by DAVID AXE
The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps are running out of fighters. Heavy wear and tear over nearly a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan has depleted the two services’ combined fighter force. Purchases of new planes have been delayed by controversial planning decisions. As a result, U.S. maritime forces operate at elevated risk. Robotic systems could help mitigate this risk, but the Navy has resisted adopting pilot-less aircraft.
The Navy and Marines together operate some 1,000 fighters, accounting for around a third of all U.S. tactical aircraft. Navy and Marine squadrons work closely to meet the needs of both services. The Navy supplies each of its 10 carrier air wings with 44 strike-fighters, split between early-1990s-vintage, single-seat Boeing F/A-18A and C-model Hornets and newer F/A-18E/Fs. Occasionally, Marine Corps F/A-18As and Cs fill in for some of the Navy jets on carrier decks. The Marines also operate Boeing AV-8B Harriers from Navy amphibious assault ships and reconnaissance-optimized F/A-18Ds from shore bases.
When training aircraft and those in deep maintenance are removed from the count, the Navy and Marines are currently short by around 50 aircraft, according to service and Congressional reports. This so-called “fighter gap” could deepen to an estimated 125 aircraft by 2017 before the new Lockheed Martin F-35 enters service in large numbers. The F-35 program is meant to deliver more than 2,500 aircraft to U.S. forces, at a cost of around $330 billion.
The naval fighter gap first appeared around 2006, when the Marines announced they would temporarily decommission two fighter squadrons, owing to unexpected fatigue issues with some F/A-18Ds and AV-8Bs. The Hornets, in particular, were worn out from repeated deployments to western Iraq, where the two-seat jets were in high demand for forward air-control missions. During a seven-month deployment to Iraq, an F/A-18D squadron might fly four times as many hours as a squadron back in the U.S. The Marines hope to recommission the squadrons once F-35s are available.
Navy squadrons have also been heavily-tasked over Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Navy and Marines together plan to buy 680 F-35s, divided between the conventional F-35C and the short-takeoff, vertical-landing F-35B model. The F-35Cs will replace the oldest Navy F/A-18s while the F-35Bs replace Marine jets. The first F-35s — Marine B models — are slated to enter service in 2012.
“The bottom line is, there are only so many airplanes, and the ones we fly are no longer being built, so it’s extremely important to us that we maintain a Fiscal [Year] 2012 Initial Operational Capability for the F-35B,” Lt. Gen. John Castellaw, the Marines’ top aviation officer, said in 2007. Two years later, development of the F-35 — and the B version, in particular — is behind schedule. The F-35 test force completed just ten percent of its planned 317 sorties for 2009. This summer, a Pentagon audit estimated the F-35 would be two years late and billions of dollars over-budget.
To help the Navy through the widening fighter gap, Congress doubled F/A-18E/F production for 2010, to 18 copies. More new Hornets could follow. Some analysts have proposed the Navy advance plans for unmanned fighters, as another alternative to the F-35. Robotic fighters might do more than just fill the fighter gap. They could represent a “radical improvement in the combat effectiveness of carrier-based aircraft, and, by extension, the aircraft carrier,” according to a 2008 report by Thomas Ehrhard and Bob Work, both analysts with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. In 2009, Work became a Navy under-secretary.
In 2007, the Navy awarded Northrop Grumman a $640-million contract for the development of a no-frills, naval Unmanned Combat Air System. The UCAS-D, designated X-47 by the Navy, is a wedge-shaped, jet-powered, pilotless aircraft designed for carrier operations. Carrier tests are planned for 2011. The six-year development, as currently programmed, does not include any weapons carriage, inflight-refueling or other “operational” testing. Northrop Grumman officials made it clear that the X-47 is capable of more than the Navy is asking of it. The first X-47 completed production in December 2008.
In their report, Ehrhard and Work stressed that X-47 development could be accelerated to field the Navy’s next long-range bomber. Future versions could also handle air-defense missions, they proposed. In Ehrhard’s and Work’s vision, the X-47 could deliver more firepower over greater range and with fewer losses than the F-35 — and could do it sooner, and potentially more cheaply. The biggest obstacle is cultural. “The Navy is rather ambivalent toward unmanned aircraft in general, and carrier-based unmanned aircraft in particular,” they wrote. The U.S. Air Force does not share this ambivalence. In 2010, the Air Force will buy more armed drone aircraft than it buys fighters.
Even without the X-47, the Navy has options for bridging the fighter gap. F/A-18E/F production could continue until the F-35 is ready. But the Marines don’t fly the E- and F-model Hornet, and have no concept of operations for drone fighters. Realistically, the Marines can only wait for the F-35, while their existing fighter force continues wasting away.