A Poorly Considered Jackass of a Bad Idea

“A man who has committed a mistake and does not correct it is committing another mistake.” -Confucius

Half a trillion dollars. With that kind of money we could buy Facebook, Scandinavia, General Motors (again), the Chinese Politburo and all the good bits of the Former Republic of Yugoslavia. And, with luck, Taylor Swift. Instead, we’re getting a trouble-plagued new fighter jet that is running $163 billion over budget and close to a decade behind schedule. Worse, by the time it is finally put into service, it is quite possible that it will not be able to perform the missions for which it was intended. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the King-of-All-Jackass-Defense-Programs, the F-35 Lightning II.

What happened? Quite simply, about twenty years ago the idiot leadership of my beloved Marine Corps convinced the idiot leaderships of the Air Force and the Navy to design their next fighter jets around the corrupt concept of Short Takeoff Vertical Landing—or STOVL. It was a horrible idea for about half-a-trillion reasons, but chief among them was agreeing to an essentially common airframe that could accommodate a STOVL concept. It was a basic design that was heavier and more complex than what the Air Force and Navy needed. In the aerospace world, heavier and more complex are very bad words.

In so doing they inflicted upon the nation—and our allies—a grotesquerie the likes of which our adversaries could only dream of matching.

And the salt in the wound is the fact that the Marine Corps does not need, nor has it ever needed, a Short Takeoff Vertical Landing capability. STOVL disciples (remember my idiot Marine Corps leadership?) mistakenly embrace the notion of high performance jets climbing skyward from small jungle clearings or other similarly unprepared locations. Once airborne, these aircraft dash to the battlefield, visit high-tech destruction on the enemy, and then return to their ad hoc lairs where they are readied for more action.

The concept is a fantasy that has been operationally demonstrated as little more than a stunt. Firstly, modern combat aircraft must be serviced by comprehensively trained maintenance men. These men must work out of the weather with specialized tools and equipment. Too, they must be regularly supplied with repair parts and materials as well as fuel which the aircraft consume at the rate of a thousand or more gallons per sortie. And of course, the aircraft are of little value whatsoever unless they are loaded with bombs and other weapons that are not only heavy and balky but also very sensitive to rough handling and harsh environments. All of this—the men, the shelters, the tools and material, the fuel, the bombs and more—must be supported by a transportation infrastructure of the type not normally found in austere locations.

Of course the aircraft are flown by pilots who must be connected to various operations centers so that they know which missions to fly, when to fly them, and how they are to be flown. The pilots, just like the maintenance men, must be fed, sheltered, rested and otherwise kept healthy. All of this—the aircraft, the men, the infrastructure and the various supplies—must be protected by more men.

So, it quickly becomes apparent that a site that can handle such an operation looks a great deal like…get ready for it…an airbase! It is implicit that airbases are ideal for conducting combat operations—we’ve proved it during several wars over nearly a century. And we have lots of them. In the event that we don’t have them where we need them, we can build, borrow or take them. We’ve done it before.

There are those who might argue that a STOVL aircraft is needed to operate from the Navy’s amphibious ships such as the new America -class LHAs which cannot handle conventionally launched and recovered aircraft. They are wrong. Success in any campaign has never hinged on STOVL-type aircraft based on Navy amphibious combatants. If our forces are ever going to engage a serious adversary against whom tactical jets are a requirement, they are going to come to the fight with more than what the Navy’s amphibious ships can embark. Indeed, for most amphibious missions the AH-1Z attack helicopter and the UH-1Y utility helicopter can provide adequate firepower.

But it’s not just that the Marine Corps does not need a STOVL capability. The Marine Corps also cannot afford a STOVL capability. The STOVL version of the F-35, the F-35B, is not only approximately thirty percent more pricey than the Air Force and Navy variants (the F-35A and F-35C respectively); it also does not perform as well This is because all the fancy STOVL bits add weight and take up space. The F-35B is also much more complex than the other two variants. And complexity translates to mechanical failures and mechanical failures cost money and operational capability.

For the technically-minded, the F-35B’s STOVL capability is provided by a high-risk, shaft-driven, two-stage, counter-rotating lift fan, in combination with a large swiveling duct and unique doors on the top and bottom of the fuselage. In layman’s terms, this means that there’s a lot of expensive stuff that will break. Indeed, components will fail in the coming decades in ways that aren’t even being considered. This is a lesson that the Marine Corps failed to learn with its current STOVL aircraft, the AV-8B Harrier. The Harrier has been a maintenance and operational nightmare that has killed too many of its own pilots and delivered too little utility. Anyone who says differently is ignorant or a liar. And in terms of complexity, the Harrier is a latch bolt compared to the F-35B as a Swiss watch.

So, what should be done? The Marine Corps should ditch the STOVL F-35B and follow the Navy’s lead. The Navy might continue with the more traditional, non-STOVL, F-35C, or it might get out of the F-35 business entirely and continue with its F/A-18 Super Hornets until something better is built. This approach—a common Marine Corps and Navy aircraft—will yield economies of scale as well as the sorts of operational efficiencies that come from using the same aircraft. There is no arguing the fact that many billions of dollars in STOVL development, testing and procurement costs will be lost. But those losses will pale compared to the losses—fiscal and operational—that will be incurred if the Marine Corps follows its present course.

The Air Force and Navy should subsequently identify all the penalties with which their designs are burdened by an airframe intended to accommodate STOVL. To the maximum extent possible, those penalties should be eliminated or mitigated on the production line to ensure better and more affordable operational aircraft.

Ultimately, the Marine Corps, for all it touts itself as a pioneer in warfighting concepts and technologies, cannot afford to procure the F-35B. As much as the service’s leadership might hope or believe otherwise, the risks attendant to the aircraft’s STOVL characteristics stand a very good chance of bankrupting its tactical aviation arm. Admitting its mistake and leaving the F-35B behind will take guts, but guts are perhaps the only resource the Marine Corps has never lacked.

“Every great mistake has a halfway moment, a split second when it can be recalled and perhaps remedied.” -Pearl Buck