November 1, 2010  

F-35B’s true mission

Lt. Cmdr. Perry Solomon, [“Hovering at a precipice”, July/Aug AFJ] missed the mark in his criticism of the Marine Corps’ all-in selection of the F-35B STOVL as being unnecessary and the wrong choice.

The author seems to have either misunderstood or merely forgotten the Marine Corps’ primary mission. The article also centers on the dangerous assumption that the U.S. will always have air superiority in all future conflicts. Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom are cited as the only evidence for this contention, a sampling that is too selective and incomplete.

The F-35B, like the Harrier before it, was predicated on the very opposite assumption: that peer (or locally superior adversaries) will either attain air superiority or the next worst thing, the capacity to target and disable/deny access to all friendly airbases or airports. The true archetypical modern-era scenario comes not from Desert Storm, but from the high-intensity battle envisaged during the Cold War, in which Soviet and Warsaw-Pact forces would first have struck all U.S. and NATO air bases, disrupting, debilitating, or perhaps outright denying NATO its vital airpower.

In this adverse scenario, short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) combat aircraft would be immune to the loss of airfields, continuing to conduct combat operations while operating from easily and quickly relocated dispersal sites around the battlefield. It was for this very reason that the British Harrier “jump-jet” was created and deployed, and for the same reasons that the Marines obtained so many copies.

Such threats are very much in play today. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s doctrine is similarly based on ballistic- and cruise-missile saturation attacks, alongside aircraft-delivered precision guided missile (PGM) strikes, on all Taiwanese and regionally “friendly” airbases, out as far as Japan, South Korea and even to Guam. PLA doctrine also calls for attacks on American nuclear aircraft carriers and their escorting carrier battle groups. Thus, both U.S. land-based and naval airpower may be denied in-theater access in a future conflict with China, at least in the crucial early stages, as posited by the CSBA’s “Air-Sea-Battle” document of 2010.

Ironically, this adverse scenario is one in which the F-35B is not only meant to continue fighting, but the option the Marines are already opting for, en masse. Indeed, the F-35B STOVL combat aircraft might be the only combat plane still able to fly, fight and win, on or near a target zone such as a Taiwan under attack, siege or occupation.

Unlike the author’s assumptions of guaranteed air superiority, the Marines always plan, equip and train to fight and win in even the most adverse scenarios. They cannot and do not assume that they will have air superiority and leisurely fly-ins to regional airbases or conventional carriers just outside the immediate combat zone. Their primary, mission-generating case studies include Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and Inchon, not just Desert Storm and OIF. To that end, they are opting for a penetrating combat aircraft that can deploy forward into hostile territory with as much vital airpower as possible with their amphibious and land-borne elements. Also, unlike conventional combat aircraft (including the Navy’s F-35Cs), F-35Bs can operate off Navy LPD ships and helicopter carriers, increasing dispersal, survivability and combined-arms forces’ effectiveness by a factor of many times.

The Marine Corps’ all-F-35B force gives some badly needed redundancy, robustness and flexibility to the Air-Sea-Battle Operations Concept.

— Howard Kleinberg, defense systems engineer-analyst, Department of Public and International Affairs, University of North Carolina, Wilmington, N.C.