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Navy’s top-dollar stealth fighter may not go the distance

An F-35C Lightning II lands on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln last month in the Atlantic Ocean.

BRIAN WILBUR/U.S. NAVY PHOTO

By JOHN M. DONNELLY | CQ-Roll Call | Published: May 22, 2018

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — The Navy’s newest fighter jet, the stealthy F-35C, may not have the range it needs to strike enemy targets, the House Armed Services Committee said in a new report, raising troubling questions about whether the multibillion-dollar program is already outpaced by threats.

And critics say the Navy fighter — part of the Joint Strike Fighter initiative, the most expensive weapons program in history — may actually have been out of date years ago.

The committee’s conclusion, buried in the 606-page report on the fiscal 2019 defense authorization bill, is confirmation from lawmakers who support the jet program that the aircraft carrier-based version of the F-35 may not have enough effective range without refueling to function well in likely future wars.

“While the introduction of the F-35C will significantly expand stealth capabilities, the F-35C could require increased range to address necessary targets,” the report states.

The reason, experts say, is that the aircraft carriers from which the F-35Cs would operate may be required to sail too far away from enemies to avoid their increasingly long-range missiles.

The committee does not want to stop buying F-35Cs, but instead wants to start also buying new sorts of warplanes.

“After billions of dollars have been spent on the F-35C, but before the first aircraft are ready to deploy, lawmakers are already looking at the next carrier-based aircraft,” said Bryan Clark, a former Navy strategist now at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Dan Grazier, of the Project on Government Oversight, said the House directive “highlights just how poorly conceived the Joint Strike Fighter program has been from the very beginning.”

“The issue of anti-ship cruise missiles is not a new one,” he said. “The complexity of the F-35 program has dragged out the design process to nearly 20 years, which means we are not keeping pace with emerging threats.”

The F-35 program is developing and purchasing 2,456 jets in three different variants — the F-35C for the Navy, the F-35A for the Air Force and the F-35B for the Marine Corps — with allies expected to purchase hundreds more. The Navy will buy 273 F-35Cs for its carriers and another 67 for the Marine Corps, on top of the Marine Corps’ own model, which takes off and lands vertically.

The cost to develop and build all three models is projected to reach $406.1 billion, with another estimated $1.1 trillion to operate them.

If the Navy has to sail its carriers in the neighborhood of 1,000 nautical miles away from increasingly long-range missiles, then its stealthy F-35Cs will have to be refueled by tanker aircraft that are not stealthy.

The F-35Cs have an effective range — known as a combat radius (or the distance from the carrier they can operate) — that is now projected as 670 nautical miles.

The refueling operations would expose the fighter jets and tankers to adversaries, defeating the value of the F-35C’s radar-evading materials and sleek silhouette. Lt. Lauren Chatmas, a Navy spokeswoman, said the risk is “acceptable” because the refueling will occur far from enemy threats. But Clark maintains enemy fighters might still find U.S. aircraft even hundreds of miles out if any are not stealthy.

Alternatively, the Navy could operate its carriers — which have self-defense capabilities — closer to enemy territory or nearer to enemy warships and aircraft. But that would raise the risk to these floating cities, each of which typically carries more than 6,000 sailors and costs roughly $13 billion.

The Navy has already bought 28 of the jets and requested nine more for fiscal 2019. It won’t deploy F-35Cs on a carrier until 2021.

But the likely inadequacy of the F-35C’s combat radius should not surprise the Navy, experts say.

Approximately a decade ago, China finished developing its “carrier killer,” the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, with a reported range of 780 nautical miles, though the People’s Liberation Army is reportedly still perfecting the system for giving the missile targeting information.

The U.S. Tomahawk cruise missile has a range in excess of 1,000 nautical miles, and the Navy expects to field an anti-ship variant in four years. Given Chinese and Russian advances, and the fact that F-35s will fly for 60 years, the realistic prospect of adversaries’ having the ability to hold carriers at risk from 1,000 nautical miles or more during the F-35’s lifespan was foreseeable, critics say.

Already, China’s CSS-5 anti-ship cruise missile can strike ships about 930 miles away, the Defense Intelligence Agency has testified.

And Russia has apparently deployed the air-launched Kinzhal hypersonic missile, which can reportedly travel distances of more than 1,000 nautical miles.

The House Armed Services Committee has been unstinting in funding the F-35, despite software snafus, oxygen shortages in the cockpits and ejection seats that can endanger pilots.

The House will vote this week to approve a defense bill that authorizes purchase of 77 more F-35s across the services.

The fact that the F-35C’s limited radius may reduce its operational utility has received little public attention.

Radius is less of an issue for the Air Force because the service has long-range bombers and can reserve F-35As for shorter-range missions, Clark said. For the Marine Corps, the F-35B is a significant upgrade over the AV-8B Harriers now in the fleet.

The committee’s report directs the Navy secretary to brief the Armed Services panels by January 2019 on options, including manned and unmanned aircraft that would “expand the strike range of a carrier air wing in a contested environment.” That could include “developing a stealth tanker capability, improved engine technology or to develop and procure a strike capability that is purposely built to strike at increased range.”

To some critics, the F-35C report language is a play by lawmakers to justify development of a new drone that might be built by many of the same contractors as the F-35. The F-35 program has contractors in almost every state and is ultimately assembled at Lockheed Martin’s facility in Fort Worth, Texas, in the district of Republican Rep. Kay Granger, who chairs the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

“A new program would benefit pretty much the same members now unless a new prime contractor emerges,” Grazier of the Project on Government Oversight said.

In fairness to the Navy, the service did envision the need for a longer-range fighter jet. But the effort collapsed.

In the 1980s, the Navy developed the A-12 Avenger II with a projected radius of about 800 nautical miles. The Pentagon killed that program in 1991 amid spiraling costs. Even that range might not have proved sufficient.

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