Cancel the Navy JSF

By Lieutenant Commander Victor L. Vescovo, U.S. Naval Reserve
  • Range: 650 nautical miles
  • Internal bomb payload: 2,000 pounds
  • External bomb payload: 14,000 pounds
  • Radar aspect: golf-ball sized
  • Antiair capability: superior to the Navy's F/A-18E/F, inferior to the Air Force F-22
  • Reconnaissance: requires external pods (tactical air reconnaissance pod system or follow on)
  • Cost: approximately $38 million per plane (versus $32 million for the Air Force version and $35 million for the Marine Corps short takeoff/vertical landing [STOVL] version) 1

The Navy JSF offers four key improvements over the F/A-18 series. It would be stealthier than the F/A-18 and would permit precision strikes in hostile environments. The Navy JSF's improved stealth aspect will increase survivability in beyond-visual-range aerial combat. Its avionics suite—cockpit displays, threat detection/avoidance systems, and integral electronic countermeasures (ECM) systems—will be far more advanced than those in current platforms. Finally, the JSF has lower acquisition and support costs than existing conventional aircraft.


Justifying termination of the Navy JSF program is complex because no single platform is superior to the JSF overall. Rather, a group of platforms exceeds its performance at lower costs.

Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle-Navy (UCAV-N ). Recent conflicts in Iraq, Kosovo, and Afghanistan clearly indicate a high demand for unmanned aerial vehicles. The Navy is moving forward with its own armed version, the UCAV-N. Requirements for it are being met partially by test vehicles such as the Northrop Grumman Pegasus:

  • Range: approximately 650 nautical miles
  • Internal bomb payload: 4,000 pounds
  • External bomb payload: recommended to be up to 12,000 pounds in non-stealth configuration
  • Radar aspect: pea sized
  • Antiair capability: none
  • Reconnaissance: 12-hour surveillance mission
  • Cost: $12-$15 million per plane (with at least half the operations and support cost of the F/A-18C) 2

The foremost advantage of a UCAV is its lack of a pilot. UCAVs allow Navy pilots to offload the most dangerous and dull missions to unmanned platforms.

Historically, U.S. air power has required three to five days of sustained air strikes to degrade enemy integrated air defenses to the point where strikes can focus on high-value targets. Unfortunately, by the time the skies have been made safe for manned platforms, many target sets will have dispersed, making future strikes far less effective. With UCAVs, strike planners no longer will be constrained to wait for air defenses to be degraded before attacking heavily defended targets en masse.

The UCAVs under development probably will be the stealthiest production aircraft ever created. The prototype Pegasus UCAV has what one analyst has described as "very close to an ideal stealth shape." 3 While no unclassified estimates are available, it is reasonable to assume that it will have a smaller radar signature than even the B-2 or F-22, allowing it to conduct strike missions in any projected threat envelope. The Navy JSF is drastically inferior to this.

Because the stealth capability of the JSF is one of its key selling points, this is the primary argument in favor of the Navy JSF's termination.

Suppression and destruction of enemy surface-to-air defenses is natural for UCAVs. No other mission can be as dangerous to the pilots flying it or as important on Day 1 of a conflict. A UCAV with no aircrew and a small radar signature could fly mission profiles unheard of in manned aircraft. UCAVs could fly into the teeth of a surface-to-air-missile envelope, be detected later than any known manned aircraft, jam more effectively because of decreased range, and unleash weapons with shorter flight times to impact.

The UCAV-N could provide a capability that does not exist: low-risk, low-altitude, high-speed reconnaissance. Next-generation UCAVs will have the ability to fly at several hundred miles per hour at treetop level, taking close-up photographs of targets. Cloud cover, the nemesis of photoreconnaissance, will not prevent mission fulfillment. Imagine the extraordinary value of having pre- and post-strike multispectral images of every target, taken from 1,000 feet or less with no risk to pilots, regardless of weather and at any time of the commander's choosing.

Flyaway cost for the UCAV-N is expected to be half or less than half that of a conventional aircraft, with similar decreases in lifetime support costs. Demand for pilots will decrease, thus alleviating retention pressures.

EA-18 Growler . The first EA-611 Prowler aircraft were built in 1971 and remain under consistent high-tempo deployments. Heavy use is wearing out their wings faster than expected, and funding is a constant problem. Cancellation of the Navy JSF would free funds for the electronic attack version of the F/A-18F Super Hornet: the EA-18 Growler.

In the mission to suppress enemy air defenses (SEAD), the JSF offers no apparent advantages over the EA-18. The JSF would not have an appreciable stealth advantage, because to perform at the same level of capability as the EA-18, the JSF would have to add underwing AN/ALQ-99 pods, thus destroying its lower radar cross-section advantage. Further, the EA-18 will be ready five to ten years earlier than a comparable JSF platform. Those involved in a comprehensive review of Prowler replacements have indicated that the EA-18 probably was the best overall short-term solution for the Defense Department's electronic attack needs. 4

The EA-18 is economically sound because it would increase the production run of the F/A-18F, thus lowering average unit cost. The proposed Growler is "99% common with the Super Hornet," which would reduce the logistical burden on the carrier. 5 Further, using the EA-18 with SEAD-configured UCAVs would provide a level of complementary capabilities unmatched by the JSF alone.

