A Cat Is Not A Dog
11:30 AM on Aug 01, 2011
The Marine propaganda offensive in support of the F-35B, carried on through events like last Friday’s media visit to Patuxent River, and through Marine-friendly websites, pounds relentlessly on the advantages of short take off and vertical landing.
It has to, because that’s the only respect in which the F-35B is not inferior to the F-35A and F-35C. Avionics are identical. The weapon load and range are less and it is (according to the UK) the most expensive of all the versions.
Any good propaganda campaign pushes simple messages. In the case of the F-35B, one message is that STOVL provides the flexibility to use austere bases, with ten times as many runways open to the F-35 as there are to conventional jets. The other is that STOVL doubles the number of aircraft carriers available to the US.
The austere-base issue is a developing story. This morning, we’ll look at the “22 carriers” meme.
The first point is that the US Navy has nine, not 11, STOVL-capable amphibious-warfare ships in commission: eight Wasp-class and the overdue-for-retirement Peleliu, the latter being due to be replaced by LHA-6 America in 2014. The total may reach 11 in the early 2020s, if the planned LHA-8 stays on schedule and the Wasps reach 40 years in commission. (In that case, the ship after LHA-8 would bring the number to 11 and the one after that would replace LHD-1 Wasp.)
The second point to remember is that most people, looking at an LHA or LHD class ship, will call it an aircraft carrier. Even people with some familiarity with defense issues may not be aware of just how many and big are the differences between these ships and a Nimitz.
The offensive power of an aircraft carrier resides in its air wing. A Wasp or Tarawa is mainly built to transport Marines, their weapons and equipment, and the landing craft and transport helicopters needed to put them ashore. The nominal air combat element onboard one of these ships includes six F-35Bs.
That number can be increased to up to 22 F-35Bs by disembarking helicopters. A paper on the Second Line of Defense website postulates that the JSF force could be increased on the fly, by ferrying more aircraft directly to the ship and dispersing rotorcraft to “lily pad” shore bases, but does not address obvious questions: how do you get JSF weapons, spares and maintainers to the ship? You fly them to the nearest cooperative and suitable port, transfer them to a logistics ship and use underway or vertical replenishment.
Possible, but not exactly convenient.
The future Carrier Strike Group air wing will include 44 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets or F-35Cs, all with greater range and weapon load than the F-35B. (The air wing size is a force-structure decision, not constrained by space on the carrier.) Reach is further extended by using Super Hornets as tankers. Crucially, the air wing also includes five EA-18G Growlers for electronic attack and E-2 Hawkeyes for early warning. Increasingly, the CVN is the main base for the anti-submarine fight, with MH-60R/S helicopters.
The CSG has another big advantage: strategic mobility. A carrier can sustain 30 knots plus; the LHDs, still mostly oil-fired steam-turbine ships with turbines for sprint, cruise at 18 knots. If the figure of merit is “where can the task force get to in 72 hours” the nuclear boat with its fast escorts can cover a far greater area.
The Navy has also vacillated over how the LHA-design – which is an evolution of the original Tarawa-class design from the early 1970s – should be adapted to JSF and V-22, both of which are much heavier and more complex than the aircraft they replace.
LHA-6 America and LHA-7 give up the well deck, a signature feature of these ships, in favor of more aviation space and more fuel. (Ballast tanks, used to offset the effects of flooding the well deck, are converted to hold JP-5.) Later ships will revert to the well deck.
In all the discussion over the use of an LHA/LHD as a mini-aircraft-carrier, too, I have never heard anyone suggest an answer to a strategic question: If the threat calls for the presence of 22 strike fighters, under what circumstances would the task force be sent in without the CVN’s EA and AEW assets?
If the answer to that question is “none at all, other than the entire national command authority having taken leave of its senses”, then the case for STOVL on LHA/LHD is much less compelling: if you need more airplanes than the standard wing, the CVN has room available.
And there is the rub: the Marines’ enemy in this case may be the carrier Navy. Because there is a clear move among budget-cutters to take CVN-79, USS Kennedy, out of the future years defense plan (FYDP), cutting the total carrier force to ten ships. And if budget hawks can point to the ability to put a competitive multi-role strike fighter on the LHA/LHDs, they can use that as an argument in their favor.
Conversely, if the F-35B does not graduate from probation, Marine air wings will have to move aboard the CVNs, undercutting the case for reducing their numbers. Result: There are CV aviators who will be able to mask their grief quite easily if the F-35B goes away.
ar99, jsf, tacair, marines