PARIS --- Five months after it declared Initial Operational Capability of the F-35B fighter, and 14 years after award of the aircraft’s development contract, the Marine Corps is looking at how it will integrate the aircraft into its expeditionary units.
One of the first integration exercises, known as Steel Knight 2016, is taking place in Southern California, and has highlighted potential mismatches between Marine Corps plans for the F-35B and reality.
The Marine Corps is spending tens of billions of dollars to buy the F-35B Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) variant, which it says it needs to quickly deploy to beachheads to provide close air support to landing forces. Yet, the mechanics of getting it ashore are complex, and may make shore basing impossible.
“Quickly” is a relative concept, and the timelines necessary to prepare forward bases may be at odds with Marine amphibious warfare plans.
For example, one of four press releases issued to date about Exercise Steel Knight reveals for the first time that the Corps expects that building a 40,800 sq. ft. landing pad for the F-35B will take two months, although this time it was done in 17 days.
This means that, for anywhere from 17 days to two months, Marines ashore would be left dependent on ship-based aircraft for close air support – the very thing the F-35B is supposed to avoid.
But the forward bases where the F-35 will refuel and rearm will also require taxiways (150’ x 96’), a short runway for rolling take-offs – the F-35B does not take off vertically on combat missions – shelters for the aircraft, their fuel and their weapons, and food and accommodation for their flight and ground personnel – a Composite Aviation Squadron consists of 417 Marines.
If building a single landing pad on a Marine base cans take 17 days, one can only speculate how long it would take to build one on a hostile beachhead, where heavy equipment would not be as freely available as at Twentynine Palms, and under fire.
Building a landing pad is not a straightforward affair. A 41,000foot landing pad requires about 800 pieces of matting weighing about 60 short tons, the Snafu blog noted. Getting that load to the beach during a landing would take up capacity more urgently needed for combat equipment.
The Marine Corps took 17 days, instead of two months as planned, to build this “expeditionary” landing pad for the F-35B STOVL fighter, which would leave Marine beachheads dependent on ship-based aircraft for close air support. (USMC photo)
And once the matting has landed, one of the NCOs is quoted as saying that “one of the biggest challenges we face …. is getting the sand to compact as needed.” However, the Logistics Combat Element of Marine Expeditionary Units has two bulldozers and one excavator, but no steamroller, so sand is likely to remain significantly uncompacted.
Another Marine added that “the primary purpose of this landing zone was to test the F-35B on this type of matting to ensure it would not melt during its VTOL [and] it certainly passed the test.” This lifts one obstacle to getting the F-35Bs bedded down on land.
From “austere” to Camp Bastion
By the time the forward operating bases are built, they will be anything but austere, and will have a pretty large footprint, raising the question of how they will be defended.
In September 2012, a dozen Taliban on foot attacked Camp Bastion, a major and heavily defended Allied base in Afghanistan, and were able to destroy six AV-8B Harriers and damaged two more before they were killed.
At the time, we wondered how the F-35B would survive in “austere and remote expeditionary and-based environments” when attacked by a conventional enemy with heavy weapons, “if perimeter defenses at Camp Bastion, one of the world’s most heavily protected bases, can be breached by a dozen people on foot.”
The question still stands, and in fact is becoming more crucial as these “austere” bases get larger and more equipment-rich, making them all the more attractive to the enemy.
Worth the cost?
The latest available price for the F-35B, according to the Senate Appropriations Committee (see table below), is $251 million per aircraft, and the Marines plan to buy 340 of them at a total cost of $85.3 billion.
This price, reported by the Senate Appropriations Committee in July 2014, excludes research and development costs, of which the Marine Corps is paying its share separately.
The complexity and cost of deploying F-35Bs ashore to provide close air support, the amount of manpower and assets required to protect the bases themselves, and the cost of buying the aircraft makes the cost of shore-based close air support prohibitive.
But the entire exercise becomes pointless if it takes three weeks for onshore landing pads to be built, as the battle will likely be over by then.
This may be one of the reasons why the Marine Corps is giving Exercise Steel Knight such intense public relations coverage, with so far four press releases and over a dozen photographs – a very unusual public relations effort, especially for an event that is generating little newsworthy content.
(Source: US Senate Appropriations Committee)
As of Dec 16, the Marine Corps had issued four press releases on Exercise Steel Knight 2016:
Adding Lightning to Steel Knight (Dec 14, 2015)
'Rhinos' Support Steel Knight 2016 (Dec 14, 2014)
Adding Lightning to Steel Knight (Dec 12, 2015)
F-35 Conducts First Expeditionary Test During Steel Knight 16 (Dec 11, 2015)