After years of telling us the Marines were going to neck down their fixed wing jet inventory to just one model (the trouble plagued F-35B Short Take Off, Vertical Landing Variant), the Marines have just announced that they’ve reached an agreement to buy 80 of the Carrier Variant, the F-35C. In addition to operating them from land bases, the Marines will be expected to make 5 squadrons of the F-35C available to deploy on Navy carriers as integral parts of the embarked air wing.
In an effort to minimize the alarming gap in its fixed-wing marine aviation capability, the U.S. Marine Corps is joining the U.S. Navy in buying 80 F-35C – the carrier-based conventional takeoff and landing variant of the joint strike fighter (JSF). Until the Short Take-Off Vertical Landing (STOVL) F-35B variant is ready, the corps will deploy its fighters from U.S. Navy aircraft carriers.
Neptunus Lex covered this the other day. For several years, the Navy, facing a shortage of fighters, has borrowed Marine F-18 squadrons to operate from Navy decks. In return, the Navy also occasionally shoulders the burden of deploying squadrons to support Marines in the field. The concept is called Tactical Air Integration (TAI), and for a while, it was one of the more controversial things going on in Naval Aviation. Marines have always been Naval Aviators, undergoing the exact same training as their Navy brethren. But the Marines have always justified their own fixed wing fleet by explaining that ONLY Marine fixed wing air could provide the close-air support that was so critical to Marine ground unit success.* But TAI showed the Marines were willing to let the Navy provide CAS if needed. And if the Navy could do it, what was to stop the Air Force from doing it….?
Sure enough, in the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when Marines call for close air support, they may well get Marine aircraft. Or they could get Navy. Or Air Force. Or even one of our coalition partner nations. Hey, you take what you can get.
GEN Amos, the Commandant of the Marine Corps also had this to say about buying carrier variant F-35s:
Addressing the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, Gen. Amos said that flying Marine Corps F-35s off large-deck aircraft carriers was something the Corps was hoping for years. The acquisition of the F-35C will bring this dream to reality.
Really? That’s news to me and just about every other person following the goatrope known as the F-35 program. For years the Marines have touted the savings to be had by replacing all their F-18s, AV-8Bs, and even EA-6Bs with just one airframe, the F-35B. And it has been known for several years that big deck carriers can’t operate the F-35B without prohibitively expensive modification. I suspect the good general might just have bent the truth a little here. Because the Marines had never before expressed an interest in buying the F-35C, nor in basing F-35Bs on the Navy’s carriers.
The F-35B is in deep trouble. The Marines just agreed to buy 80 fewer than planned, and the other big customer, Great Britain, ditched plans to buy the “B” and have instead opted to buy the “C” (if they ever actually buy anything at all). So the most technically challenging variant of the F-35, with the greatest developmental problems, is also facing the challenge of being bought in smaller numbers, which will skyrocket the price per airframe, and exert ever greater pressure to cut back the buy. That’s known as the “procurement death spiral” and is often fatal. The cruel irony here is that the “B” model, with the requirement to be a short take off/vertical landing aircraft, drove the design of the entire family of F-35 designs, forcing compromises on the Air Force’s “A” model and the Navy’s “C” model that otherwise would likely not have been made. And it drove the developmental cost through the roof. And remember, the F-35 family of planes was supposed to be the cheap airplane going forward. The whole idea was to fix a low price, and build the best possible fighter to that price. But alas, the program has assumed a life of its own, and is sucking up money faster than a jet in afterburner sucks up fuel.
So basically, the smallest customer of a program is the tail wagging the dog. And for what? The Air Force desperately needs to find a replacement for the F-16, and has even sacrificed the F-22 to find the money to buy F-35s. The Navy is in even worse shape, with a critical shortage of fighters, to the point that supercarriers that used to carry 70-80 fixed wing aircraft are going to sea with around 50 these days. It’s hard to justify buying $7 billion dollar aircraft carriers if there are no planes to fly from them.
The Marines know they are in trouble, and with budget cuts coming, they figure they better get some jets out of the program before their version gets cancelled.
But if the justification for Marine fixed wing air is to provide close air support for the Marines on the ground, buying jets built for Navy carriers, and then signing an agreement to, in essence, make them an adjunct of the Navy’s carrier air wings, does nothing to provide close air support. And do the Marines really need an $80MM supersonic jet to provide close air support? How about looking at something a little cheaper. In the comments at Lex’s place, I suggested they go back to the old A-4M. I wasn’t really serious, but I could probably be convinced that an updated A-7 airframe, like maybe the aborted A-7F would be more than adequate for their needs.
*I’m not saying the Marines don’t need fixed wing close air support. They do. If they try to fight a near-peer competitor without it, the lightly equipped Marine ground units will get blown off the battlefield.