The U.S. Navy is facing a serious shortfall in its strike-warfare capability. What aircraft are in its future?
We cannot afford to wait any longer before our fighters—most of which were acquired during the Cold War—become worn out beyond repair. At the moment, the Navy is buying the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and developing the F-35C Lightning II. However, with sequestration taking effect, the service does not have enough money to afford both and must make some very tough decisions. So which of these aircraft should the Navy buy?
First, let’s be clear that when talking about fighters, the costs given for aircraft can be measured in several ways. There is the procurement cost, which is the total price of the aircraft, Then there is the flyaway cost and several other measures that often have different names and different prices for the same aircraft since they include or exclude certain factors. For the purpose of this analysis, we will use only the flyaway cost, which is also called the “per-unit cost.” It values the aircraft at its marginal cost, including only the price of production and production tools immediately accruing to the building of a single unit.1 It excludes prior costs such as research and development (treating these as sunk costs), supplementary costs such as support equipment, or future costs such as spare parts and maintenance.2
F-35A Is Cheap; F-35C, Not So Much
When discussing the price of the F-35 series, many proponents of the program will be quick to provide the costs for the cheapest version, the F-35A for the Air Force, which is said to be $107 million.3 The version for the Navy, the F-35C, currently is estimated at $186.5 million, which is extremely high.4 By comparison, the Super Hornet costs $66.9 million, meaning that for every F-35C the Navy purchases it could also have purchased 2.8 Super Hornets.5 In fact, it could replace every legacy Hornet in the inventory with a Block II, add an extra squadron of Block IIs to all carrier air wings, add a new carrier air wing, and still save money by sticking with Super Hornets and choosing not to buy the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).6 The crucial question here is whether or not the F-35 delivers the amount of capability that it costs.
Those same proponents of the F-35 program also will be quick to mention that when the aircraft enters full-rate production, the unit price will supposedly drop to $100 million for all models. This is far from the truth. The concept of mass full-rate production being used to create a low-cost fighter was based on a business plan that focused on the fighters having enough common parts with their sister variants, roughly 80 percent, that mass-producing them would be easy. That plan has already failed at the design stage. The engineers for Lockheed Martin, the maker of the F-35, ran into several problems and had to account for them by modifying the design of each one extensively. What they eventually ended up with was a design that shared only 20 to 30 percent common parts. Each of them is now essentially a different aircraft.7
Unit costs for the Navy version, the carrier-based F-35C, have skyrocketed. The reason is that there are terrible design flaws in the F-35C that cannot be fixed without excessive amounts of money that will not be available in the new fiscal environment. The flaws have made little progress toward being fixed. The F-35C as of yet is unable to be used in combat and is not even able to adapt to the carrier environment.
Three Problems with the Navy JSF
The F-35C has not been able to overcome three major problems. The first is that it cannot land on a carrier, which is an absolute necessity. The designers of the F-35 placed the tailhook too close to the rear landing gear. As a result, the landing gear presses down the wire, and the hook merely scrapes over it instead of catching it. The JSF team has designed a sharper hook point to compensate for this. However, the improvement is not good enough. The wire caught the hook only a few times during the tests, which is not satisfactory. To solve the problem the F-35C airframe would need to be stretched, destroying any commonality left with its sister variants and causing yet another drastic increase in the price.8
The second problem is the difficulty of keeping the stealthy materials maintained at sea. Lockheed Martin has failed to prove that the stealth materials of the F-35 will not corrode away if they take a beating at sea. These materials are extremely expensive and difficult to maintain as they are now. If this problem is not fixed it would drastically drive up the cost of maintenance for an F-35C fleet.
The last problem is the most pressing and most difficult, which is also found in the other two JSF models. The F-35s have 24 million lines of software code that is extremely difficult to test and is as complicated as anything on earth. Nearly 10 million lines of code are needed on board the jet.9 These software lines are needed for the JSF capabilities that Lockheed Martin has promised. By comparison, the Boeing-built F/A-18E/F Super Hornet has about 4 million lines of software code with only 1.5 million lines of it being on board the aircraft.10
Four Things Right with the Navy JSF
The F-35C currently holds four main advantages over the Super Hornet Block II: longer unrefueled range, infrared (IR) scanning cameras, a powerful IR sensor in the nose, and stealth. Boeing has attempted to even these out by making an upgraded Super Hornet called the International Road Map, which is essentially a Super Hornet Block III with a different name.
This Block III has a set of conformal fuel tanks that add a combined 3,500 pounds and bring the F/A-18E/F’s internal fuel load to 18,450 pounds, not too far away from the 19,750 pounds on the F-35C.11 The Block III also features IR scanners that cover the entire area of the aircraft and a new internal IR search-and-track sensor built under the nose. This gives the jet missile-warning capabilities similar to the F-35. The Super Hornet Block III still uses the standard Joint Helmet Mounted Queuing System, which is relatively simple and provides information at high speed.
