By David Axe
Raymond “Chip” Dudderar is a retired U.S. Navy aviator and test pilot. For nearly three decades he flew Navy A-7s and F/A-18s — and also Marine Corps AV-8 Harrier jump jets as an exchange pilot. Retiring in 1996, Dudderar pursued a second career with the Department of Justice, investigating the Navy’s botched, multi-billion-dollar A-12 stealth warplane program, which spawned several nasty lawsuits pitting the government against the contractors.
In his capacity as an air power consultant, in 2010 Dudderar penned informal, unclassified analyses for Navy admirals outlining the problems with another pricey, problematic airplane development: the stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter,which is costing more than $400 billion just to design and buy 2,400 copies for the Air Force, Navy and Marines. The Navy foots the bill for the Marines’ new weapons.
Dudderar focused his attention on the Marines’ F-35B jump jet model, a supposed successor to the Short Takeoff Vertical Landing (STOVL) Harrier that has run into particularly serious managerial, design and performance problems—even warranting a yearlong Pentagon “probation” a few years ago.
He drew on experience overseeing a Harrier detachment in some of the same conditions in which the Marines expect the new F-35B to function. “I learned first-hand … about the foolishness of the STOVL concept in a true operational environment,” Dudderar tells War is Boring. “I have tried to alert the Navy and others of the these fatal flaws that are now coming home to roost in the F-35.”
What follows is the first of Dudderar’s warnings to the Navy, edited for style and clarity.
The U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Short Takeoff Vertical Landing airplane exists today only because the USMC has continued to insist that it needs its own high-speed-jet air force to perform close air support for their amphibious assault forces ashore.
In World War II’s bloody Guadalcanal campaign, the Marines frequently lacked air support. Seventy years later, the Corps still tells us it can’t trust the Navy or the Air Force to provide air support in the next amphibious assault. The Marines say that they must have their own jets.
Of course, they refuse to describe in any detail what the next amphibious assault might look like. We are left to believe it will be another Guadalcanal. But I don’t think that’s the case.
Let me make one fact perfectly clear. As with the Harriers before them, the logistical support burden for F-35Bs at an “austere” base ashore is prohibitively onerous!
The fuel, bombs, bullets, parts, tools, maintenance personnel and their personal and professional logistics load, the command-and-control capability ashore, the self-defense forces to protect all of these valuable assets in a by-definition hotly contested environment are just too much for the Marines or even a joint force to sustain for more than the first operational mission cycle — or as soon as the first airplane returns to this supposedly austere base for a mission turnaround.
The Marine Corps has never successfully demonstrated this ashore operational capability with the Harrier because it has always been too hard even in peacetime conditions. Supporting and sustaining the F-35B will be even harder —and impossible in the heat of battle.
Landing at night aboard the USS Wasp in August, an F-35B shows off the heat from its powerful vertical-lift fan. Navy photo
History tells us for certain that the next amphibious assault will not be Guadalcanal redux. It may easier or it may be harder, but definitely will not be the same. So let’s look at it both ways.
“Easier” means that it will have less of the danger and urgency of Guadalcanal, where the Marines had to valiantly defend their foothold ashore while the Navy maneuvered away from the beachhead to defend the supporting fleet against an oncoming Japanese carrier force.
That was a totally different time, with totally different equipment and totally different strategic objectives than we should expect today. In fact, the Guadalcanal landing was strategically designed to cause the Japanese to overextend itself.
That worked wonderfully, even though the Marines today tend to overlook that strategic purpose, ignoring history and focusing instead on the hardships that they overcame ashore while this much larger U.S. strategy was playing out hundreds of miles away at sea.
Today we can expect, in a more permissive amphibious scenario, to have excellent support offshore from Navy resources as well as global support from the Air Force for close air support.
In fact, it is apparent that just the armed helos and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles of the USMC and Army may be quite capable of providing all of the close air support the Marines might need in a cooler situation. And then the Marines can use their precious organic vertical and short cargo lift — V-22s and C-130s — exclusively to support their troops rather than any unnecessary F-35B austere airfield capability.
And keep in mind that moving the F-35B detachment ashore entails more than just flying the airplanes. The F-35B detachment must also be linked and controlled with all other forces in the area. So it will require full command and control support to keep the air detachment informed and to direct their missions. This is just more stuff that has to be moved and defended ashore.
If the scenario is more intense and less permissive, the F-35B force ashore at its austere base will be under severe threat from enemy ground and air attack. That could cause more resources to be sucked away from the troops penetrating ashore in order to man static ground and air defenses for the F-35Bs.
If the conditions are that nasty, it is arguable whether the amphibious assault will even be appropriate until conditions are much more favorable and the beachhead considerably softened by bombardment.
In short, I doubt that today and in the foreseeable future we will ever resort to accept harsher-than-Guadalcanal tactical conditions for an offensive insertion. The likelihood of our doing this is so infinitely small that it alone would not support the F-35B procurement. The “Guadalcanal reasons” are just wrong today.
The F-35B airplane itself, like the Harrier before it, is perfectly capable of operating in an austere environment. It just can’t be supported there!
