13 January 2010

F-35C In Trouble

Defense Tech is reporting that doubts about the desirability of funding the F-35C model of the Joint Strike Fighter are coming to the fore in the Defense spending process because the program is behind schedule and over budget. The Navy might stick with upgraded versions of its F-18 Superhornet instead.

There are three planned versions of the F-35.

The F-35A is the most basic version and planned for Air Force use, primarily as a replacement for the F-16. There are so many soon to be exceedingly expensive to keep flying aging F-16s out there that the Defense Department really has no choice to go forward with this buy, although the purchase quantity remains negotiable. Given its druthers, the Air Force with rather have the dogfight optimized F-22, rather than the multi-purpose F-35A (i.e. it has a larger bomb payload, at the expense of other capabilities). But, the Air Force has gotten all the F-22s it is likely to get in the budget process, so it will move on to maximizing the number of F-35As it can get built.

A second it the F-35B with short takeoff, vertical landing capabilities (i.e. it can hover). This version is what the Marines (who have helicopter carriers than can also support STVL fixed wing jets and want to replace the Harrier jump jet) and several foreign naval allies (who have mini-carriers) want. The foreign buyers and unrelenting persistence of the Marines in wanting this plane means that it is unlikely to be abandoned, despite the fact that it is technologically more ambitious than the other two models of F-35 (i.e. it is hard to get it to work which means more money and more delays).

The third is the F-35C, a larger version of the F-35A customized for use on American aircraft carriers which have longer runways than those of our naval allies. The Navy has long been lukewarm about the F-35C program, and its existing F-18 carrier based jet is the result of its unwillingness to go along with an original joint Air Force/Navy design. The Navy may also be wary of making a big financial commitment to a new manned carrier based aircraft at a time when its carrier fleet is shrinking and highly effective unmanned combat drones seem likely to be right around the corner. The main advantage the F-35C offers over existing carrier based aircraft is radar stealth, but apparently the Navy isn't that concerned about that. Perhaps this is because it ships themselves have no hope of being stealthy, while long range Air Force bombers are already well suited to provide the capabilities that the F-35C adds until carrier based stealth combat drones come on line.

Cutting an entire model of aircraft before it goes into production presumably saves more money than simply reducing the number of units bought of a model of aircraft that will be built in some quantity, because one avoids manufacturing set up costs.

If I were advising Secretary Gates, members of the Armed Services Committee and President Obama, I'd recommend that they kill the F-35C program now, and provide funds to the Navy to replace and upgrade some of its F-18 Superhornets instead.

More here.

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