Straight up I’m not a fan of the F-35. But this blog post is written with the assumption that it will get shoe horned into the inventory and we’ll be stuck with it. So the question becomes, what is the best way to use them?
The USMC seems wedded to the idea of the F-35B. The US Navy is ambivalent, and with a 250 million per F-35C I’d be ambivalent too. Even the F-35B is coming in at 200 million per copy, with no cost drop in the foreseeable future. The USAF is the F-35 #1 fanboi (officially anyways, I know a number of airmen who think the brass are either crazy or treasonous).
So I have a modest proposal in two parts. First, cancel the F-35C. No one but the US Navy is planning on buying it, and the money could be put to better use purchasing F-35A variants for the US Air Force at the current 2:1 ratio and maturing the software. If the US Navy really needs a stealth strike fighter, the USMC will be very happy to step up and provide some F-35Bs for the mission. That is assuming that the stealth B2 and stealthy B1B with their worldwide capability (with refueling) don’t get the job first with their larger payload proven track record.
The USAF is also completely wedded to the F-35A, and increasing the buy of F-35As might actually ramp up the “scale of economy” to slow the death spiral enough to outfit a few allies in NATO without utterly destroying their defense budgets. It’s a piece of crap aircraft, but the USAF and LockMart made it unkillable. Killing off the most expensive variant that doesn’t do anything for the US Navy that a combination of stealth UCAV and Super Hornets doesn’t already do seems like a smart move. Making cheapest turd variant cheaper is better for the taxpayers.
It is my opinion that the US Navy would be better served in the stealthy deep strike mission by the X-47C stealth drone than by F-35s. The drones have longer range, better loiter time, and are stealthy. The entire X-47B program to date cost less than four F-35Cs at flyaway cost.
The reason why the USMC wants the F-35B, or at least the Air Wing does.
The USMC wants an aircraft that can keep up with the V-22 Osprey for deep strikes and raids (officially anyways, I think in reality the Air Wing just wants to get more deep strike missions from the Navy and Air Force), and right now none of the rotary wing assets in the USMC inventory are capable of simultaneous launch with a V-22 and arrive on target at the same time. The CH-53K and AH-1 could do that mission, flying in formation, and possibly a future attack helicopter based on the Sikorsky S-97 with it’s pusher prop could do it with the V-22.
I also propose that the F-35B purchase be trimmed down to a number that the USMC actually needed to support troop insertion. This is 4 F-35Bs per MAGTF instead of 6 AV-8Bs in a “standard” load out (the ACE portion of the MAGTF is task organized, so “standard” has plenty of variation). With a 50% available rate (optimistic I know), this means two F-35Bs would be available to support the V-22 inserted troops. Those F-35Bs only need to support the insertion for the time it takes for follow on rotary wing aircraft to catch up. With the cruise speed of an AH-1 or AH-64, take half the time of the trip in the V-22 and that is the catch up time for the helicopters. Coincidentally for a long trip that is more than the loiter time for an F-35B, so either the F-35Bs have to launch after the V-22s and keep up, or get refueled (possibly by a V-22 in fueler mode).
If anyone says they need six stealth fighters to support two non-stealthy V-22s on approach, slap them. To really support the ground forces the F-35Bs will be loaded for bear and definitely not “stealthy” by any stretch of the imagination. Even if you have six of them in the MAGTF.
And I also propose that by cutting the F-35B purchase from 6 aircraft per MAGTF to 4 that the saved 400 million dollars be spent on replacing the AH-1s with AH-64E variants for the MAGTF and increasing the number of attack helicopters by 2. This will double the service ceiling for the attack helicopter supporting the ground troops, allow two more attack helicopters to be land based with the grunts. The effective upgrade is 1,200 rounds of 30mm in an Apache over 750 rounds of 20mm in a Super Cobra. Without the Longbow mast on the Apache it can match with Super Cobra’s range. This would serve as an interim upgrade until a follow on attack helicopter based on the S-97 which is only 65 km/h slower at max speed than the V-22 at cruise speed. So the S-97 based AH would have to launch slightly earlier than the V-22, but considering how crowded the deck of an amphib assault ship is, that’s a blessing and not a problem.
Alternately the USMC could forgo an interim upgrade and just throw money saved at the S-97 variant attack helicopter program. The Super Cobra is still a very effective support platform against most targets that the USMC has any business conducting a “deep raid” on with a company size element.
Think about it this way, cutting the USMC purchase of F-35Bs by a total of five aircraft frees up a cool billion dollars to develop an S-97 based attack helicopter. Reducing the purchase by ten aircraft frees up another cool billion to actually buy some next generation attack helicopters.
Comments are open. Should the USMC cut the F-35B purchase and upgrade AH-1s to AH-64s on a 4:6 basis? Or should the USMC cut the F-35B purchase and push more funding for an S-97 (or other) future AH program? Or am I all wrong, should the USMC go all in on the F-35B(I don’t think so, the only advantage over the AV-8B is speed and stealth, neither which are useful to the ground element)?