Analyst: Without F-35B, Marine Corps’ Brand Would Be Weakened
Twice a month, the commandant of the Marine Corps confers with the upper management of the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter program. No detail about this program is too small for Gen. James Amos, said his deputy Gen. Joseph Dunford.
Tactical aviation is the Marine Corps’ top modernization priority, Dunford said Dec. 7. “We haven’t bought new airplanes in a decade,” he said.
The unprecedented involvement of the highest ranked Marine in a weapons acquisition program is proof that the stakes in F-35B — a fighter/bomber aircraft that takes off and lands vertically like a helicopter — have become too high to leave anything to chance.
“Losing the F-35B would really collapse the entire structure of the Marine Corps,” said Thomas Donnelly, a defense and security analyst at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute.
The bottom line is that without F-35B, Marine aviation operations would be reduced to just helicopters. “They would become a consumer of other people’s firepower rather than a producer of firepower,” Donnelly said Dec. 7 at a Center for Strategic and International Studies forum, in Washington, D.C.
Donnelly defended the Marines’ all-in strategy to ensure the aircraft survives both technical and budgetary challenges. A Pentagon budget crunch currently threatens the entire Joint Strike Fighter program — which also includes Air Force and Navy variants.
Marines should go even further in their advocacy of F-35B and make a case that Marine aviation can at times be more valuable than Navy carrier-based aviation, said Donnelly. “A large-deck amphibious ship with 30 stealthy jump jets may be more productive and capable in some cases than a large-deck Navy aircraft carrier with 60 F/A-18s,” he said. “That’s something that we should think about.”
The Marine Corps also should seize the F-35 budget battle as an opportunity to promote the potential value of F-35B as a powerful weapon that can penetrate highly defended areas and would be hard to shoot down by enemy missiles, said Donnelly. Marines need to be “cocking an eye in the direction of operating in the anti-access environment,” he said. “Not just in the Far East but elsewhere.”
Marine aviation is the Corps’ best hope to secure a role that is unique, rather than be perceived as a second land army, Donnelly said. “Marines in land wars is not the best use of the Marine Corps,” he said. The Pentagon should “get Marines out of obligations in the Middle East and put them at sea, in places like the South China Sea.”
Critics have denounced the F-35B as an exotic and costly weapon that is not essential to national security and expendable in times of economic hardship. But Marines remain undeterred by the flak.
The recent air war over Libya offered Marines the chance to show the prowess of their AV-8B Harrier jump jets, which the F-35B is scheduled to replace over the next decade. In NATO’s close-air support missions, the Harrier competed with the Air Force’s A-10 attack aircraft, according an industry source. Air Force officials, this source said, in fact were questioning why Harriers were assigned CAS missions over Libya when, they argued, the A-10 arguably might have been a better choice.
Dunford, speaking at the CSIS forum, characterized tactical aviation as one of the top three items on the Marine Corps’ equipment wish list, along with “ship to shore” and ground tactical vehicles. Asked whether he was referring specifically to the F-35B, Dunford said the priority is aviation “writ large,” rather than a particular program.
A Marine Corps spokesman noted that, besides the F-35B, the rest of the service’s aviation efforts focus on rotary-wing aircraft, refueling tankers and drones.
The MV-22 Osprey is replacing CH-46 helicopters, the UH-1Y/AH-1Z is replacing the UH-1N and AH-1W choppers; the KC-130J will take over for the KC-130T tankers, and CH-53K is planned to take up the role of the aging CH-53E. “Of those, the H-1 upgrades program would accomplish the offensive air support function,” said the spokesman. “We are also moving forward with efforts to weaponize the Shadow unmanned air vehicle.”
The fight for the F-35B is expected to endure for some time as the Pentagon continues to work with the manufacturer, Lockheed Martin Corp., to get the program back on track after years of delays and cost overruns.
Congressional critics already have put the F-35 program in their crosshairs as they seek ways to reduce the government’s rising budget deficits. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has suggested that only the Air Force needs JSF. He suggested that both the Navy and the Marine Corps should cancel it, continue to buy F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, and in the process save $18 billion through 2021. “The F/A-18 Super Hornet provides service-specific capabilities for the Navy and Marine Corps,” Coburn wrote in his deficit-reduction proposal. “However, this option would not replace the AV-8 Harriers of the Marine Corps. This option assumes Marine ground forces would not enter an area with contested airspace without the support of an aircraft carrier for close-air support.”