The USMC and the F-35C


By Ed Timperlake

07/21/2011 – The F-35C for the Marines makes little sense –the sine-qua-non of Marine Aviation is first and foremost support the 0311 Rifleman.

Tethering the Marine tactical fixed wing to a CBG, which may or may not be available as needed, or a long airfield, which again may or may not be available, rather than deploying the emerging three dimensional F-35B capability makes little technological sense-let alone tactical sense.

F-35B in flight. Several are in production in Fort Worth and will be available in the Eglin training center this Fall and for tests aboard the USS Wasp operating out of Pax River. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Since all battlefield tactical technology is relative against a reactive enemy, a new 21st Century way to look at the American way of war is within our National Security grasp–technology, training, tactics and leadership can all come together if we have the political will.

The US military is developing and fielding weapons systems with the ability to fight to win, anywhere anytime.  The future can only be seized by recognizing that 1, 2, 3, 4 “Generation” aviation discussions are platform linear. The concept of 5th Gen war and technology is  “no platform fights alone.”

Consequently, “3 Dimensional” networked situational awareness warfare is the way ahead. This potential revolution, which can insure US military superiority for a generation is not understood with current platform debates that are stovepipes.

The future of the F-35 Type/model/series (T/M/S) exemplifies this perfectly. Substituting the F-35C for Marine squadrons programmed for  the V/STOL USMC F-35Bs  will remove the most important asset in the Navy/Marine Amphibious  force.

Putting Marines in F-35Cs in a Carrier Air Wing for Carrier Battle Groups is throwing away a huge tactical and ultimately strategic capability.

Park an F-35B, lifting off from a Gator Navy Deck, flying over the beach, or F-35C from a CBG over the fleet or F-35A over a US or Allied runway all linked to C4ISR networks through essentially a cockpit display in a command and control bunker on the ground or on any or all the ships in the Battle group at sea will allow state-of-the art tactics, training, technology and war fighting to all come together.

The F-35B is the network C4ISR glue that leverages the MV-22, LCS, future UAS capabilities and robots and is a huge reach back to the fleet for Navy fire support missions employing surface and sub-surface cruise missiles. This emerging US military honeycomb view of combat from below the ocean to space and everything in between allows a Combat Commander to size the force appropriately for the mission.

Taking the F-35B out of that capability is removing the keystone from an arch. This combat capability arch extends from the blue water Navy CBGs to, as battle requirements dictate, ultimately fighting to secure a long runway ashore capable of handling F-22s and other USAF assets.  Removing the F-35B will leave a huge tactical and strategic hole in our modern American way of war. The F-35B removed from the ARG also limits USMC capability to link with Allies.

The Navy list of current Combat achievements in support of Afghan combat shows undaunted courage by Carrier pilots. But the battlefield reality is Navy CBGs are becoming “flying mobile arty” for Big Army. This makes little sense. What is the deep strike mission for all the USN CBG efforts–killing 4 Taliban vice 1.

The Afghan war has evolved past deep strike— there are no Bridges of Toko-Ri or mining of Hai Phong or going downtown to Hanoi.  There are no targets in our current combat that need CBG air assets and if Marines are tethered to CBGs they will fly and fight at the whim of an Admiral not a USMC Air Boss.

Harriers in theater along with attack helos are perfect for the close air support mission. With Iran on the Afghan border USAF Fighters are needed as a precaution for 24/7 Combat Air Patrol.  But burning through CBG assets to stay in this fight-come on!

Ultimately, putting proposed F-35C USMC Squadrons on CBGs makes the Marine Mission support to the Navy first and not the riflemen going on the beach. To be fair, history shows these two missions support the fleet, support the forces ashore and can be complementary OR not depending if the Navy has to trade distance for effectiveness. Removing the F-35B from the equation destroys any synergy and mutual support.

Finally cost–all F-35 cost arguments are red herrings when US is spending two Billion a week on Afghanistan–which has limited or no strategic importance left to America.

The current debate also shows no respect for allies-yet again they trusted us on F-35 development and sales supported by US logistical/supply genius and yet we are prepared to act unilaterally.  The previous Secretary of Defense fired the F-35 Joint Program Deputy a Marine General without consultation with allies and began using words like putting the F-35B “ on probation” while now the Secretary of State is trying to sell F-35s to India. This is totally incoherent and contrary to US interests and to any hope of US coalition leadership in the decades ahead.

In fact, the reality is the F-35B might be the most important version of the new aircraft. Both Taiwan and South Korea, are nations genuinely worried about battle damage to their combat runways. They and other nations like Israel can employ the F-35B as a real effective and survivable deterrence asset. As the Marines pioneer the full capabilities of the F-35B, it may become the T/M/S aircraft of choice for numerous allies.

Now reversing the argument. -If the Navy can posture to try and take USMC revolutionary V/STOL aircraft off the table–let America and our politicians postulate on how make some of their Carriers become  fully integrated into the ARG mission.

A huge sovereign airfield at 30+ knots with 4.5 acres of deck space is a very powerful and useful National Security asset.  The Marines in their F-35Bs, MV-22s. H-53K, Zulu Cobras and UAS assets flying from the decks of a big carrier off a coast anywhere on the globe will put that asset to good use. The Marine/Navy team is only limited by their imagination.