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Put the Obama Administration on Probation, Not The F-35B

Posted by Robbin Laird on


Secretary Gates put the Marine F-35B V/STOVL version of the Lightning II on probation; it was a headline grabbing rhetorical trick. Gates pulled a similar ploy with the F-22 when announcing that the decision was based on a cost study within DoD. Unfortunately, the study never was done and does not exist.

Unfortunately for our national security in the F-22 case, the administration’s strategy was successful. Soon after the president called the F-22 “outdated” the Russian F-22ski (Tu-50) and PLAAF J-20 “annihilator ” 5th generation aircraft were flying.

In fact, the leaders of the Peoples Liberation Army embarrassed Secretary Gates to his face in China by testing the J-20 hours before he met with President Hu Jintao. (They really know how to be truly insulting.)

So it looks to us as if it is the administration, not a plane, that is on probation. Money may be getting tight, but that is no excuse for missing a once in a lifetime strategic opportunity.

The F-35B – the Marines vertical takeoff version of the Joint Strike Fighter — is just one example of unique game changers. It permits a significant increase in strategic and tactical potential across a force, across a fleet, and leverages new platforms being introduced to shape an innovative future.

Testing on the F-35B is going well. On a recent visit to Pax River, we learned that the plane would be tested aboard the USS Wasp this fall. Other elements of the program are on track. But even if tests slip, this game changing capability needs to be deployed, and we would argue adopted by the Air Force as well.

The F-35B is radically different from the Harrier, which, in part, it replaces. The Harrier is a difficult plane to fly, and has very limited capabilities. The F-35B is easy to fly – F-18 pilots can fly it with minimal training – and its ease of flight means that regular requalification training flights required by Harrier pilots are not necessary for the B. This means more operational, rather than training time for the aircraft, and that provides more mission-ready capabilities on deployment.

But the B does not replace one aircraft for the Marines – it replaces three. Replacing three existing aircraft in and of itself provides significant cost savings and enhanced combat capabilities.

The B brings 360-degree situational awareness to the navy. As such, the Amphibious Ready Group becomes a new animal. The ARG unlike the carrier battle group is designed for multi-mission across the spectrum of operations. Can an administration spokesmen tell us why this capability is going to be less rather than more significant in the period ahead?

To give a sense of how significant the change will be, listen to the former 15th MEU commander about the missions that the ARG can do, and the role of situational awareness in doing its missions. Remember, if you take the B from the ARG it can get this awareness only by relying on a Carrier Battle Group at sea or by the Air Force close to land.

“On September the 8th, we had the USS Dubuque off the coast of Somalia, Horn of Africa in the Gulf of Aden, doing counter-piracy patrols and stuff. The USS Pearl Harbor was also further down off the coast of Somalia doing counter-piracy operations as well. It was basically just doing intelligence operations. The USS Pelelieu is off the coast of Karachi. I’m actually inland in Pakistan. I’m 220 miles inland in Pakistan with part of the ACE and part of my command element – a very small part. Pakistan has limited us to 300 boots on the ground.

“The MV Magellan Star gets captured by Somali pirates. The crew on the Magellan Star did exactly what they’re supposed to do – which is put the ship dead in the water, lock themselves in the citadel, get on their SAT phone and asking for help. The USS Princeton was in the vicinity and so was the USS Dubuque, they pushed the Princeton up close to provide assistance. The Dubuque moved into position, and by about midnight on the 8th, we had approval from Admiral Fox to do the recovery, to do the takedown….

“The day that we did the Magellan Star, we had Marines and Sailors from our MEU in nine countries, on three continents, and we executed three separate missions all in the same day that were primary missions. That’s what our ARG/MEUs are doing.”

And Osborn explained what the F-35B could bring to the fight in the counter piracy operation.

“The F-35B and other platforms with a robust ISR/C2 capability could be used to cue the assault force well before reaching the target. We tried this with our Harriers and the Navy MH-60s. It worked very well in training. But at the time of the MV Magellan Star takedown, those assets were a thousand miles away conducting other missions. We used the Hueys and Cobras to provide that lethal C2 and ISR coverage, but not as integrated with the Assault Force as we would have liked it to be. The counter piracy mission is very law enforcement oriented, and the rules of evidence fully apply.”

The capabilities of the “newly enabled ARG” are built around the F-35B. As General “Dog” Davis Commander of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing at Cherry Point, North Carolina put it:

“The F-35Bs give the new ARG a very high-end air superiority fighter that’s low observable, if I want it to be. I can roll from air to air-to-air to ground quickly and be superior to all comers in both missions. That’s bad news for our adversaries. I can use the F-35s to escort the V-22s deep into enemy territory. With those V-22s we can range out to a 400-500-mile radius from the ship without air refueling. I can go deliver Marines deep in the enemy territory or wherever and do it at 250 miles an hour, so my speed of action, my agility is exponentially increased, and I think if you’re a bad guy, that would probably give you a reason to pause. It’s a very different animal that’s out there. We are good now, but will be even more so (by more than a factor of two in the future).

