The U.S. Navy, operating with too few carriers, now has a forward-deployment dilemma. Keeping two carriers deployed to the Middle East with only nine deployable strike carriers is not sustainable, even with their deployment time increasing by 50 percent. This is having debilitating consequences for fleet readiness. An immediate relaxation from the two-carrier commitment would provide much-needed forward deployment flexibility. This can be accomplished by utilizing operational alternatives, including modified U.S. Air Force Air Expeditionary Forces, along with U.S. Marine Corps Air Wing, to provide the required close air support mission in Afghanistan.
With the four-year overhaul of the USS Abraham Lincoln, combined with the delay of the USS Gerald Ford, the Navy will still require additional deployment flexibility. The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) F-35 fifth-generation aircraft could possibly provide such flexibility.
In today’s unsettled environment, the potential of the F-35 — with its sophisticated electronic performance, plus stealth and optics that can see a missile 200 miles away — has an extraordinary capability. It is possible to deploy multiple F-35 radars, which then could provide added flexibility by permitting Airborne Warning and Control System coverage elsewhere. The F-35B short takeoff version would provide greatly needed employment flexibility for the Navy’s Amphibious Forces.
Granted, the JSF F-35 fighter program has had its share of development problems. Fighter programs traditionally have been underperformers early on in their development, requiring lengthy follow-on development to reach their full potential. The fact that the fifth-generation JSF F-35 will not reach its full potential until anticipated development problems are resolved should not come as a surprise.
The purpose of any test and evaluation program is to identify as many potential deficiencies as possible so corrective action can be taken. All versions of the Joint Strike Fighter have had a number of deficiencies identified. The program’s most recent vulnerability assessment showed that the removal of certain equipment to make the aircraft 11 pounds lighter may have left it vulnerable to lightning strikes. Further, Test and Evaluation officials discovered a handful of cracks on the right wing and right engine of the U.S. Air Force F-35A version, as well as multiple cracks on the bulkhead flange of the Marine short takeoff F-35B version. There are also problems with the crucial helmet-mounted display, which also must be resolved.
A spokesman for Lockheed-Martin stated the company believes the program is demonstrating exceptional stability, certainly significantly greater than “any legacy aircraft development program,” which is a primary measure for development test and evaluation. Lockheed-Martin stated that they fully expect to deliver a qualified product to operational test and evaluation as scheduled. Cost overruns as they affect continued allied support for procurement of the F-35 comprise another problem the firm must resolve.
With China having unveiled its “second fifth-generation fighter” in October, plus its mounting production of Chengdu J-10 and Shenyang J-11 fourth-generation fighters supported by growing numbers of AWACS and tankers, the capabilities of the F-35 will become essential for fleet defense. China is likely developing a new strategic bomber, and has recently revealed that it has a supersonic, air-launched, anti-ship missile called the YJ-12, that can be launched by its bombers and fighter-bombers. The F-35 has the advantages of stealth, giving it a better chance of defeating YJ-12 launchers farther from U.S. carrier battle groups.
The Marine F-35B short takeoff version offers the option of turning the Navy’s 10 amphibious landing helicopter dock ships into mobile airbases with a fifth-generation combat aircraft.
Clearly, the F-35 offers the Navy much more forward-deployment flexibility than it now enjoys. More importantly, it has the potential to change the strategic balance in certain areas. Further, it will give our allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia the option to more effectively develop their own naval airpower to counter China’s aggressive actions in the Western Pacific. Taiwan also needs the F-35B, as it is more survivable in the face of China’s growing missile threat to the island democracy.
In the tight fiscal climate facing all services, pressure will build to seriously reduce or eliminate some critical programs. Sequestration will only compound the problem. It is critical that the resources necessary to achieve long-term U.S. objectives be protected. Now is not the time to go “wobbly” on the JSF F-35 program.
Retired Adm. James A. Lyons was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.