To increase the level of stealth, Boeing made a stealthy enclosed weapon pod that can be mounted under the fuselage or under the wings. Each pod has a stealthy shape and can hold two AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles (AMRAAMs) and two bombs, a similar payload to the F-35’s internal weapon bays. Boeing attempted to do a similar type of change to the F-15 and created the Silent Eagle, which has stealth-reducing features such as reshaping of the body, radar-absorbent materials, and an angled active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. Their radar testing showed significant reductions in radar cross section (RCS), and from the frontal aspect of the Silent Eagle the RCS was close to matching a stealth aircraft.12
The Super Hornet airframe already features some extensive radar-signature-reduction features, such as stealth shaping, radar-absorbent materials added in crucial areas, heavy use of composite materials, and the aforementioned angled AESA radar. The removal of external stores with the weapon pod will provide a significant increase in stealth that may not equal that of the F-35 from every aspect but will definitely make a great difference. Included in these improvements are a glass cockpit display similar to the F-35’s and upgraded engines that have increased thrust by 20 percent.13
In short, the Super Hornet Block III, if fully developed, will be nearly as good as the F-35 series was meant to be, and it will have a price cheap enough for us to produce in vast numbers to not only fill our fighter gap, but also have greater flexibility for all of our forces around the world. The Block III could easily replace the legacy Hornet fleet and fulfill all the roles the Navy currently performs. The great thing about these upgrades is that they can also be retrofitted on the Block II aircraft the Navy currently operates.
The Trouble with SAMs
Many proponents of the F-35 program will also quickly claim that stealth is absolutely necessary to survive in the environment of future conflicts, but the advantage to the warfighter is slowly eroding away with time. Our potential enemies have been able to make surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries with longer ranges that could prevent our forces from accessing their area. These new SAM batteries also have the ability to be networked to form an integrated air-defense system that could pose a considerable threat. To defeat it, the Navy does not need stealth technology but better jammers and an upgraded version of our current weapon that is often used to kill enemy SAMs with ruthless efficiency: the AGM-88 high-speed anti-radiation missile.
Russia and China have been able to develop new and better SAMs, such as the S-400 and the HQ-19, both of which have ranges that exceed 200 miles.14 It is important to note that if an aircraft has a certain level of stealth, then it would greatly decrease the range that an S-400 or HQ-19 could detect it. This does not change the fact that these SAMs are still a major problem. The current way to answer this problem is putting money toward stealth. Unfortunately, the SAMs are not the only problem, as advances in counter-stealth technology—such as networked multi-band radar systems and long-range infrared search-and-track (IRST) sensors—are slowly reducing the advantage stealth brings to the warfighter.
Hypothetically speaking, the stealth on the Block III Super Hornet decreases the range that an S-400 or HQ-19 could detect it to 100 miles. Current AGM-88s have a speed of mach 2.15 An upgraded AGM-88-type anti-radar missile with a speed equal to or greater than mach 5, a range of over 120 miles, and a size that is small enough to fit inside the stealthy weapon pods on the Block III could very easily allow Super Hornet pilots to lock onto enemy S-400s or HQ-19s the moment they turn on their radar. The time from launching the missile to killing the SAM from a distance would be short if the missile had enough speed.
A missile of this type is well within our technological capability. For example, an AMRAAM (also made by Raytheon, like the AGM-88) has a top speed of mach 4. New AESA radar modules that could be made for passive detection would make the AGM-88 extremely precise.16 This new AGM-88-type missile would also force SAMs to fire at the targeted aircraft from longer ranges if they want to survive. This would give the targeted aircraft more time to employ jammers, countermeasures, and, if available in the environment, terrain masking to avoid getting hit.
This combination of Super Hornet Block IIIs and upgraded AGM-88s would be cheap to use, easy to operate and maintain, and would provide great capability that can defeat our current and projected SAM threats, as opposed to buying a few expensive and problematic F-35Cs of questionable capability. Because SAMs are advancing quickly it would be much better to focus on the more aggressive approach of finding and destroying them rather than the passive approach that involves sneaking around them with stealth.
The conclusion is simply this: What the Navy needs is not simply the best aircraft in the world or simply a stealth aircraft. It needs superior ordnance and an aircraft that is better than those of our potential enemies, good enough to get the job done, and able to be made in large enough numbers to be flexible in tactics. The Super Hornet Block III fits this mold down to the letter. The F-35C does not even come close.
