The Magazine

Save the Lightning

Why we need the F-35.

Sep 12, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 48 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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The Navy is almost eager to do so. On July 7, Navy undersecretary Robert Work told Navy and Marine Corps planners to develop alternative aviation plans that look at terminating both the short-take-off “B” model for the Marines and the carrier “C” model for the Navy. In standard Goldilocks fashion, Work called for three options: Cut $5 billion, cut $7.5 billion, cut $10 billion. And, ominously, Work directed his minions to divine “the best-value alternative, factoring in both cost and capability. .  .  . This relook must consider every plan and program. Even cuts to long-planned buys of JSF must be on the table.”

Now to the operational rub. Since World War II, America’s sea services have been, first and foremost, organizations built around the virtues of carrier aircraft—this includes the Marine Corps, whose big-deck “amphibs” are almost as large as any non-American aircraft carrier. Clever defense analysts have begun to castigate carriers as “wasting assets,” too vulnerable to the kind of ballistic missile and other attacks that the Chinese military is developing. But it’s equally the case that a carrier without a front-line aircraft—that is, the fifth-generation F-35—is an entirely wasted asset.

Today’s E/F model of the F/A-18 is a superb “fourth-generation” strike fighter; it does more, carries more, and goes farther than the earlier version of the Hornet. But it’s not stealthy, and employing the F/A-18 against modern air defense either requires an elaborate air defense suppression campaign—with all sorts of electronic and other support aircraft—or suicidal desperation. The Marines, whose amphibs rely on the old and finicky Harrier jump-jet for their firepower, are even more limited.

In sum, it makes no sense to retain massive carrier fleets with ever-more-limited capability. If the Navy and Marine Corps can’t afford to put a China-relevant plane aboard their carriers—and a China-relevant “unmanned” aircraft is not on the horizon—they should stop building the carriers, too, and even mothball some of the ones they have now.

Terminating the “B” and “C” models of the F-35—let alone reducing the numbers of “A” models intended for the Air Force—would have dire strategic consequences. The F-35 is an international program, and the roster of countries who have contributed money to the development of the Lightning or who want to buy the plane is a veritable who’s who of America’s allies. Britain alone has committed about $2 billion to the project, and the Italians, Dutch, Canadians, Danes, Australians, Norwegians, and Turks are already on board and will build parts of the jet. The Israelis want to get F-35s by 2014 if they can, and the Singaporeans are lined up just behind; both countries—states little larger than aircraft carriers—are interested in the short-take-off “B” variant on the assumption that their current air bases are increasingly vulnerable. Japan and South Korea—absolute linchpins of U.S. posture in East Asia—are likely candidates for sales, assuming there’s still something for them to buy in a few years.

A big hit on the F-35 program would also be catastrophic for the defense aviation industry, both in this country and in the West generally. A generation ago, seven companies made airplanes for the U.S. military. Now Lockheed Martin, the only firm to have made a fifth-generation aircraft, leads an international consortium of companies who make pieces of planes. The F-35 factory in Fort Worth is enormous, with the capacity to accommodate the Pentagon’s original plans to buy over 230 Lightnings a year. But with past reductions keeping production at just 30 or so airplanes annually for the next couple of years, and talk of making similar cuts beyond that, the capacity will be increasingly unused—and the workers laid off.

Defending the F-35 program is politically incorrect. It’s been a favorite punching bag for congressional overseers and often in “breach” of the cost-growth targets of the so-called “Nunn-McCurdy” law—a 1982 provision that was a grandstand play back then and is entirely outdated and irrelevant now. Senators John McCain and Carl Levin, the leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have proposed a new amendment that threatens to end the program while also renegotiating past contracts. Even Gates put the F-35B on “two-year probation,” whatever that means.

But preserving the program is essential for America’s defense for the foreseeable future. We’ve put an immense number of eggs in this basket, and it’s just about the last basket we have—there are no short-term alternatives, and taking away the F-35 would render the surface Navy and Marine Corps all but -useless in responding to the kind of “anti-access” challenges China now presents and others like Iran are developing.

Memo to super committee: Save the Lightning!

Thomas Donnelly is director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. 

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