PARIS --- Under pressure from sequestration and conflicting priorities, US general officers have begun to deviate from the party line on the F-35 program, to voice dissenting views about its desirability and to look for its successors.
They have also used dirty tricks and threats to ram the A-10’s retirement down the throat of a reluctant Congress, where it has many influential backers, even as they were forced to deploy two squadrons to fight ISIL and to cool tempers in Central Europe.
Furthermore, as the value of “stealth” is increasingly questioned, and the US Navy cuts purchases of the F-35C Carrier Variant for the first time, the marketing spin used to hide aircraft’s huge cost and many failings is revealing its shortcomings.
US Navy cuts F-35C buy by one-third
The first large crack in the pro-F-35 façade appeared in the FY2016 budget request, as the US Navy cut the number of F-35C fighters it plans to buy by one-third, from 54 to 38 aircraft, in the FY2016-2020 Future Years Defense Program.
This is the first time a US service has cut its F-35 buy of its own volition, and so is of major significance, yet it was largely ignored by news media.
Days earlier, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert had expressed renewed doubts about the long-term effectiveness of “stealth,” and said the Navy’s future fighter will be “less reliant on stealth and more reliant on suppression of enemy air defenses to carry out its missions,” Seapower Magazine reported Feb. 4.
“You can only go so fast, and you know that stealth may be overrated. ... Let's face it, if something moves fast through the air, disrupts molecules and puts out heat — I don't care how cool the engine can be, it's going to be detectable. You get my point."
F-35 Marketing In Disarray As Stealth Fades Away
Replying to a question, Greenert added that "You can't outrun missiles. You can't be so stealthy that you become invisible. You are going to generate a signature of some sort. You have to be able to deal with that” by using large numbers of long-range weapons to confuse or overwhelm defenses – the antithesis of what the F-35 stands for.
Greenert’s comments were greeted with surprise in some European capitals, as the F-35’s “stealth,” and the capabilities it supposedly confers to the aircraft, is the main marketing argument in favor of the Lockheed fighter. Moreover, it is the main selling point that European governments and services have used to justify the program’s huge cost to their own parliaments.
“We’re paying billions of dollars to buy the F-35, and now they tell us that low observability isn’t of much use,” one Italian defense official said. However, given the political capital already invested to secure approval for the program, it is unlikely that even this revelation of the aircraft’s shortcomings will suffice to reverse European backing.
Greenert is not alone in publicly voicing doubts on the effectiveness of aircraft “stealth.”
Gen. Hawk Carlisle, the head of the US Air Force’s Air Combat Command, told reporters Feb. 12 that …."Stealth is wonderful, but you have to have more than stealth." Speaking at the Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida, Carlisle said "You have to have fusion, you have to have different capabilities across the spectrum….[Stealth] will be incredibly important [but] it won't be the only key attribute, and it isn't today."
These comments elicited a sharp rebuke from Lockheed Martin, the contractor whose past, present and future in combat aviation is built on the marketing of “stealth.”
“Stealth is and will remain foundational to any new airplane design and I will assert that based on the threat analysis we’ve done [and] the technology assessments that we’re making,” Rob Weiss, head of Lockheed Martin’s “Skunk Works,” told reporters in Washington during the Lockheed Martin Feb 18 Media Day.
“Anybody who would suggest that stealth is past its value really isn’t just looking at the data,” he added -- a pretty strong comment for a supplier to make about his largest customers, but one which shows who holds the balance of power in this program.
Close Air Support Ambivalence Nears Schizophrenia
US Air Force commanders also continue to demonstrate a ambivalence on the Close Air Support (CAS) mission, which the Air Force doesn’t like because it detracts from the dog-fighting, white-scarfed “knights of the sky” public image it likes to project.
Major General James Post – Carlisle’s deputy at Air Combat Command – got his 15 minutes of fame when he warned that “anyone who is passing information to Congress about A-10 capabilities is committing treason,” showing just how hyperbolically unhinged the air power debate is becoming.
Post’s comment illustrates how the Air Force is increasingly desperate to retire the A-10 Warthog over strong Congressional objections, so it can divert O&M funding and maintenance personnel to the F-35. It has even has gone as far as manipulating data to show the B-2 bomber and other aircraft are as effective as the A-10 for close air support, watchdog group Project On Government Oversight (POGO) said in a Feb 9 analysis of the data.
But even as it wants to retire the A-10 -- its only specialist CAS aircraft – which it claims is no longer necessary, the Air Force has been forced by circumstances to deploy two A-10 squadrons to the Middle East and Germany, to take part in air strikes against ISIL and to remain on standby in the European theater. Thereby; it has tacitly conceded that no other aircraft can do the job.
While the A-10 should be retired although it can continue to operate until 2027-2028, Gen Carlisle told the same AFA symposium in Orlando that the service is considering building a brand new aircraft to take over the CAS role, Flightglobal reported Feb 13.
“Another weapons system program may be something we need to consider as we look at the gaps and seams for the future” of the CAS mission, it quoted Carlisle as saying. “What provides that close air support in the future is something we’ll continue to look at. It could be a follow-on,” so a single-mission aircraft for CAS is not the financial perversion the Air Force says.
The logic behind these different statements, and their coherence, is not immediately obvious.
Services separate for next-gen fighters
But, despite this very mixed background, the Pentagon’s FY2016 budget request has brought some welcome news about future tactical combat aircraft. After two decades of playing the “joint-ness” game, and of suffering unwelcome design influence from sister services, the US Air Force and US Navy are treading widely separated paths for their next fighters.
Little is yet known about these future aircraft except that they are distinct programs (US Navy F/A-XX and US Air Force F-X), for which the two services are requesting separate funding. As for the Marine Corps, it will probably be left by the roadside to fend for itself as penance for having foisted the STOVL F-35B on its sister services.