Stuck with the F-35
However, the Navy is not able to end its involvement in the F-35 program even if it wanted to. The F-35’s eight international partners—the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Italy, Turkey, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands—are losing patience and becoming increasingly alarmed by the trends in the program. Heavy pressure to keep our allies satisfied is one of the motivating factors that have kept the U.S. Navy in the program. Recent statements by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert made it clear the Navy was not going to end involvement in the program. “It has to be integrated into the air wing,” said the admiral. He went on further to note that “If we bought no -Cs, it would be very detrimental to the overall program” and to international partners. It has become common to hear admirals say in public statements that the Navy “needs the F-35C,” but it has become uncommon to hear any admiral praise the aircraft. Those leaders also never address why the Navy needs the F-35C, and it is clear from public documents that the Navy’s needs are not met by the F-35C. As one article notes, “It is now fair to say that Navy budget spending for the Joint Strike Fighter is now more important to the Department of the Air Force and the Department of State than it is for the Department of the Navy, because it is more important for the National Security Policy of the United States for the F-35A to be affordable to multinational partners than it is for the F-35C to fly off U.S. Navy aircraft carriers.”17
So what should the Navy do now that it is stuck in the F-35 program? The best answer is for it to replace all its C-model orders with A models. If the Navy is going to make any F-35 purchases, then the best option would be to make the one that would be the most effective at lowering the price for our allies at the cheapest cost to us. The F-35A is that purchase. Apart from that, an F-35A is roughly $79.5 million dollars cheaper than an F-35C. For every F-35C order changed to an F-35A we could buy a full Super Hornet and still save about $12.6 million. The cheaper the A model becomes the more money the Navy saves. This would allow the Navy to save money and purchase more aircraft that are usable as well as keep its commitment to make the F-35A affordable for our international partners. Some may ask what the Navy would use the A model for. The truth is that it does not really matter at this point. This is the best answer to the Navy’s crisis as well as that of the Department of State and should be implemented immediately.
2. “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Progress Toward Meeting High Altitude Endurance Aircraft Price Goals,” www.fas.org/irp/gao/nsiad-99-029.htm.
3. “FY 2013 Budget Estimates,” 01–1. U.S. Air Force, February 2012. David Alexander, “Pentagon, Lockheed finalize contract for fifth lot of F-35 fighters,” Reuters, 14 December 2012. www.reuters.com/article/2012/12/15/us-lockheed-f-idUSBRE8BE01G20121215>.
4. “Department Of The Navy Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 Budget Estimates, Aircraft Procurement Vol. I, BA 1–4,” 1–29, 1–43, Department of the Navy, February 2012.
5. “Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 President’s Budget Submission: Navy Justification Book Volume 1 Aircraft Procurement, Navy Budget Activities 1–4,” Department of Defense, February 2012, 1–15.
6. Galrahn. “Hornet Math by DEW Line.” InformationDissemination.net, 30 September 2010. www.informationdissemination.net/2010/09/hornet-math-by-dew-line.html>.
7. Christopher Drew, “Costliest Jet, Years in Making, Sees the Enemy: Budget Cuts,” The New York Times, 29 November 2012, www.nytimes.com/2012/11/29/us/in-federal-budget-cutting-f-35-fighter-jet-is-at-risk.html?pagewanted=3&_r=2&hp>.
8. Ward Carroll, “JSF’s Trouble Stopping on the Boat,” 12 October 2012, http://defensetech.org/2012/10/24/jsfs-initial-trouble-stopping-on-the-boat/>.
9. Philip Ewing, “F-35 by the numbers,” 15 June 2012, www.dodbuzz.com/2012/06/15/f-35-by-the-numbers/>.
10. David Axe, “Pentagon: Trillion-Dollar Jet on Brink of Budgetary Disaster,” Wired, 21 March 2012. www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/03/f35-budget-disaster/>.
11. Andy Nativi, “Boeing Reveals Details of International F-18,” Aviationweek.com, 4 November 2011. www.aviationweek.com/aw/generic/story_channel.jsp?channel=defense&id=news/asd/2011/11/04/02.xml>. Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II website, www.lockheedmartin.com/us/products/f35.html>.
12. Brad Jones, “F-15 Future Fighters,” Boeing, 16 March 2009 briefing, 19.
14. “S-400 Triumf (SA-21 ‘Growler’) (Russian Federation), Defensive weapons,” Jane’s Information Group, 11 February 2010.
15.Official Navy website, AGM-88 page. www.navair.navy.mil/index.cfm?fuseaction=home.display&key=AF4153AA-5454-44D2-B01A-AA69417C5B49>.
16. FAS.org. AMRAAM page. www.fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/missile/aim-120.htm>.
17. Galrahn, “Navy stuck between Rock and Hard Place on Joint Strike Fighter,” InformationDissemination.net, 18 March 2013, www.informationdissemination.net/2013/03/navy-stuck-between-rock-and-hard-place.html>.