Power of suggestion

The following article first appeared as a Comment in the 9 April issue of Flight International

The Lockheed Martin F-35 is set to become the mainstay fighter for not only the US Department of ­Defense, but also many US allies. However, costs are projected to be far greater than expected, at $1.1 trillion.

Former US Navy chief of naval operations Adm Gary Roughead suggests that the Pentagon seriously consider cancelling the US Air Force’s F-35A model aircraft in favour of the navy’s carrier-capable F-35C.

While on the surface such a plan might sound like it borders on the insane, it should not be ruled out without serious consideration.

The idea was briefly examined by the DoD during the Bush administration, but it never gained any serious traction. Though there are some indications that analysis is again under way, the DoD officially denies this.

The USAF and some foreign allies would fight to their dying breath to save the F-35A. However, the fact is that land-based forces can operate a naval aircraft without any real difficulty. A good precedent for this was set by the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, which ably served with the navy, USAF and US Marine Corps, as well as numerous foreign allies. 

Potentially, consolidating variants to the C model could help reduce the F-35′s life-cycle costs by simplifying logistics and pilot and maintainer training. Operationally, the F-35C, despite its comparatively lower kinematic performance, has much better range than other variants of the Joint Strike Fighter – increasingly important for operations in the Pacific.

While a USAF tanker can only refuel one fighter at a time using the flying-boom system, the F-35C’s hose-and-drogue apparatus would enable the same tanker to transfer fuel to multiple aircraft simultaneously. 

Some will argue the boom system can offload fuel at a rate of about 6,000lb (2,722kg) per minute, but fighters cannot accept fuel at a rate of more than 3,000lb per minute. Usually the actual rates are far slower. The navy’s hose-and-drogue system, which is also used around the world, can transfer fuel at rates of between 1,500lb and 2,000lb per minute. Thus, adopting the F-35C might mean refuelling a four-ship of fighters much faster than would be possible with the F-35A.

Moreover, USAF squadrons could potentially be trained to operate from on board the navy’s carriers to increase their basing flexibility or to augment carrier air wings as needed – furthering the concept of seamless integration that the Pentagon’s much-vaunted “Air-Sea Battle” concept espouses.


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