Saturday, January 21, 2012

Getting Real About STOVL

This is a cross-post from the Marine Corps Gazette Blog.  For more background behind my thoughts, see this post and this Marine Corps Gazette article.

Thom Shanker from the NYT reports this morning about Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's decision to take the F-35B Lightning II off of probation. The B variant is a short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) jet capable of taking off from short landing strips or the deck of an amphibious ship (as opposed to a catapult-assisted launch and an arrested landing on a full-sized carrier). The Marine Corps' story is that STOVL is needed for (a) use in amphibious scenarios and (b) expeditionary scenarios where landing sites are limited. Shanker alludes to this in discussing "the importance to the Marine Corps of coming up with a replacement for its Harrier jump-jet, which has proved its value in countering insurgencies and terrorists in rugged, remote areas."

But has the Harrier really proven its unique value in countering insurgencies, etc?  The Harrier has surely been a large part of Marine aviation since 9/11, but its STOVL characteristics were rarely, if ever, critical to the conduct of operations.  If anything, the capability was a liability when it came to the requirement for long on-station times, multiple ordnance options, and tedious scanning of compounds and cities with targeting pods in support of troops on the ground.  Marines often refer to the plane by saying "one man, one bomb, one hour."  It is not that the Harrier has been incapable or has failed in its support of Marines on the ground.  However, the STOVL capability forces a tradeoff in terms on-station time and weapons carriage.  The F/A-18, especially in the two-seat D version, is far more capable of staying on station longer, conducting better scans using targeting pods, and carrying more weapons to give the ground units more options in these fights where one might need to level a building or might need to take out a small group of insurgents not far from a civilian-inhabited compound.  

While Harriers have conducted some forward rearming and refueling at shorter strips, these were more driven by the Harrier's limitations and the desire to validate its expeditionary capability than a value added to the fight.  That is, while a Harrier was rearming and refueling, a Hornet would be overhead, sensor still on target, refueling from a KC-130, more weapons still on the wing.  

So, when the program hits a rough spot again, which I think it will, and when the budget adjusters come knocking, the Marine Corps needs to be honest about how much STOVL capability it really needs to maintain its close air support capability aboard amphibious shipping, how soon unmanned aerial systems can fill that gap, and what the best option is for the rest of our close air support needs.


  1. This only makes the most sense in the context of the "strategic pivot" to Asia. (If you pivot over and over can I call it a pirouette?)

    The F-35B is riddled with issues. Ash Carter gave it due consideration and reccomended Gates cut the F-35B. In a bid to build a soft landing for the Corps, UK and LocMar, the SECDEF put the "B" on probation. Now, with new leadership and AirSea Battle OpCon steamrolling all other considerations, the F-35B is back.

    It is particularly difficult to watch as the B has absorbed so much engineering expertise that the A and C were denied some of the attention they needed.

    So do the Marines need the B?...well they need something. The AV-8s are past their expiration date and their safety rate isn't getting any better. The question is whether the F-35B is the right answer.

    This gets to a question of the entire way we presume a future fight will go. Are the Marines really going to conduct Ship to Operations Maneuver in an environment where LO is required?

  2. Correction: Ship to Objective Maneuver (STOM)

  3. Great Post. One thing I would note: The Hornet isn't that great of a CAS platform either, if your concern is on station time -- especially the D. I flew the Super Hornet over Afghanistan (better range/loiter than the Hornet), and my longest time on station was just over an hour before we had to hit a tanker. Now, we could certainly carry more weapons, and had a much better sensor suite than the Harrier, but we were fuel limited.

    A better platform for counter-insurgency and Close Air Support in a permissive air environment like Iraq or Afghanistan is the Super Tacano, Beechcraft AT-6, or C-130 Harvest Hawk. The first two are single engine turbo props that can takeoff and land from dirt airfields, cost $1,000 per hour to operate (vice $20,000+ for modern fighters), can carry pretty much the same weapons/sensor loadout and has an on station time of over 3-4 hours. The US Air Force even just bought some for the Afghan Air Force. Nearly every pilot I fly with says they would fly a Super Tacano -- and these are "fighter" jocks. But it's not sexy, and doesnt drive billions to the established defense firms. That's sadly what drives procurement these days.

