Future concepts of sea-based airpower confront navies with difficult problems. Some are a matter of pragmatics, such as the vessel design limitations that forced a certain red-faced prime minister to revert to the Lockheed Martin F-35B earlier this month.
Other problems are more operational. It does not matter if the US Navy ultimately decides to buy F-35Cs - the same carrier-based fighter recently de-selected by the Royal Navy - or funds new upgrades for the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
If the West's consensus intelligence assessment can be trusted, China's guided ballistic missiles can keep the US carrier battle group thousands of miles away from Taiwan, the only foreseeable flashpoint of potential conflict. For this pivotal scenario, the USN's internal argument between an investment in stealthy but short-legged F-35Cs and non-stealthy, short-legged F/A-18E/Fs becomes academic.
This leads to more unsettling questions. What is an aircraft carrier really worth in 2020? And what is the value of carrier-based aircraft with an unrefuelled range shorter than the distance between Chicago and Washington DC?
These are hard questions with harder answers. In development today are unmanned, carrier-based bombers that have the range and survivable design characteristics to participate in any conflict no matter how far the carrier is driven from the scene of action. But which politicians would be willing to gamble on whether these aircraft will be available and ready to work when called upon?
The prudent course seems to be gathering momentum. It is basically a hedging strategy: develop upgrades to keep the Super Hornet fundamentally viable, while investing in the leap-ahead, unmanned bombers that will arrive at some point in the future.
The problem is there is no additional money to pay for the Super Hornet upgrades. Any dollar spent to keep Boeing's programme viable must be one less dollar spent on another system. Unfortunately for Lockheed Martin, that system is most likely to be the F-35C.
It is nearly time for the USN to make a hard decision. Just like UK Prime Minister David Cameron, navy chiefs will have to accept the criticism that comes with having originally invested in the wrong technology. However, it will serve the taxpayer's interests in the long-run to choose the most sustainable path to the future of airpower at sea.
(This article first appeared as the main leading article in Flight International 12 June)