The F-35B Strikes Back

I’ve made some new friends and some apparently bitter enemies with my recent rant on the relative merits of V/STOL technology for fighters.

One comment posted at, which was nice enough to cross-post the item, is so good that I’m cross-posting it back here.

I think the anonymous SteveD is really onto something:

The F-35B has a serious business case — it is the only aircraft that can meet the USMC/UK RN requirement (not to mention the "Harrier carrier" requirements of India, Italy, Thailand, and Spain, and potentially of Japan). More importantly, if the Marines have any justification for a "high performance" fixed wing jet, it is that they need a jet organic to units operating from expeditionary strike groups (no CVNs) and from short/unprepared/minimally hardened forward air strips. VSTOL provides this capability, with the understood cost in range/payload.

However, traditional low-and-slow, eyeball-on-target CAS is obsolete in the era of ubiquitous MANPADS, SHORADS, and light AAA. CAS must be replaced by direct air support, providing NRT response to target designations by ground controllers using an illuminator (laser or MMW) or providing a 1m3 target cube based on GPS offset and laser ranging and a characterization (e.g., tank, troops in trench, mortar team in SE corner, 1st floor, masonry building, etc.).

The AF F-35A is an unnecessary airplane. It does nothing substantially better than the already in production F-22A except carry a somewhat larger (but still inadequate) bomb load; and is much weaker in range, air-to-air capability, and sustained cruise. The AF would do better buying 10 AEF’s worth of F-22s (380), updating the A-10 to A-10C, and remanufacturing or buying F-15Es with AESA radars and helmet-mounted sights, dropping the F-35, and expeditiously retiring the range/payload limited F-16.

The Navy F-35C is also of questionable value. While it has somewhat more range/payload than the F-35B, it offers no real benefit over the F/A-18E/F except stealth. It cannot match top-notch Russian- or European- air superiority aircraft. The Navy needs a replacement for the F-14D — a fast, long range, truly multi-mission aircraft, or should invest its money in supersonic, stealthy SSGN/DDG/CG-launched cruise missiles and long-loiter stealthy subsonic UCAVs.


Thanks SteveD.

To this I would add that the JSF is increasingly an odd-fit in the navy aircraft inventory. By the time the F-35C enters service, the navy will have hundreds of F/A-18E/Fs crowding the carrier deck. The JSF will be squeezed for relevance between this armada of Super Hornets and the navy’s ambitions to deploy a stealthy UCAV, which is the true sucessor of the still-born A-12 Avenger.


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One Response to The F-35B Strikes Back

  1. Bob Ehling 6 March, 2007 at 10:15 pm #

    A few comments:

    A) VTOL also gives the Harrier the capacity to “viff” (vector in forward flight), which allegedly gave it a high kill ratio at low altitudes in Red Flag exercises some time ago. The F-35′s lift fan may have similar attributes for future ACM, particularly flight at the high angles of attack necessary to fully exploit future air-to-air missile capabilities.

    B) Don’t forget that work is already under way to use the F-35′s lift fan bay for a directed energy weapons suite. That capability might be worth the extra engineering costs, and might make the AF and Navy “conventional” versions more effective than other platforms at some tasks.

    C) My own informal studies of procurement policy suggest that we don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket, whether it’s the F-22 for the Air Force, or the Super Hornet for the Navy and Marines. The case for the F-35 might be hard, but the alternative might be worse.

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