  4. Ben,
    I agree completely that other platforms are far better in permissive environments and have said as much in other posts and places. I'm a KC-130 pilot and my det was the first to employ the Harvest Hawk. I rode with them for a 9 hour mission, all but about 30 minutes of transit was on station time.

  5. Good points all...however, however. STOVL would seem to be a nice capability for a smaller, more dispersed Navy to have -- uh, the Navy and Marine Corps are still a "team?"

    Of course, the future probably belongs to the unmanned aircraft, at least in the fixed-wing world. But UAS isn't there, at least not yet.

    Ultimately, the F-35B may prove to be a more important airplane than the AV-8B, but possibly more so for the USN. I guess they'd still be flown by Marine pilots.

    1. The Marines have two principle missions which they should never get too far from: STOM or Ship To Objective Maneuver and SPOD as Sea Point Of Debarkation capture.

      In the first, someone in an embassy is screaming over the SatComms for any and all good Romans to come to the aid of their fellow Westerners as the barbarians climb the walls and you have to get there _NOW_ with airpower that can pick up a bunch of evacuees before it becomes hostage situation.

      We have faced this situation, over and over, on both coasts of Africa and in SWA with the most recent involving a V-22 shot to pieces in South Sudan, 4 operators down and civilians at risk because there is seldom zero overhead air (see: J-UCAS 2.5hrs at 1,100nm).

      Having said that, here's the truth: I can put ten CH-53K on a Carrier designed for 80 jets (with a 40 jet current airwing) and not really notice them, stuffed away in a corner of the hangar.

      Those helos can have P&D refueling because someone has a whale configured F/A-18E or four on-deck as part of normal air wing operations. I can /deliver/ operators for those helos from a COD or a C-17 airdrop if need be, on the double quick.

      The -combination- of those factors gets you, if you have to, a thousand mile long-reach SOI to put 50 Marines In The Compound until the CSG can get close enough to start flying airpower over head, 24:7. Marines scare barbarians with accurate rifle fire. Airpower /terrifies/ barbarians with the sound of freedom as the sight of hair, teeth and eyeballs on divergent trajectories.

      Yet you can't do that on a thrudeck helo cruiser because you haven't got the gas pass at all and the F-35B, with that .86lb/lb/hr F135 engine, is going to run through it's '14,000lbs on a good day, 12,000lb a on hot one, minus a 1,500lb reserve to make sure the EHAs don't cook themselves' in about forty minutes flight time with a ten minute reserve under the following formula:

      Military thrust on the F135 is about 32,000lbf, flight idle throttle setting is about 60% of max IRT which comes out to about 19,200lbf, 19,200lbs of creeping-cruise @.86lb/lb/hr = 16,512lbs of fuel per hour. 14,000lbs of fuel divided by 16,512lbs of fuel per pound of thrust per hour = .84 hours or 51 minutes.

      Assume a 400 knot cruise and divide by half and you have a 200nm combat radius.

      Impressive? Not.

      SPOD is more serious and would be something we would only do if a serious breach of international protocol required NIRTS invasion. Someone butchering an ethnic minority, nuclear threshold excession or 'our' oil about to be pillaged come to mind as Balkans, Korea, Saudi scenarios, respectively.

      The problem with SPOD and the Pacific Rim (and particularly Taiwan which is none of the above and thus unnecessary) is that the threat now has an ability to sink us that can stretch farther than we can reasonably push subsonic strike fighters -of any kind-, forward to kill it.

    2. Specifically, the DF-21D and a JORN type OTH-B are game changers which will require HSPs or Missiles of our own to change the equation back in our favor.

