Thursday, July 21, 2011

Can the F-35B Turn Inside its Critics?

As Defense budget debate mounts, look for the Marine Corps' F-35B short-takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) to be the wounded duck taken out first.  A leader in The Economist, "Coming Up Short: The Future of the Joint Strike Fighter,"  recommends axing the STOVL variant:  "It has been the main cause of the technical and weight problems that have bedevilled the program.  Having been put on two-year 'probation' by Mr. Gates in January, this version should be put out of its misery."  This spells big trouble for the Marine Corps' vision for itself.  As I will discuss shortly, it need not be a tragedy for the Corps.

But first, the broader issue is the short-sighted nature and tragic waste that the overall F-35 program represents.  The fighter is late and will not likely enter service before 2016.  it is estimated to be "a third more expensive to run than 'legacy' aircraft" according to The Economist, and as it is slated to be the common solution across the fleet, it will in many cases like taking a Ferrari to run the yard waste to the landfill on the weekend.  Most troubling, though, it comes up short in the high-intensity future battles it is meant to win.  The aircraft's wow factor is not in the traditional realms of performance, but rather in its stealthy design and in its ability to work as part of a bigger network of sensors and information sharing systems.  Nonetheless, the degree of stealthiness against future systems is an open question according to some open source news reporting, plus the stealthiest configurations limit its air-to-air punch to two missiles.  Its critical vulnerability, however, may simply be its range.  Its combat radius, unrefuelled, is around 600 miles.  Given key adversaries' anti-access aims, particularly China's, this puts carriers or land bases under significant missile threat, particularly the Dong-Feng-21D (CSS-5 Mod 4) "carrier killer" which is being joined by increasingly capable satellite surveillance according to a front page story in last week's Financial Times.

Looking at today's battles and the likely battles in between, the F-35's top tier capabilities may not be needed until the end of its service life.  Between now and when the JSF is fully fielded, aging FA-18s, F-16s, and other fighter attack variants are flying their wings off doing the sorts of multi-sensor reconnaissance and precision close air support missions that can be done today by unmanned aerial systems (UAS).  Concerns about structural life of these aircraft are increasing daily, calling into question the decisions about fielding, timing, force structure, and budgetary constraints that put us in this pickle.  Chuck Spinney lambasted the defense bureaucracy on these issues the other day at Time's Battleland blog.  The heart of his criticisms about the irresponsible decision-making that went on are found below.
"It is important understand that the senior military and civilian decision makers in the Pentagon responsible for rushing these two decisions knowingly created a long term force structure crisis.  They knew beforehand that the Pentagon's contractors could not possibly produce enough new F-22s and F-18E/Fs quickly enough (even in the unlikely event where there were no delays due to cost overruns and technical problems) to replace the 3,000-plus fighter/attack aircraft in the inventories on a timely basis.  Consequently, decision makers knew before the fact that the average age of the older airplanes remaining in that inventory would rapidly grow to unprecedented levels and that the increased aging would lead to unpredictable increases in future operating budgets.  They also knew before the fact that only way to slow down the increased rate of aging would be to approve a drastic reduction in the size of those inventories by retiring the oldest airplanes without replacement.
The senior decision makers responsible for these decisions also knew beforehand that the force-structure crisis created by the F-22/F-18E/F decisions would became the source of enormous extortionary pressure to approve the development two years later of yet a third high cost fighter/attack program -- what was to become the problem-plagued F-35 Joint Strike Fighter -- yet another Cold-War-inspired concoction of highly complex and costly technologies that is now the most expensive single weapons program in history."
As taxpayers, his assertions should anger us about the decision-making skills and priorities of key segments of the defense bureaucracy, but in reality they should not surprise us.  The bureaucratic battles to protect resources, shape the budget, shape strategic decisions, and hedge against future cuts are a fact of life that give us sub-optimal results across a range of issues, from procurement to key elements of our national grand strategy.  How to fix these issues, I do not know without completely restructuring our political and bureaucratic systems.  The only way to deal with these issues in the near term is to recognize the weaknesses and limitations of our decision-making systems and to be more circumspect in our estimation of our capabilities to shape either or own policies or the world around us.

