By Taylor Marvin
At Flight Global, Dave Majumdar reports on the obstacles facing the Navy’s nascent F/A-XX program, intended to develop a F/A-18E/F Super Hornet replacement by the mid-2030s. In short: there just isn’t the money in the Navy’s 2014 budget to support the development effort necessary for an optimistically-planned 2030 service introduction. With the massive F-35 program sucking up 38 percent of the current DoD-wide procurement budget, this isn’t surprising. The Navy’s tried to skirt this math by positioning the F/A-XX as a complement, rather than substitute for their F-35C, but this is more of an optimistic fiction than reality. Objectively, a twin-engined, long-range, optionally-low observability Super Hornet successor is a very different aircraft than the single engined, single seat F-35C that shares more design similarities with an F-16 than the F/A-18A though Ds it’s intended to replace. But planning on the budget for two different aircraft development programs in the 2014-2020 period is an extremely optimistic assumption on the Navy’s part, especially given the widespread resignation in the Pentagon to a falling future defense budget and the fact that the Navy — unlike the USAF — has plenty of things to buy besides aircraft. Is another Navy fighter program justified? Given the well-documented inherent problems with the common Joint Strike Fighter design philosophy, probably. Is it realistic? Probably not.
Particularly interesting is Majumdar’s focus on the USMC’s aversion to the F/A-XX program. “A bigger problem is that the USN is working on the F/A-XX effort by itself,” writes Majumdar. “Not even the US Marine Corps, with which the USN’s tactical fighter force is integrated, has had any input into the F/A-XX.” This actually isn’t surprising at all. The USMC is perpetually last in the budgetary line; ‘doing more with less’ is a part of their institutional mythos. Yet in an era where the US faces no near-peer enemies — yes, China doesn’t come close the threat posed by the USSR — the Marine Corps is on track to acquire a supersonic, low observability STOVL combat jet! It’s worth reflecting on just how incredible this is, and the Marine Corps understands that if the Navy cuts its F-35C buy, rising unit costs put the entire program in jeopardy. The Marine Corps’ enthusiasm for its beloved STOVL jet means it won’t accept any rival program that might dispace the USN buy laying down. When the retired USMC officer quoted argues that skipping the F-35C in favor of relying on legacy platforms until the F/A-XX materializes isn’t realistic, he has a point — but is also defending the Corps’ institutional interests. This logic also puts Flight Global’s more vitriolic quote from a former USMC deputy commandant for aviation in perspective:
“It sort of validates the naval aviators’ overall lack of commitment to the F-35,” he says. “It shows how much they’re in bed with Boeing to include a whole host of retired navy aviators who work for Boeing. And it shows, frankly, their lack of commitment to unmanned systems.”
Again, there’s truth here, and reasonable people can disagree about what systems are worth funding in the face of a future more uncertain than any the US defense establishment’s faced in recent history. But institutional loyalties are powerful, and it’s important to remember that the collective defense-industrial bureaucracy isn’t anything close to a rational decision maker.