter carriers, an ability that isn’t clearly necessary to US military capability, and from small temporary airfields, something the Marine’s haven’t needed to do since World War Two. Additionally, part of the F-35B’s original justification was British interest in flying it off their smaller aircraft carriers. However, due to UK defense cuts that are forcing greater integration with the CATOBAR French Navy the British have elected to buy the Navy’s F-35C, significantly reducing the F-35B’s market.
However, the F-35B is a valuable program and shouldn’t be cut. It’s certainly true that cutting military spending that’s far, far beyond what is needed to defend the country and dangerously swells that national debt for no benefit is an issue of pressing importance. Also, all the criticisms of the F-35B are true — it will be more expensive and less capable than its sister variants. However, advocates of the F-35B are stressing the wrong attributes of the aircraft because it hints at an uncomfortable truth: the value of STOVL is that it decentralizes US military assets that probably aren’t survivable in a major conflict.
Non-STOVL aircraft, like the Navy’s current F/A-18 and future F-35C are dependent on large aircraft carriers — they can’t launch from anything smaller. The United States currently has 11 large supercarriers. If critics of defense spending (rightly) get their way this will probably be cut t0 7 or 8. This means that American long range naval airpower can only launch from 8 platforms. By itself this isn’t a problem; 8 expeditionary carrier battle groups is by far enough to assert American power and provide a formidable deterrence. But in a major war it wouldn’t because carriers won’t survive a comparable-peers future conflict. This is the uncomfortable secret of naval strategy. Advances in technology have made it much easier to sink capital ships and have given this capability to much poorer nations. In the WWII era sinking an enemy’s fleet required building in a comparable fleet of your own, an investment so large that it barred naval capability from anything but the richest nations. Technological advancements have made this barrier to entry greater –today only the United States possesses the relative naval capability enjoyed by France, the UK, Russia, and the Japanese at the beginning of the 20th century — while lowering the cost to destroy these capabilities. It’s much cheaper to buy hundreds of modern anti-ship missiles than an aircraft carrier, which is why American supercarriers won’t be survivable in a full-on naval war with a modern adversary. Despite capital ships’ formidable air defense systems if an adversary simultaneously launches dozens of million-dollar anti-ship missiles at a $5 billion dollar carrier some will get through, and the carrier will not survive. That’s exactly the battle plan for powers like the Chinese or Iranians. These nations know that they could never challenge the US Navy on an equal footing and rationally invest not in ships but in anti-ship missiles — while they won’t gain the ability to project naval power, they can deny it to anyone else. There’s no way to defeat this logic. As long as missiles are significantly cheaper than capital ships any advance in anti-missile defense can be overcome by simply launching more missiles. You can’t hide your naval assets either; a warm ship against a cold ocean will always be obviously detectable, even to an adversary without satellite technology. Any serious military conflict with a medium or great power would end in disaster for the United States- multiple aircraft carriers and support ships would be lost, at a cost of over ten thousand lives.
That’s the value of the F-35B. Its STOVL capability allows it to operate outside of the carrier battle groups that will be so vulnerable in future conflicts. This is vital. If the US restricts its naval aviation capabilities to a few supercarriers they won’t survive future wars. By decentralizing naval aviation the F-35B will make tomorrow’s navy more flexible, more diverse, and ultimately more survivable. Of course the chances of a future major war are tiny. But that’s the entire point of deterrence. By fielding a decentralized navy that the Chinese or Iranians won’t be able to effectively counter the chances of war are reduced. Deterrence is always a function of value versus cost. While expensive, the F-35B is capable enough to offer a good value. This value isn’t limited to future wars. Currently the US Navy has kept a carrier parked off south Asia for most of the war in Afghanistan, despite the huge cost of fielding a supercarrier and its support ships. It has to, because naval F/A-18’s can only fly off of full sized carriers. F-35B’s would allow these types of small war naval operations, the type likely to dominate the 21st century, to be conduced by cheaper small carriers by offering a more capable attack platform than the Marine’s current AV-8. It’s this type of mission that the F-35B would perform best at- asymmetrical warfare where the F-35B’s lack of performance and range would be less costly, especially when mitigated with the range-enhancing drop tanks that this non-stealthy mission permits.
Of course almost all American military spending isn’t really necessary. If the United States decided to bring its defense budget back in line with the rest of the world and spend only a fraction of what it currently does we wouldn’t be any less safe. However, if we do decide to aim to dominate the rest of the planet (an aim that’s far from justified) the F-35B makes sense. There are other programs that should be cut first.
Also, STOVL is awesome. It also fits my the-government-should-spend-all-of-GDP-on-awesome-stuff budget plan.