Rocky XXI – JSF vs Super Hornet

In two recent stories, Defense News naval expert Chris Cavas has painted a compelling picture of two US services locked in mortal combat over the future of two fighters – the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin F-35B Joint Strike Fighter. In his first story, in May, Cavas exposed US Navy efforts to keep US Marine Corps’ STOVL F-35s off its carrier decks. Now he has revealed the Marine Corps to be behind attempts to smear the reputation of the Navy’s Super Hornet. It is a finely balanced battle, as the Navy holds the Marines’ purse strings, but the Marines hold powerful sway in Congress.

The battle has been joined because delays to the JSF have opened up a shortfall in the integrated Navy and Marine Corps fighter force. The Navy plans to plug the gap by buying additional F/A-18E/Fs, now on offer from Boeing for a mere $49.9 million apiece. But the Marine Corps turned its back on the Super Hornet some time ago and staunchly adheres to its plan for an all-STOVL force of F-35s and V-22s.

If the Navy succeeds in keeping the F-35B off its carrier decks, the STOVL JSF could become unaffordable – and not just for the Marine Corps.

Stop – JSF crossing! (USN photo)For the Marines, the JSF will replace both the AV-8B Harrier and the F/A-18 Hornet, and Navy is concerned that integrating the vertical-landing F-35B with the conventional-landing Super Hornet will disrupt carrier operations. The Marine Corps admits there are issues, and is looking to a shipborne rolling vertical landing technique being developed by the UK for the STOVL JSF as one possible solution.

At the same time, the Marine Corps is worried that any further delays to the JSF could force it to buy the F/A-18E/F and abandon its plans for an all-STOVL force. As the Super Hornet’s price comes down because of the design’s maturity and the JSF’s price goes up because of budget cuts, the pressure increases.

And it is impossible not to see the hands of the respective manufacturer’s guiding the battle. Lockheed fighting to keep all three variants of the JSF alive and Boeing striving to delay the day when its fighters, the F-15 and F-18, are killed off by Lockheed’s F-22 and F-35.

This is not an academic debate. The UK is counting on the F-35B to equip its new carriers and for other operators of the Harrier, like Italy, the JSF is the only STOVL option on the table. At the same time, for countries like Australia that have a near-term fighter gap to fill, the Super Hornet is a capable alternative.

Because of the JSF’s importance as a joint AND international programme, inter-service rivalry should not be the basis for such decisions. But this is the USA. Ultimately the battle will be won or lost in the halls of Congress, where the Marines have won many a close fight.

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