      And here, the issue is that a 1,000ft CVN is a nuclear steam kettle you don't want becoming a radiation hazard in someone's on-shelf fishery. But at least it's fuel bill is paid for the next decade or so.

      While an 850ft LHA is an oil burner which means it costs more to operate and, to an ASBM, it's the same value target as a CVN. Maybe worse, if there is a full MAGTF onboard.

      The USMC wants, not just 480-600 F-35Bs, they want 11 LHAs and another 50-70 billion dollars for new development (pressurization) of the already overweight V-22 as COD, AEW&C and Tanker variants to care and feed their STOVL strike jets.

      And they are willing to trade Marine warfighters to get them.

      This, at a time when every think tank out there is saying that the Strategic Change force structure should drop between 2 and 4 CVNs does not compute. Because what we replace them with would do less and cost more, using the Battle Cat conversion of Kitty Hawk for OEF as an example of how to do mixed capability airwings the right way.

      Since cooler uniforms and being a fixed wing airpower exponent is basically what differentiates the SOL Army from the Few And Prideful at the budgetary beggars table, the Marine desire for the F-35B can be seen as rent-seeking to secure their position by attempting to separate from the USN as a third air force this nation does not need.

      And separation is something the F-35B will get them since it is utterly incompatible with the Big Deck Navy air cycle (can't launch, can't recover, has half the evolution time).

      Can't blame the Marines for being cunning beasts but the real answer is that we need fewer half trillion 'interventions' and far more diplomacy, not more hardware for it's own sake, especially hardware as flawed as this.

      Being a miserly type myself, I would start with a 100,000 dollar top flight legal firm consultancy on a bullet proof release from liability contract whose signature basically says: "X, the undersigned party of the first part, having chosen to go tourist in the following _fill in this blank_ (ex: South Sudan) hole, do not expect nor will call upon the military to come bail his/her/other sorry ass out when the natives start a fire under the 100 gallon cookpot."

  6. Super for the USMC.

    -2 aircrew option
    -Always leave the deck with a gun
    -Works today with knowns.
    -As delivered, works well for a joint commander.
    -A little more persistence/range than the classic Hornet
    -Buddy tanker
    -SHARPE recon pod if interested
    -Can take battle damage better than classic, Harrier, or F-35B.
    -Good balance of USMC fire-support: GPS/INS PGM artillery, Super Hornet, Harvest Hawk, Cobra attack helicopters etc.
    -Deploys on existing big deck carriers.
    -Opens up more space on on amphib-flattops for other things: Helicopters,storage of supplies/logistics, troop support equipment.

    Also if one looks at the F-35 JORD, it was never supposed to be anti-access vs. emerging threats. That will be handled by other means. The "fifth-generation fighter" meme is a marketing effort only.

    In the end, the F-35 doesn't bring that much value and we don't need STOVL at any price.

  7. Wasn't the Harrier used to launch the Libya campaign because it was the only aircraft available and forward deployed? I've been forward deployed to locations I cannot name and he Harrier's STOVL capability is essential. Your post seems like more fodder for the bar w/your fellow Harrier pilot.

  8. Anon 1642,
    Actually, the French opened the air campaign in Libya ahead of schedule, so there goes your STOVL argument on that one. There is a rather large amphib called Sicily not too far from Libya that, with refuelers, could easily support ops against Libya. I don't know where the French flew out of for that first strike, but in any case it wasn't in a jump jet.

    As for your other, conveniently classified, example, the question I would have would be: Was the Harrier's STOVL capability truly indispensable to the op, or was it indispensable because that was the asset put against the op, when a conventional jet could have been flying from an airfield somewhere nearby if we had chosen to do it that way? I'll agree that for some, very limited, cases where we want to do something on the quiet or without asking for permission to land-base. That being said, in these cases RWCAS or UASs (in the near future if we chose to go that way) could likely fill this role. I'm not saying that we should completely forgo STOVL, but that we need to be serious about the cost-benefit calculations and don't need to make our entire FWCAS capability STOVL if the program runs into trouble or the budget is axed further.

