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Return of the Moonlighters

December 4, 2007 (by Eric L. Palmer) - Years from now when the United States Marine Corps is deployed with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), the ways of USMC-Air will improve.

The STOVL system on the F-35B utilises a shaft-driven lift fan propulsion system. Here the X-35B can bee seen over Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

The F-35 will bring The Corps a short-take-off-vertical-landing (STOVL) aircraft that is easier to maintain, and more survivable than it's' replacement, the Harrier. It will also provide a built in electro-optical laser pod and many other superior sensors. The F-35 will carry more and carry it a longer distance and have the ability to stay near the target for a longer period. It should also have a higher safety record over the long haul.

Some things that won't change is that there will still be a niche need for the Marines old friend; the Mark 77 bomb. Even with advances in technology, war is still cruel. M-77 is the follow on to the old napalm bomb with similar effect. It is still one of the go-to weapons when an enemy is held up in a fortified position and needs to be taken out as part of a major assault by Marines. M-77 saves lives: Those of the ground troops making a major assault.

M-77 isn't on the current list of weapon to be certified during the System Development and Demonstration phase (SDD). Then again that chart has changed some and will probably change again as needs come about. There will still be more weapons clearance to do after SDD like taking a look at external drop tanks which went away as an SDD requirement in 2006. Given the alterations in the F-35 test program, the complete list of weapons to reach certification by the end of SDD is unknown: Only a prediction. Before or after SDD, no matter, M-77 while rarely used, is still needed for USMC ops.

The gun pod: Today in Iraq and Afghanistan, the gun is used for 20-25% of the strikes. Precision guided munitions (PGMs): By the time the Marines field the F-35, those PGMs should all be dual use. That would mean a JDAM is also a laser-JDAM or a Paveway is not just laser-guided but can terminate to the target with GPS assistance like the Enhanced Paveway or Paveway IV as what will be used by RAF F-35s.

Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) have only so much space for bringing things along. That means the munitions that deploy with the MEU have to be versatile. A deployed kit of killing munitions may look something like this: The AMRAAM, gun ammo, a dual-use PGM and maybe the M-77 for those rare occasions. The Small Diameter Bomb in it's tri-sensor SDB-II variant would be very useful for USMC service. Money being thin, a MEU having SDB's will depend on a lot of planning priorities of involved Marine leaders. Laser-Maverick may soldier on if it's replacement, the JAGM isn't fielded. If the dual use variant of the AMRAAM becomes available years from now, that weapon will be able to take out ground radar emitters and geo-located ground targets as well as it's traditional air-to-air role.

Assuming the F-35 proves itself to be survivable, the Marines should be able to take part in more first-day war scenarios and press into a higher threat areas. The USMC will also have more lethality for air-to-air encounters. For high-sortie rates that are just over the hill strikes, less on-board fuel can be carried and external carry can be maxed out. The variety of onboard sensors will give the MEU leaders increased updates to what is operating in their battle space.

If the guy selling all this to the USMC is right, F-35 should be low maintenance. This is a large selling point of the F-35. For example: This means that if the AESA radar lives up to its claim, there should be no need to open up the nose on deployment. There may be some avionics boxes to swap out. And of course as knowledge is gained through use, the deployable spares kits will be altered as needed. How the STOVL engine assembly operates in a dirty, deployed environment will be of interest.

Flying safety should be improved for STOVL operations as engineers are working on making sure the pilot has less workload during the transition between horizontal and vertical flight. Also not mentioned are brown-outs. Where during vertical landing there is so much dust one loses orientation with the ground. Here the visual displays in the helmet should help greatly with landing safely.

Some cautionary notes of bare-basing: In November 1964, at Bien Hoa airbase in Vietnam, the USAF lost a large number of B-57 attack aircraft due to an intense rocket and mortar attack. STOVL F-35s and MV-22 Ospreys aren't cheap. History repeating itself on a future bare base location isn't impossible. Other concerns to bare basing of course are logistics. One may set up a bare base for F-35/Osprey ops however it is going to consume a lot of fuel, munitions and supplies. The base may be far from a current traditional runway, but it won't be too far off the beaten path from this level of logistics need.

One may question the need for STOVL fast jet operations, but this is where, (F-35 program willing), the USMC is going. Most of this paints a pretty picture for future Marine-Air with everyone flying happily off into the sunset. The F-35 has many challenges to clear before this happy story can be a reality.

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