U.S. Air Force F-22, B-1, and B-2 . One can judge the Navy JSF as unique and essential if one limits one's observation to current carrier flight decks. However, the Navy has not fought a major campaign by itself since the Pacific campaigns of World War II. In Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Iraq, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, the air campaigns were joint actions. Every projected major theater of engagement is within range of Air Force platforms stealthier and with equal or heavier bomb loads than the JSF.

It is a myth that the Air Force cannot be counted on because bases will not be available. This has not been the case in any recent major war. With the bases we now control outright, the long range of Air Force assets, and aerial refueling, Air Force aircraft have global reach over every major conflict zone. Even in the Afghan campaign, heavy bombers and F-15E aircraft were used immediately and bases in neighboring countries were secured within months, or even weeks. At the beginning of a conflict, remote bases increase mission flight times and reduce on-station duration for fighters, but this has not proved to be an insurmountable obstacle in modern conflicts.

In the air supremacy role, the F-22 will have a range of more than 2,000 miles. 6 With aerial refueling, it will be able to fly from bases in England, Turkey, Diego Garcia, and Guam to fight in virtually any theater. In air-to-air capability, the Navy JSF is outclassed by the F-22. Likewise, in the high-threat-environment strike role with two internal 1,000-pound joint direct-attack munitions, the F-22's smaller radar cross section and greater range and speed will make it a far more survivable platform—with the same bomb load—than the Navy JSF. In its proposed "medium bomber" configuration, the F-22 could "carry nearly 30 250-pound precision bombs at supersonic speeds over unrefueled distances of about 2,000 miles." 7

With their intercontinental range and the forthcoming small-diameter bomb, the B-1 and B-2 will be able to travel to any point on the globe and attack up to 128 discrete aim points with far more stealth than the Navy JSF. The ability to strike so many targets on one bombing run alleviates the need for the larger number of sorties a JSF-equipped carrier could generate.

F/A-18E/F Super Hornet . The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet ostensibly was designed as a "holding action" until the JSF could arrive. The idea was to build an incremental improvement on the F/A-18C/D to replace the F- 14 Tomcat. In these respects, it does its job extremely well—perhaps too well for the Navy JSF's sake.

The Navy Joint Strike Fighter beats the Super Hornet hands down in its ability to drop 2,000 pounds of ordnance in a stealthy configuration. However, the two aircraft are about equal in their ability to carry ordnance in a low-threat environment. Likewise, both aircraft rely on pod-based systems to conduct tactical air reconnaissance and ground surveillance. In the Super Hornet's favor, it has two engines versus the JSF's one, which increases pilot survivability and provides more resistance to combat damage.

In the visual arena, the Super Hornet would not be at a significant disadvantage to the JSF. The helmet-cued AIM-9X Sidewinder on the F/A-18E/F is more than capable of compensating for the Super Hornet's slightly inferior dog-fighting characteristics. Both aircraft use the same advanced medium-range air-to-air missile for beyond-visual-range combat. The Super Hornet also has the internal space and power necessary to field many of the same avionics upgrades as the JSR Enhanced cockpit displays and many other black-box systems, such as automatic self-protection ECM systems or electronically steerable antennas, could be retrofitted.

The Navy version of the JSF will have the smallest production run of the program—just 300-400 out of a current total proposed buy of more than 3,000 platforms. The small number of aircraft and its nonrecurring research-and-development costs render it the most expensive JSF version, at approximately $38 million per copy. What is worse, unlike the Air Force and Marine Corps, the Navy has no viable export market for its JSF. By contrast, the Super Hornet already is developed and available for immediate production. The unit cost of F/A-18E/Fs will decrease as manufacturing experience reduces the cost of each airframe with a larger aggregate buy.

Marine Corps JSF . If the Navy truly needs a JSF-like platform for manned, stealthy strike from a carrier, it can "borrow" Marine Corps JSF squadrons. The Marine Corps is planning to purchase more of its JSF version than the Navy is of its own. Given the short time frame of any campaign in which the evolutionary capabilities of the JSF might be needed, it makes no sense for both the Marine Corps and the Navy to acquire it. Because the Marine Corps' STOVL JSF is desperately needed as an AV-8 replacement and has significant export potential, its production rationale is more solid.

Amphibious ships, such as the Wasp (LHD-1)-class LHD, easily could launch joint strikes with carriers. Such pairing of amphibious task forces and carrier groups already is routine and complements the capabilities of both. Alternatively, the Marine JSFs could deploy directly as part of carrier air wings as needed, something Marine squadrons do routinely.

How to Spend Navy JSF Funds

Earlier this year, Congressional Budget Office testimony indicated that the lower-range estimated cost of the Navy JSF acquisition program will be approximately $32 billion. Estimates of potential savings vary widely because the Department of Defense (DoD), Congress, and even industry disagree over what the final cost will be. However, with a DoD published estimate for the whole JSF program of $200 billion, this figure for the Navy portion is not unreasonable.

