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Navy's future with the F-35

March 23, 2008 (by Eric L. Palmer) - While the F-35C design for U.S. Navy carrier aviation looks significantly powerful, it is going to have to fight its way on to the carrier deck.

Artist impression of the F-35C in it's natural environment (LM artwork)

The U.S. Navy is having a difficult time paying for recapitalization of its aircraft. There are a number of things that come into play. There are worries if the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Lightning II will arrive on schedule. It has been stated that the Navy’s other fighter aircraft, the Boeing F-18E/F Super Hornet will complement the F-35 out to the years 2024-30. With limited funds to pay for not only aircraft but shipbuilding, the U.S. Navy’s budget has little margin for buying anything but the minimums for all platform types, and no margin for cost rise and delays in weapons programs.

With increased buys of the Super Hornet that could be triple of what was needed before on the count of aging legacy Hornets and possible F-35 delays, funds that were supposed to go to the F-35 program could come into conflict. [1]

This conflict for funds may become more troubled when one takes into consideration that the Northrop UCAS-D unmanned combat aircraft for carrier use will need funding in the coming years if it proves itself. [2] The funding issue becomes more troublesome with the declining value of the U.S. dollar.[3]

The F-35 has more issues attached to it when one considers that the U.S. Navy is very happy with the Super Hornet. The Super Hornet can do most carrier missions asked of it and can also provide air-to-air refueling and an electronic jamming variant. More, it has the option of two aircrew attack. Almost half of the Navy’s Super Hornet squadrons are the two–seat F model.

No amount of fancy avionics are going to pull the U.S. Navy away from the idea that two aircrew attack is a function that needs to fly from the carrier deck. Way back when the JSF program was taking input to the design from all future users, the U.S. Navy stated they wanted a jet that had two engines and two aircrew. With the fielding of the Block II variant of the Super Hornet, the avionics provide a leap ahead for the Navy in platform capability: Even more so when those advanced avionics are combined with two aircrew.

The two-engine ability of Super Hornet means that like previous Hornets, one engine can be put back to idle or shut down if a malfunction appears. The Super Hornet handles well with one-engine landing approaches. This is hard to ignore when discussing anything related to today’s carrier operations.

When you consider that the U.S. Navy spends more of its time going up against threats that have a sub-par or no air arm, the F-35 may become a niche player on the carrier deck when it arrives. Again this consideration becomes more critical if the UCAS-D is successful. While the F-35 provides more range than the Super Hornet, the UCAS-D provides up to a 1500 mile range from the carrier deck and even without a first team enemy air force threat, has a significant loiter value for small-wars, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions and may even prove itself as an air-to-air refueling and Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) asset. While the UCAS-D has a very long way to go for proof it may provide competition in the fighter aircraft funding road map.

What are the F-35 strengths when it arrives? Certainly increased air-to-air survivability and maybe if it proves itself, air-to-air dominance. While the Super Hornet may have trick avionics, it comes up short in air-to-air raw performance. Enough so that advanced Russian inspired big-SU threats like the SU-30, and SU-35 become a serious concern. [4][5] [6] This is important to consider when one looks at the fact that these threats are proliferating with no end in sight in a Pac Rim flush with cash from a new world economy.

While one may consider that the U.S. Navy always has numerous Tomahawk cruise missiles to make its point, a fully lawyered-up ROE (Rules-of-Engagement) scenario may prohibit munitions of any kind, touching the soil of certain future peer advisories. Meaning under these conditons: Any threat that reaches out will have to be clipped by fighter aircraft.

F-35 will bring back some strike radius to the carrier that it hasn’t seen since the demise of the F-14 “Bombcat” and A-6. Even the Lockheed Martin briefing on the F-35A to Norway looks scary when it shows a 740 mile radius of action and a huge passive sensor footprint backed up by the shorter sensor footprint of the AESA radar, and electro-optical sensors.[7] This gives the U.S. Navy ability to do not only strike work, but ISR work in higher threat environments. This means the carrier battle group will be better informed.

What is some of the latest news for the F-35 carrier variant? The annual Navy League gathering produced some good information and even a few mixed signals.

Lockheed claims that there has been significant progress on qualifying the aircraft stealth skill so as to be durable and low maintenance. What makes a great carrier aircraft? Well if you talk to maintenance officers and enlisted Petty Officers and Chief Petty Officers, a great aircraft for the carrier is one that is easier to maintain. Here the Super Hornet received a significant amount of praise from U.S.N. maintenance pros. It required much less work to keep mission ready. In comparison to the now retired F-14, as much as 4 to 5 times less man hours of maintenance per flying hour.

The F-35 has to prove that stealth aircraft can be maintainable and not be a drag on the carrier maintenance environment. “The F-35C’s stealth will bring a profound increase in capability to the Navy’s fighter fleet. What it will not bring is increased maintenance,” said Steve O’Bryan, a former carrier fighter pilot and director of F-35 Domestic Business Development for Lockheed Martin. “The Lightning II is a 5th generation fighter with supportable stealth that was designed into the aircraft from the very beginning. It will endure extreme abuse without degrading its stealth radar-signature performance.”