  9. It would be interesting to peruse your OQR, Peter.
    Any time on the boat; specifically the Bonnie Dick or Bataan during OIF, as a member of an embarked ACE? Spend any time with VMAs 231, 311, 331, 513 or 542 during Desert Storm? Any idea of the delta in performance; range, payload, loiter time, etc. ..., between the F-35B and the AV-8B? Will the F-35B increase the sphere of influence for an LHA/LHD in comparison to the AV-8B or will it remain static?

  10. Anon,
    I love how you put that: peruse my OQR. You company men always go to the "experience" thing and personal attacks instead of actually debating the ideas. So, I'm post Desert Storm, I have floated on 22nd MEU with Harriers embarked, then went ashore to Afghanistan where they flew out of Kandahar while the MEU was in Tarin Kowt, Oruzgan Province. I spent another deployment supporting MEU Harriers up until early 2003 when we got kicked out of Isa when OIF kicked off. I then spent that fall supporting MEU harriers that were flying ISR over Liberia. On my latest deployment, I was with the ACE in OEF with Hornets, before they were replaced by a Harrier squadron. So, I've worked plenty with Harriers. But, when push comes to shove, we don't need very jet to be STOVL and we could probably do much of what we want with RWCAS and UAS off of amphibs and conventional platforms like FA-18E/F or F-35A if the STOVL F-35 flops or becomes too expensive for us to use in large numbers. STOVL is a niche capability. I'm not saying that Harriers weren't on the job during those times, I'm saying that in the majority of cases, STOVL wasn't truly required. We could have and often did land base our air.

    The numbers that I can find suggest that the F-35B may increase the combat radius by as much as 1.8 times the Harrier, but I don't have as detailed numbers for the F-35B as for the Harrier. However, the conventional version has another 1.3 times that combat radius. It is all about understanding the tradeoffs and not being so narrow-minded that we don't realize there are other options and that we can accept a fleet that is part B part C, or even part B and part UAS and F/A-18E/F if it comes to that.

  11. Another thing to consider, is that if the F-35C version has to undergo a significant redesign due to hook issues, this may adversely affect the cost and parts commonality of the program as a whole.

    As far as the payload issues, from what I am seeing the payloads are roughly similar in the realm of the possible between the Harrier and the F-35B, but once you go to the wing hardpoints you lose the stealthy characteristics of the F-35B. As far as tradeoff between payloads and range and comparing apples to apples, I don't have the data at hand to really get into details. I don't know if you are quizzing me or actually asking. If you are quizzing me, I invite you to throw down your OQR and experience and do a guest post with an actual counterpoint to my personal views here, as opposed to just quizzing me. I'd like to see an informed comparison of apples to apples.

  12. Too few officers are courageous enough to point out that the emperor has no clothes. Let's hope that Gen. Amos et al thank you and that other officers stand up for what in the long run is in the best interest of the USMC.
    Boy, am I naive.

  13. An excellent and much-needed voice of reason!

  14. Agree w RC and JS - bravo for making an argument in the face of "there's no Plan B" and "failure is not an option" irrational, non-arguments. Note to all JSF fans - there is no performance other than powerpoint performance to date. Believe, if you will, in the .ppt. The performance claims are all narrowly constructed or hidden behind classification. I've been in this biz long enough to never buy the "trust me, I've seen the numbers; but you can't" out of HQs and vendors. I'll maintain thorough skepticism until we see some evidence out of OT, if we get to that point.

  15. You listed two justifications the USMC has used for why we need a STVOL JSF. 1: operating from phibs. 2: operating from expeditionary airfields.

    IMO, the second justification needs to be thrown out the window. Harriers almost have never operated from airfields that other, standard fixed wing aircraft do not. The reason is simple--STOVL may give the capability to operate from a non-airfield, but STOVL doesn't reduce logistical requirements of a given platform (in fact depending on how things go--it might even INCREASE logistical requirements).