The Navy should produce a "heavy" UCAV-N with the same total payload as the JSF. 8 This would necessitate a slightly larger airframe than current prototypes and therefore would be more expensive. Some estimates claim a UCAV-N could cost only one-third as much as the Navy JSF ($13.5 million), but I estimate this heavier version would cost nearer to $27 million per copy. Also assuming at least $5 billion for accelerated research and development (R&D), procuring 350 airframes could result in a total UCAV-N program cost of approximately $14 billion.

Using the current actual cost of approximately $65 million per F/A-18E/F, the Navy could procure an additional 130 baseline Super Hornets—ideally more of the two-seat F versions to provide more forward air controller capabilities—for just $8.5 billion without incremental research-and-development funds. 9 A conservative estimate of the cost of the EA-18 Growler is nearly $100 million per aircraft, with an additional $1 billion in research and development. Purchasing 70 aircraft under these assumptions would cost $8 billion. Purchasing 350 UCAV-Ns and 130 F/A-18E/Fs provides a one-for-one replacement for the planned procurement of 480 Navy JSFs, and the EA-18s would allow half the aging Prowler fleet to retire.

Even after making these purchases, nearly $1.4 billion would remain. These funds could pay for R&D in the routinely canceled common support aircraft (CSA) research program. If successful, this program could lead to an upgrade of the increasingly aged and ignored but critical S-3, E-2, and C-2 airframes, further reducing the number of carrier-borne aircraft types.

The 2015 Carrier Air Wing without the Navy JSF

A non-JSF carrier air wing in 2015 would look very different but would have far superior capabilities than current air wing projections. Navy unmanned combat aerial vehicles would provide high-threat-environment strike capability, low-altitude and staring reconnaissance, and standard "bomb truck" duties. EA-18 Growlers would provide replacements for the Prowler fleet. Additional FIA-18F Super Hornets would provide increased forward air controller capability as well as standard bombing and standoff munitions capability. Finally, the entire air wing would have two fewer fixed-wing airframes to maintain, even fewer if the CSA program is pursued as well.

The Navy JSF reinforces a non-transformational acquisition strategy. The Navy is close to spending more than $70 billion on an improved but still relatively generic, multirole, manned platform. Between the F/A- 18 Super Hornet and very capable Air Force assets, the Navy can follow DoD guidance to "skip a generation of technology" and focus on developing an optimized mixed wing of UCAV-Ns and Super Hornets. This should not be viewed as a risk but rather as an extraordinary opportunity to increase the nation's overall capabilities as fast as possible.

Terminating the JSF program increases the survivability of naval aviators and the relative capabilities of projected 2010-2015 forces, and can increase the strength of our conventional deterrent against any adversary. Investment in the Navy JSF ignores the oft-cited but just as oft-ignored lesson of military history: you always prepare to fight the last war. We must terminate the Navy JSF, embrace joint capabilities and doctrine, and invest in superior future technologies.

1 “The Joint Strike Fighter," Jane's All the World's Aircraft 2001, online edition ( ).

2 Bill Sweetman, "UCAVs Spread Their Wings," International Defense Review, 4 May 2001; "The UCAV-N is to have a flyaway cost one-third of that of the Navy JSF (that is, around US$12-15 million) and half the operations and support costs of the F/A-18C," idr010504_1_n.shtml.

3 Sweetman, "UCAVs Spread Their Wings."

4 Greg Seigle, "Many Options on Table to Replace Ageing Prowlers," Jane's Defence Weekly, 12 January 2000, p. 7.

5 Michael Gerthing, "Growler and ICAP HI Prowler Fly," Jane's Navy International, 1 December 2001.

6 Air Combat Command, Public Affairs Office Fact Sheet: F-22 Raptor ( The U.S. Air Force Almanac of 30 September 2000 also lists the F-22 range as "over 2,000 miles."

7 Vago Muradian, "F-22 May Be Modified As Speedy New Medium Bomber to Strike Moving Targets;' Defense Daily International, 18 January 2002, p. 1.

8 David A. Fulgham, "New Demonstrator Spurs Navy UCAV Development," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 19 February 2001, content/publicatiorawst/20010219/avi_stor.htm. The article states that the prototype UCAV will have a payload of between 2,000 and 4,000 pounds, but apparently this is for internal carriage. Making the aircraft almost the size of an FIA- I C, with external hardpoints for nonstealth operations, potentially could allow the UCAV-N to carry a bomb load comparable to that of a conventional Super Hornet. Also supporting this view is Fulgham's comment: "An operational aircraft also would be significantly larger and more robust than Pegasus."

9 Washington Briefs," Navy Times, 31 December 2001, p. 7. Congress authorized "$3.2 billion to buy 48 jet [F/A-18E/F] strike fighters." Straight division yields the cost estimate of $67 million per aircraft. This cost should decrease over time as more aircraft are produced.

Lieutenant Commander Vescovo , a targeting officer supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, served in Operations Allied Force and Southern Watch as a targeteer. He spent two years as an intelligence instructor at the Navy Strike and Air Warfare Center.



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