As regards the Marine Corps, I hope and expect that the institution is coming up with branch plans in case the STOVL variant of the JSF is axed.  I personally believe that this is a key opportunity for the Marine Corps to live up to its history of aviation innovation.  The Corps is proud of its pioneering close air support (CAS) tactics, its early use of the helicopter, the adoption of the Harrier, and the fielding of the MV-22 Osprey.  Instead of trying to field a top tier capability in the F-35B, and one that will be quite limited in some ways according to the analysis referenced above, it should forge ahead in the field of unmanned aviation.  UAS and other non-traditional CAS platforms are doing quite well in low-intensity conflict today.  These systems are more flexible and adaptable to varied roles.  More inexpensive and without a heartbeat inside, they can be molded into a much more expendable force against high-intensity foes.  An article, "Back to Our Roots," I wrote for the Marine Corps Gazette goes into more details on how the Corps could rise from the ashes of the F-35B's demise to a much more innovative capability.

In the face of likely threats and threat intentions, the Corps should focus on several capabilities. The antiaccess missile threat demands the ability to distribute forces, particularly aviation assets and naval support facilities, to multiple forward locations in the case of conflict. The Corps must be prepared to secure, defend, and operate from austere advanced bases, continuing to develop operational maneuver and distributed operations capabilities in order to project and disperse combat power. This capability must include the rapid movement of aviation assets and their ability to operate on short, unimproved, and rapidly repaired runways without ponderous support requirements. The importance and channelized nature of SLOCs in the Indo-Pacific requires a focus on rapidly securing their land flanks, particularly in straits and in the face of mobile surface-to-air and antiship missiles and swarming small boat tactics with the possibility of suicide attacks. When considering such threats, the Corps and the Nation should recognize that the kamikaze threat was swarming and asymmetric, but the stakes of the conflict merited accepting it. Finally, the Corps must account for the defense of islands and straits against future, if less capable, amphibious threats. 
Instead of seeking only transformational (and transformationally expensive) platforms as the sole solution for the force, a mix of more mundane platforms, ranging from armed utility turboprop aircraft to armed unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), is warranted. These platforms can be transformationally equipped, integrated, and employed with the proper vision. Simpler plug-and-play platforms would give the Service greater numbers, greater flexibility, and a deterrent force that is sustainable fiscally and technologically. If air superiority or advanced integrated air defense systems are the problems, there will be joint fixed-wing assets on hand to deal with them, augmented by a small contingent of Marine JSFs. As Under Secretary of the Navy Robert O. Work points out, Marines must embrace the fact that future “theater entry missions” will be joint in nature, which should be a premise for reducing redundancy in procurement of high-end capabilities. 
In particular, the Corps should lead the way in the transition from manned to unmanned close air support (CAS) and antiair warfare platforms to the maximum extent possible. Rather than taking the Marine aviator “out of the loop,” this is removing the aviator’s physiological limitations and protection requirements to a ground station where he can have much more robust situational awareness tools. While some manned aircraft must be retained for specific and dynamic CAS situations and to help control UAS flights, armed UASs can generally provide greater return on investment. In today’s fight, the Corps could use the long dwell time of a UAS armed with precision weapons and an electrooptical sensor capable of positive identification and designation of difficult targets. In a high-intensity conflict, the absence of an onboard pilot reduces weight for more capable sensors, avionics, and countermeasures, while improving performance capabilities and increasing expendability.   
The Corps of the future must also be better able to operate in a communications, global positioning system, and satellite jam/defeat environment. The United States can expect denial of use of some of its “big wing” high-value airborne assets and may even see carrier-based aviation significantly impacted. Emission control measures on high-value platforms necessitated by threat sensors will likewise degrade the capabilities of our highly communications-dependent forces. Larger numbers of UASs can be part of a network of air and ground nodes that make up a command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence (C4I) cloud that would be much harder to attack with cyber, electronic, and information weapons. The Corps must make use of technology to improve the resilience of its C4I systems, but it must also live up to its doctrinal adherence to centralized command and decentralized control, fighting the micromanaging influence of and crippling dependence on technology.     
Networks of airborne sensors in affordable and expendable UAS platforms will also help the Corps with the antiaccess problem, finding the deadliest mobile antiship and antiair weapons. A distributed solution is needed for amphibious forces as well. While the joint high-speed vessel and littoral combat ship are a step in the right direction, assault forces will need to be further distributed to smaller, faster, and less expensive vessels that will be more able to evade and overwhelm swarming threats and shorebased systems reduced by aviation action.

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