US Chief of Naval Operations Adm Jonathan Greenert caused a major flap in Washington earlier this month with an article in the US Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine that seemed to cast doubt on the value of stealth.
Even though the CNO's staff were quick to divert reports that called it an attack on the F-35 program, it resulted in an energetic PR offensive involving the usual suspects.
The reasons for this concern not only the content of the article, but the fears of program advocates that the Navy's support of the JSF is wobbly, and may become more so if the program slips to the right and as JSF skeptics rise through the ranks.
What the CNO actually wrote, under the subhead "The Limits of Stealth", was harmless, even though Greenert cited the work of a well known cynic and naysayer: Stealth gets more difficult at lower frequencies, the entire concept of radar cross section is based on monostatic systems where the transmitter and receiver are in the same place, and faster processing is making both low-frequency radars and bistatic systems more useful..
(One example, Selex Systemi Integrati's new Aulos passive bistatic radar, was at Farnborough. Resembling a huge metal dandelion, Aulos is designed as a gapfiller for urban areas and other sites where a radiating system can't be used, but Selex did mention its counter-stealth potential.)
Even after Greenert's staff reiterated the CNO's support of the F-35, however, it was the program's supporters who continued to talk up his original comments.
Defense hawk Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute jumped on the "potentially hugely controversial" article at AOL Defense,
saying that it announced "in public what many have already known in private: The U.S. Navy is not wholly committed to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter ... What is news... is the head of the U.S. Navy signaling a tepid commitment to the military's largest acquisition program."
Lockheed Martin consultant Loren Thompson weighed into the argument, unshockingly supporting the F-35 but noting that "there has always been a faction within the naval-aviation community that thought the Air Force was relying too heavily on stealth to protect its next-generation fighters and bombers."
Another AOL Defense story, quoting Thompson and others, and suggesting that the notional "navy fighter after next", F/A-XX, might be a super F-35 after all, mentioned that "some in the Navy would love to raid the F-35 budget to launch a new program."
Eaglen, Thompson and AOL's Sydney Freedberg are correct.
There are people in the Navy who do not love JSF, and don't believe that - when the still-to-be-named initial operational capability date rolls around - its all-round effectiveness will be far enough above that of the Super Hornet to justify its cost.
The SH already does a lot of things that JSF will do, it is argued, and (at least as first delivered) JSF won't do some things that the SH does. The SH comes with a fixed acquisition and operating cost, which appeals to many in the Navy - not least those who don't fly fighters and could use the money.
To which, so far, the primary response of the JSF advocates is "but.... Stealth."
So for Greenert to take an apparent whack, even in theory, at the principal pillar of the pro-JSF argument in the Navy is a serious matter, and the program's supporters don't seem wholly convinced by any amount of tactical backpedaling.
And who are the Navy's non-fans of the JSF? Mostly dyed-in-the-wool Hornet/SH/Growler aviators, is my observation - and increasingly, the captains and newly minted rear-admirals in the carrier aviation community are from that group.
And the F-35C's key milestones continue to slip. In January, even after tailhook problems had been disclosed in the Quick Look Review report, the first carrier landings were planned for summer 2013. The date is now "early 2014" following roll-in tests at up to 100 knots. "Initial tests were promising," says Lockheed Martin chief test pilot Al Norman, "but we are working on the pressure that we use to hold the hook down."
That's not a fatal problem (so far). But it does complicate matters for the F-35 marketeers when it comes to the Navy's brown-shoed, upwardly mobile critics.