“I will also have significant mix and match capability. And this capability can change the impact of the ARG on the evolving situation. It is a forcing function enabled by variant mixes of capability. If I wanted to strip some V-22s off the deck, to accommodate more F-35s – I could do so easily. Their long legs allow them to lily pad for a limited period of time – off a much large array of shore FOBs – while still supporting the MEU. It’s much easier to do that in a V-22 than it is a traditional helicopter.

“I open up that flight deck, or I can TRANSLANT or PAC additional F-35s. If I had six on the deck and I want to fly over another six or another four, we could do it rather quickly. Now the MEU has 10 strike platforms. So if I need to have a TACAIR surge for a period of time, that deck provides a great platform for us…..

“We will have a very configurable, agile ship to reconfigure almost on a dime based on the situation at hand. I think the enemy would look at the ARG as something completely different from what we have now. I think we have to change the way we do things a bit in order to allow for that, but I think we will once we get the new air assets. The newly enabled ARG, or newly whichever the term you’re using, will force our opponents to look at things very differently. We will use it differently, and our opponents are going to look at it differently.”

So, the impact of adding the F-35B to the ARG creates a new capital ship fleet. Why does this NOT make sense?

The inside-the-beltway focus on the initial operating cost of a single platform misses the point. No platform fights alone. Yet this is how procurement considerations are queued up. The warfighter fights as a team; DoD buys one tool at a time contemplating the cost of each tool. Eliminating context is not the way to live life or buy equipment.

The capabilities a platform brings to the fight needs to be considered, particularly when it can lead to significant cost effectiveness across a fleet or a deployed force.

The B is a winner on both counts. The impact on the fleet is significant. The Marines go from three to one aircraft; and it gets a new aircraft with significant reductions in cost of maintenance. The new aircraft will permit significant reductions in the labor time required for the force.

As General Trautman, the recently retired deputy commandant of aviation noted:

“By necking down to one type of aircraft we eliminate a three-fold redundancy in manpower, operating materiel, support services, training, maintenance competencies, technical systems management, tools, and aircraft upgrades. For example: direct military manpower will be reduced by 30%; approximately 340 officers and 2600 enlisted.

“Within the Naval Aviation Enterprise we will reduce the technical management requirements the systems requiring support by 60%. Peculiar Support Equipment will be reduced by 60%; down from 1,400 to 400 line items.

“Simulators and training support systems will be reduced by 80%; five different training systems will neck down to one.

“Electronic Attack WRA’s will be reduced by 40% and replaced with easier to support state of the art digital electronics.

“The Performance Based Logistics construct will nearly eliminate macro and micro avionics repair, and intermediate propulsion support functions.

“Airborne Armament Equipment (AAE) will be reduced by over 80% with the incorporation of a multi-use bomb rack.

“Compared to historical parametrics we expect our overall O&S costs to decrease by 30%.”

On another level, the B is even a bigger winner. It helps leverage investments in other new maritime assets.

Let us consider the Littoral Combat Ship. The LCS is a connected asset whose value depends on what it is deployed with. As an asset deployed with the ARG and covered by the F-35B, the LCS can become a very lethal asset indeed.

“LCS becomes a raid platform. So instead of this being the coastline, and I’m going to punch through right here and land Ospreys over here, and there. Now, I’ve got LCS. And I’ve got the amphibs behind me with the F-35Bs operating,” a senior Marine officer said.

“So, what I get is now I’ve given the guy an entire coastline that he’s got to part with, and I put a platoon in here to go to shore with their small ATVs or LCDs or similar vehicles. They come in here, they either raid, kick the guy in the teeth, so he starts shifting assets, and I punch in over here. Or, they do things like shaping operations in the rear. They’re out of the fringes, and they’re also my frontline of sensor and defender for the amphibs. As I’m punching quarters in, LCS basically becomes my war fighter. It becomes the tip of the spear. It’s also becomes your airborne ready and response of reserve to exploit success.”

The facilitator for all of this is the joint Osprey-F35B cover team. Explain to me why anyone would eliminate this capability and leave LCS essentially as a floating target for an adversary?

In short, the F-35B offers the kind of disruptive change which allows the country to get best value out of its deployed assets. The newly enabled ARGS can be a force for strategic change, which could set in motion a carrier revolution, a revolution that will discuss in a future article.

If the administration plays single-platform IOC cost games, probation would not be good enough. We may be poor but we don’t have to have to miss strategic opportunities for change you can believe in.

Robbin Laird is an international defense consultant and former National Security Council staffer. He owns the Second Line of Defense website, Ed Timperlake, a former Marine aviator, contributed to this article. He is editor of the Second Line of Defense Forum )

What do you think?