The U.K. Ministry of Defense’s announcement in October that it would drop the vertical-landing F-35B fighter in favor of a much smaller number of cheaper, conventional F-35Cs clearly vexed the only two other firm, current customers for the stealthy F-35B. With a planned total of 138 F-35Bs, the Royal Navy accounted for nearly a third of projected production of the sophisticated successor to the legendary Harrier jump jet. The U.S. Marines intend to buy 420 copies to equip 22 combat squadrons; the Italian navy wants 22 examples for their Cavour light carrier. Slashing 30 percent of the planned F-35Bs will raise the unit cost for an airplane that is already over budget, behind schedule and plagued by design flaws.
In the best case, the British decision – part of the controversial Strategic Defense and Security Review – could result in strained relations between the three air arms. In the worst case, the U.K.’s abandonment of the new jump jet could result in the plane’s termination. That would seriously undermine the Marines’ delicate plans to re-equip its war-strained flying squadrons. It would also strip Italy and other navies of their carrier-based fixed-wing aviation forces. Spain, South Korea, Japan and Australia all possess or are building small aircraft carriers: the F-35B is the only jet in development that could operate from their comparatively tiny flight decks. If the F-35B were to collapse in the wake of Great Britain’s fighter-switch, it could mean a “strategic nightmare” for Asian navies in particular, according to independent U.S. naval analyst Craig Hooper.
The anger spiked within hours of the U.K.’s October 19 announcement that it was dropping the F-35B as the fighter-of-choice for the carrier Queen Elizabeth, due to enter service in 2020. The Marines, accurately sensing the damage the British withdrawal would do to their prized program, promptly kicked British exchange pilots out of their fighter squadrons, according to a report in The Times. A spokesman for Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos called the story “entirely false.”
But the Marines have a history of punishing pilots who endanger, however indirectly, the service’s F-35B ambitions. After Marine aviators assigned to Navy training squadrons flew and praised the Navy’s F/A-18E/F fighter – the jet the Marines refused to buy back in the 1990s in order to husband funding for the more expensive F-35B – Lt. Gen. George Trautman, the Marines’ senior aviation officer, reportedly banned his pilots from ever again flying the F/A-18E/F.
In any event, tempers among senior Marines surely ran high in the weeks following the SDSR as an influential budgetary panel convened by U.S. President Barack Obama to study ways of reducing America’s national debt took advantage of the F-35B’s faltering prospects to recommend the plane’s termination, a move that the panel said could help save billions of dollars. The Marines quickly mustered their allies in the Pentagon and the U.S. Congress to defend their beleaguered jet – with apparent success, at least in the short term. Despite the budgetary panel’s recommendation, the Pentagon would stick with the F-35B, for now. Any major changes to the F-35 program, if they occur at all, would come as a result of 2012 budget planning beginning in early 2011, according to Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. The U.S. plans to spend more than $300 billion developing, purchasing and operating around 2,400 F-35s in three different versions. The first F-35Bs are slated to enter Marine service in 2012. But even leaving aside Britain’s change of heart, the new jump jet has struggled with faulty components that have considerably slowed flight-testing.
Despite its flaws, the Marines will undoubtedly continue to fight hard for their preferred airplane. Their strong commitment to the F-35B, and to the whole concept of vertical-landing fighters, goes back years. In 2007, Trautman’s predecessor Lt. Gen. John Castellaw, praised the F-35B as the only plane that could allow the Marines to replace all three of its current, aging fast-jet types: the AV-8B jump-jet, the conventional F/A-18A/C/D and the electronic-warfare-optimized EA-6B. “It causes us additional effort and resources and people to operate all those various platforms,” Castellaw said. “If I can get it down to one and I can have a tac-air force that I can swing like I told you, whether its Squadron 1 or Squadron 21, that can all do the same thing, what a powerful capability I will have.”
This “swing” force would operate from permanent land bases and rough forward airstrips, plus the Navy’s large-deck carriers and small-deck amphibious assault ships. Indeed, the Marines’ newest line of assault ships, the America class, is optimized for jump-jet operations, effectively making it a light carrier instead of a true amphibious ship. When the U.K. abandoned the F-35B, it threatened not just the Marines’ aviation plans, but its shipbuilding plans as well. That helps explain the apparent rancor over the British decision.
But for all the reported anger inside the Marine Corps, America’s Pacific allies stand to lose the most if the F-35B fails. The Marines, at least, can still count on air support from the Navy and its 10 big-deck carriers in any showdown with a major power such as China. For Asian navies, however, there’s no back-up plan for at-sea jet operations, as their carriers are too small for conventional planes. For them, “the F-35B offers the only viable means to match China’s first steps into carrier aviation,” Hooper explained. “If the F-35B does go away, America’s major Pacific allies will be left with, well, a brace of aircraft-less aircraft carriers.”