    To me this thing comes down to whether we throw good money after bad--we've already spent a lot of needless money for the STVOL capability--does it make sense to spend more?

    One thing is certain: legacy tacair aircraft are aging and cannot last forever. I'm sorry, an F/A-18 isn't an over-engineered piece of equipment like a Phrog or B-52 and you can't expect to get 50 years out of the airframe. What do we do about it?

  16. "Why STOVL" is certainly a discussion that has continued to divide our officer corps and needs to be discussed thoroughly and in a serious way when the inevitable "next bump" happens to the F35B program. This subject should be handled without the emotional ties of a particular air frame or concept. At the end of the day, it's about the Marines on the ground and how best to support them.

    This article assumes that the wars of counterinsurgency are the wars of the future (F35 is a future aircraft, designed ostensibly with future threats/operations in mind). This is a dubious assertion at best. STOVL does have a "price", but it also offers an operational flexibility that augments, not replaces, CV and land based aviation. Is it worth the cost? I'm not sure we know the answer yet.

    I do know this, it's pointless to argue the value of VSTOL using the merits or demerits of two aircraft in the twilight of their service life. In the opinion of this humble attack pilot, the usefulness of the Harrier or the Hornet doesn't come down to what they can carry for how long, it comes down the guy in the cockpit and their ability to understand that they exist to offer the best service possible to ensure the success of the GCE. In short, "doing windows"... scan for IED's, ISR platform, radio relay, and yes very occasionally ordnance employment. WHATEVER helps the GCE for as long as you can... then go get gas and come back to do it over and over again. Could this be done better from a UAV? Maybe. A different platform than the F-35? Possibly.

    The problem here is the debate about STOVL should not boil down to a "who would win between Darth Vader and Batman" discussion between the Hornet and the Harrier. The F35B is NOT a Harrier and the F35C is NOT a Hornet. In many ways they are extraordinarily more capable and in some key ways they are NOT as Marine friendly or capable of doing what we would like them to do. The F-35 has yet to prove it's worth operating from an austere anything. It requires a tremendous maintenance and technological footprint to operate and a virtually antiseptic environment to maintain. It's NOT a Harrier... in any WAY, SHAPE, or FORM, for better or worse.

    Since we haven't even speculated about the operating environment of the future, the F-35 is a "come bet" at best. I am not in love with STOVL, but "back to the future" to an all World War II style CV force seems silly. As for calls for the Super Hornet, that's laughable. Why not re-open the Corsair line? What happened to the Marine Corps' uncanny ability to look forward? Do we even need a replacement for our fixed wing at all? Should we look at a Super Tacano or an OV-10 type replacement? I'm open to anything that makes sense given the uncertainty of our future operating environment and fiscal constraints.

    I loathe to consider it, but you are right to suggest that the future of CAS, OAS, Air Superiority, air refueling (the horror), and ALL combat aviation is unmannned. Since the only Naval Aviation prototype out there is the N-UCAS, which would very adequately replace the F35C (and its hook issues), and there is no current plausible replacement for what the F35B brings to the MEU... perhaps we could save some money by eliminating all Marine aviation on CV's? Hmm?

    I jest of course, but the point I am making is a real one. Why is it that everyone is so quick to put the F35B on the chopping block in favor of the C, rather than look at the possibility that the Marine Corps might not even need an exquisitely expensive, cold war relic on steroids to replace the Harrier or the Hornet?

    On a side note, I do appreciate you putting a picture of a Harrier on your blog, even if you messed up the chaff/flare thing. But hey, you're a C-130 guy, I forgive you.

    Good flow on the right hose,


  17. Dingle,
    Look at the caption under the picture: I said that I knew it wasn't chaff, but you get the point. Chaff doesn't make much of a picture close in to the aircraft like flare does and I couldn't even find a picture of chaff blooming. We do RADAR threat reaction in the Herc with chaff...