Fast movers require a lot of supplies for sustained, high-intensity combat operations. And why would you plan for anything other than high intensity? F-35B operations ashore will suck up a huge fraction of the total force short-and-vertical cargo lift to keep them flying. This cargo lift has to be shared to support the very troops that the USMC has inserted ashore.
We now have competition for those cargo lift resources. So do we starve the troops of the things they need to fight so we can fly some fancy airplanes whose mission can be better done by other equipment?
Additionally, the Marine Corps claims that it needs to move its close-air-support airplanes, the F-35Bs, as close to the troops as possible in order to minimize cycle times and improve the overhead weapons capability for the riflemen.
Maybe that was a factor in Korea or in some other ancient amphib engagement. But there are much better ways to do that today using current Army, Navy and Air Force resources.
When confronted with the argument regarding the onerous support burden for austere field operations ashore, the Marine Corps sometimes claims that it will do the necessary air support from smaller L-class carriers — that is, amphibious assault ships.
Of course, those carriers would have to be close to the shore to minimize cycle times. So the Marines must assume that the threat to these ships is minimal. That is, the “easier” scenario.
However, we also need to consider that the F-35B logistics tail is so burdensome that it even stretches the logistical capability aboard the L-class ships. Those vessels were not designed with the fuel and weapons storage for sustained operations of tactical jets at high intensity. Like the austere fields ashore, the amphibious ships will require constant replenishment — in this case from at-sea replenishment ships.
So now we have to produce a nonstop parade of replenishment ships moving in close to shore to keep the L-class ships loaded, increasing the exposure of these valuable resources to possible enemy attack. The whole concept of supply for the air support mission ashore increasingly drives us to consider providing that support from more robust stand-off platforms such as Air Force bombers, not the very needy and vulnerable F-35B.
Take a look at the quite capable array of new weapon delivery platforms available to provide close air support today.
We have modern armed helos that are just as deadly, perhaps more so than jets, plus UAVs with splendid reconnaissance and weapons capabilities and no human risk. We have precise weapons that are routinely delivered from sanctuaries of position and altitude that almost eliminate ground-fire threats to the delivery platforms. Finally, there are the Navy and Air Force’s manned fighters, available 24/7 to the troops.
These various precision weapons and tactics obviate the old need for close-in weapon deliveries by the F-35, whether launched by a ship or from land.
The Marines readily concede that the F-35B suffers from reduced range, endurance and payload compared to the Air Force’s F-35A and Navy’s F-35C — and even compared to the Corps’ current FA-18s and old Air Force F-16s, for that matter.
But the Marines insist they don’t need all of the range, endurance and payload because they will operate ashore in austere conditions, with short mission ranges and cycle times. Regardless, the laws of physics mean a STOVL jet will never have the same capacity as conventional jets, because the airplane jump jet design dedicates space and weight to the vertical lift system.
Why STOVL at all? Why not just have a good short-field capability, allowing the USMC to abandon the fancy stuff that provides vertical lift?
If the Marines conceded that point, the rationale for their very own jet would evaporate and they would be forced to abandon their little STOVL fast-mover air force, or else buy Navy or Air Force airplanes. And if that happened one would rationally ask why the Corps needs any fast-movers at all? Why can’t the Navy and Air Force do that job?
The answers to these questions are unacceptable to the Marines who want their own unique jet, even though those answers might be eminently logical and reasonable for national defense.
Developing the technology to give the F-35B its vaunted STOVL capability has been extraordinarily expensive and more than a bit risky. I don’t doubt that we can ultimately find enough time and money to finally get the airplane to fly right — some day.
But is spending that time and money necessary for the USMC and the nation to provide our successful combat mission capability in the future? In a word — no!
If we accept that air support ashore in just about any conceivable situation could be accomplished with short-field operations, conventional-field ops, armed helos or big-deck carrier-based airplanes rather than jump jets, then we could easily do that with armed helos and the F-35A and C, right? If the USMC says it doesn’t really need all of the range, endurance and payload of the A and C models, it could just light-load those airplanes with fuel and stores and get perfectly acceptable short-field performance.
But then that would be an admission that the all of the uniqueness of STOVL for close air support missions — the core argument for the F-35B — is just a colossal waste of money. I doubt that the Marines will ever allow debate on that point.
The Marine Corps has committed itself to the F-35B and their own, private, fast-mover tactical air force — albeit with logic based upon assumptions made over a decade ago. Charitably, one could say that the world has changed since then. However, I know that these arguments that I present were just as valid then as now.
I also know that some individual Marines will agree with these positions when they apply honesty and objectivity to their considerations. But the Marine Corps is nothing if not disciplined and obedient, so finding Marines for an open and honest debate on this subject is very unlikely.
The F-35B is technically a great little machine that provides a lot of ego-massaging and heart-thumping flight capabilities for air shows, although tactically it has more sex appeal than real muscle. The problem is that it provides nothing for the mission it was designed to do that can’t be done better by other resources that are already available to us today.
We have wasted too much money chasing an airplane that is dead on arrival, perhaps worse than useless because it is more of a burden than an asset in combat operations. It is a nice air-show airplane, but it does nothing to advance the amphibious assault mission or the art of war for which it was allegedly designed.
And frankly, there is nothing it can do better than its siblings, the F-35A and C. So why are we throwing good money after bad? The F-35B program should be terminated immediately.