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.
To military analysts, all of Adm. Greenert's points add up to a conclusion that the Navy is having second thoughts about pouring billions of dollars into the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
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."
In his column, Adm. Greenert does not mention the fighter by name, but he does note the limits of stealth technology. And the Navy is buying only one stealth aircraft — the F-35.
"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.
It has suffered technical failures and huge cost overruns, prompting Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, in December to call it "both a scandal and a tragedy."
The Government Accountability Office reported in June that total acquisition costs in the past five years ballooned 42 percent, to $395 billion. Full-rate production now is not scheduled to begin until 2019, a six-year delay.
In the most recent Pentagon budget review, in which $487 billion was cut from the 10-year spending plan, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta opted to stretch out procurement but not terminate the program.
The services know, however, that another wave of budget cuts is looming — about $500 billion if Congress cannot agree on a deficit-reduction plan by January. In that case, analysts say, several procurement budget lines will be in jeopardy, including the F-35.
The GAO criticized the Pentagon for its big bet on "concurrency" — that is, developing and producing the plane at the same time. The Pentagon is buying 365 F-35s before developmental flight tests are completed.
Said the GAO: "Development of critical-mission systems providing core combat capabilities remains behind schedule and risky. To date, only 4 percent of the mission systems required for full capability have been verified. Deficiencies with the helmet-mounted display, integral to mission systems functionality and concepts of operation, are most problematic."
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