One only has to see carrier operations to know that these aircraft get abused a lot. They are slammed down on the deck for every landing and the salt air makes the pretty look of a new paint job go away fast. While all the killing effects of the F-35 might be fascinating, it would be worthless for carrier operations if the jet had to be taped up and pasted for hours on end for every mission in hopes of having any low observable ability. This is what had to be done to older technology stealth aircraft like the F-117 in order to make them mission ready.

“Even operating in harsh carrier-deck conditions, the F-35C will require no special care or feeding. In fact, its stealth adds very little to the day-to-day maintenance equation,” O’Bryan said. “We’ve come a long way from the early stealth airplanes, which needed hours or even days of attention and repair after every flight. The F-35 not only avoids that intensive level of upkeep, it will require significantly less maintenance than the non-stealth fighters it is designed to replace.”

Lockheed Martin also claims that the F-35 is designed to remain stealthy in severe combat conditions, and tests have validated that capability. After obtaining baseline radar cross section (RCS) measurements from a highly detailed, full-scale Signature Measurement Aircraft (SigMA), a team of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman engineers intentionally inflicted extensive damage – more than three dozen significant defects – on the model. The damage represented the cumulative effect of more than 600 flight hours of military aircraft operations. RCS measurements taken after the damage showed that the stealthy signature remained intact.

It will be interesting to see what the maintenance cycles for the F-35C turn out to be. It is at this time in the spirit of that FBI Special Agent Fox Moulder from the X-Files that I look over at the UFO poster on the wall that says: “I want to believe.”

Mixed signals from the Navy League gathering? If PowerPoint slides [8] can help you look good, they can also make you look bad or questionable. The briefing stated that only 2% of maintenance actions require restoration maintenance to the aircrafts L.O. ( Low Observable, pronounced “L” “O” and not “Low”) profile. This is interesting as the September 2006 F-35 status briefing stated that only 1% of maintenance actions on the F-35 need L.O. restoration. Is this additional 1% of L.O. restoration for all types or just the extra brutal maintenance environment associated with carrier operations?

Another item for those that depend on PowerPoint is one slide that shows the F-35 being able to take on advanced double-digit Russian technology Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) threats that will be around for the life of the aircraft. While the F-35 maybe survivable to some factor, as seen with LMs explanation of the F-117 shoot-down years ago, even a slight turning maneuver can destroy your stealth profile. If you have limited speed and altitude, your ability to escape an adverse stealth event may be questionable.

Interesting as the slide runs counter to recent statements by the former head of the F-22 program, Maj. Gen. Rick Lewis USAF(ret). He stated in the March 17, 2008 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology that: “The key to the F-22’s advantage over the F-35 is its speed and stealth optimized to counter advanced and integrated air defense systems. The F-35’s survivability and effectiveness would be much less than that of the F-22 because it employs subsonic speeds, lower altitudes, lower G and has half the missile load.” This is not the first time USAF experts have stated that the F-35 can’t go where the F-22 can on the topic of survivability in stiff, advanced enemy integrated air defense system (IADS) environments.

There was a bit of amusement for the slide brief too. One of the big critics of the F-35 combat ability, Air Power Australia (APA) was quoted as a source for some of the information on the slides. This may not be the best of moves on the part of the slide creators if one ever reads all of the F-35 content published by APA.[9][10]

The most powerful statements in the brief that deserve mention? The fact that the U.S. military is looking at some bleak times and a serious lack of fighters if F-35 becomes delayed or starts to cost too much. Those particular slides of a nation short on fighter aircraft in the next 20 years are a medical chart of a dying patient. The F-35 has no option but to succeed. [11]

End Notes-

[1] David A. Fulghum, Hornet Shortage Faster Than Predictions. Aerospace Daily & Defense Report, March 20, 2008

[2]Northrop Grumman product page X-47 UCAS

[3]Nathan Hodge, Sliding U.S. Dollar Hits JSF Programme, Janes Information Group, March 20, 2008

[4] Bill Sweetman, Super Hornet gathers speed, but critics keep pressure on, Interavia Business & Technology, March 1, 1999

[5] Elaine Grossman, Navy Test Report Shows F/A-18E/F Struggling To Match Older Aircraft: Acquisition Chief Authorizes New Funding Release, Inside the Pentagon, February 11, 1999

[6]Dr. Carlo Kopp, Sukhoi Flankers, The Shifting Balance of Regional Air Power, Air Power Australia, 2007

[7]Tom Burbage, JSF Program for Norway, Lockheed Martin Briefing Slides, 25 January 2006

[8]Steve O’ Bryan, Navy’s 5th Generation Fighter…The Wave of the Future, Lockheed Martin briefing to the Navy League, March 2008.

[9]Bill Sweetman, Ready, Aim, Shoot Foot, Aviation Week, March 21, 2008

[10]Dr. Carlo Kopp, Assessing the Joint Strike Fighter, Air Power Australia, 2007

[11]Caitlin Harrington, USAF Secretary Warns That JSF Cuts Could Imperil National Security, Janes Information Group, September 24, 2007, "The last time I [traded stealth fighters for a long-range bomber], I bought 21 B-2s," said Wynne.

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F-35C - CV