Wednesday, 9 July 2014

The major implications of the cancellation of the F-35 for the US and Royal Navy

The F-35 is one of the most debated weapon program ever in the United States armed forces. Enormous cost overruns, multiple failures and a delivery time that keeps being pushed further into the future are the big problems that trouble the F-35 program. With each failure the demand to cancel the F-35 program is getting louder. Still, the US armed forces are dedicated to go ahead with the F-35 program and keep on pushing it to make sure that the F-35 enters service. A cancellation of the F-35 program would not only will leave the US Air Force without a fifth generation aircraft to confront its adversaries, especially Russia and China whom are developing their own fifth generation aircraft, but it would also have an impact on the US and Royal Navy and US Marine Corps (USMC).

In the future, the USMC is planning to operate  from new amphibian warships of the America-class. Part of their air wing on these ships will consist of short take off and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft. The aircraft in mind is the F-35B and this makes sense. With the Asian Pivot of the Obama administration the US Navy and USMC are taking a more prominent role in the Pacific. This means that their main adversary will be China. To stay ahead of China’s military rise and modernization, the US have a reel need in a fifth generation aircraft that can outperform the new Chinese aircraft.

F-35 practicing landing on board of the USS Wasp

Delays in the F-35 program are working against the USMC. The longer it takes for the F-35, the more difficult it becomesfor the US to guarantee a superiority in aircraft before China develops its own new generation aircraft with equal or even superior performance as the F-35.
The delays in the F-35 have already caused a major tactical disadvantage for both the USMC and the US Navy who want to operate the aircraft. Designed to be a stealth plane, its prolonged development and testing phases have caused it to run behind the latest developments. The new Russian and Chinese radar systems are reported to be capable to detect and track the F-35. At the same time the F-35 lacks the equipment to jam enemy radars.

The USMC managed to purchase Harrier aircraft from the Royal Navy in order to equip their forces on board of the amphibian carriers of the US Navy. Expecting further delays in the F-35 program, these Harriers were modernized and are expected to last until 2030 although many doubt if this date can be met. The USMC is in favor for the F-35 program and keeps supporting it as it has no alternative aircraft available that can operate from amphibian carriers once the Harrier aircraft have to be taken out of service. Failure and cancellation of the F-35 would leave the USMC without an aircraft that can be used to support its troops on the ground until a new aircraft is developed and tested, a lengthy process that can take several years. The development of the F-35 started in 1996 and after almost 20 years it still isn’t produced in the mass numbers that are needed. Developing a new aircraft is expected to take at least a decade and can go up to two decades if the testing phase is prolonged.

The situation is less critical for the US Navy. Although the US Navy has stated that it would like the F-35C variant to operate as the principal carrier aircraft it still  has several other options available should the F-35 program be canceled. The most reasonable option for the US Navy is to continue to use the F-18 Super Hornet as the principle carrier fighter aircraft until a new aircraft design can enter service.

Unlike the US, which still has options available, the Royal Navy has no backup plans. The F-35 is envisioned to be the aircraft deployed from the new British carriers of the Queen Elizabeth class. The first aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth will be commissioned in the 2016/2017 timeframe but it won’t be until 2020 when the Royal Navy is expecting to have the F-35. This means that the Royal Navy will have to make do for 3 years without an aircraft stationed on its carrier. It can also no longer fall back on Harrier jets as those have been sold to the USMC. A cancellation of the F-35 program would mean that the Royal Navy will have 2 aircraft carriers in 2020 but no aircraft that can operate from them. The Royal Navy can not fall back on other types of carrier aircraft since its carriers are using sky ramps. Only Russia and China currently have planes that can take off from a ski ramp but it is very unlikely that the United Kingdom will buy fighters from these countries.

F-35 mock up for the christening ceremony of the HMS Queen elizabeth

The F-35 program is known to be extremely costly with a price tag that keeps rising every year, it is prone to many failures that grounded the existing fleet on several occasions and it has taken so long to develop that it is no longer the superior aircraft it was envisioned to be in the beginning of its development. Setbacks and budget overruns have already caused strong opposition from both the US government and the US military itself as whether the F-35 is the aircraft the US armed forces still need.

The program, however, is too far into its development to be canceled overnight and even if the F-35 program is canceled it will have grave implications for the US Navy and US Marine Corps. Although the US Navy have the luxury to keep on using the F-18 Super Hornet in the next years and decade until a new aircraft design is developed, the situation for the USMC and the Royal Navy is worse.

If the F-35 program is canceled the USMC can only depend on its aging fleet of Harrier aircraft and these are too few in numbers to support all the USMC operations. Although modernized to be kept in service until 2030 many doubt if that date can be met.
The Royal Navy however has no other alternative and a cancellation of the F-35 program will leave the Royal Navy without planes to place on its new aircraft carriers.

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