The chief of naval operations has penned an opinion column that has military analysts buzzing over whether it signals the Navy may be the first military branch to jettison the costly F-35 stealth fighter jet.
Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert’s column in the current issue of Proceedings magazine questions the value of radar-evading technology, or stealth, in flying to a target and bombing it in a world of rapidly improving radars.
At the same time, the Navy’s top officer champions the future of unmanned planes and standoff weapons such as ship-fired cruise missiles. Adm. Greenert also mentions the ongoing budget-cutting environment in Washington.
The Navy has planned to buy about 480 of the aircraft-carrier version of the F-35, even as the stealth fighter jet’s costs have skyrocketed and the Navy prepares to shrink its fleet of ships for lack of money.
Not true, says the admiral’s spokesman.
“Those reports are wrong,” Navy Lt. Nate Curtis said. “The CNO [chief of naval operations] has stated he is committed to the Joint Strike Fighter.
“The CNO was not talking about a commitment to the Joint Strike Fighter. That isn’t the issue. He was talking about stealth in the future and looking at the return on investment. That’s what he talks about in that article,” Lt. Curtis said.
That has not stopped analysts from conjecturing about the Pentagon’s most expensive acquisition program in an era of mounting federal debt.
“Adm. Greenert’s controversial — and, potentially, hugely consequential — article raises several interesting points, among which is the contention that advances in sensing capabilities and electronic and cyberwarfare will increasingly degrade America’s stealth arsenal,” wrote Mackenzie Eaglen, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. “This is not news. What is news, however, is the head of the Navy signaling a tepid commitment to the military’s largest acquisition program.”
“We appear to be reaching the limits of how much a platform’s inherent stealth can affordably get it close enough to survey or attack adversaries,” Adm. Greenert says in a magazine that serves as a sounding board for active and retired officers. “And our fiscal situation will continue to require difficult trade-offs, requiring us to look for new ways to control costs while remaining relevant.”
The admiral, a former submarine commander now in the first year of a four-year term, writes of advances in radars and computers that can detect even the best stealth planes as they near a target.
“The Navy has been sending signals for a long time,” said Winslow Wheeler, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a budget reform group. “The most recent Greenert comments in Proceedings shows that longstanding information, available for decades, about the vulnerability of stealth to long-wavelength radars is beginning to sink in as the realizations of the gigantic dollar, tactical and reliability costs escalate.”
Designed as a multipurpose fighter to replace the Air Force’s F-16 Falcons and the Navy’s F-18 Hornets, the F-35 now carries a price tag of $395.7 billion for 2,443 planes.