Tuesday, August 02, 2011

F35B Agitprop ala Sweetman

Bill Sweetman ran what I would characterize as an ‘opposition propaganda’ piece yesterday (Ares Blog: A Cat is Not a Dog). He bemoaned the Marine’s touting of the F-35B program as their 21st Century solution for the “Air” half of their Future Air-Ground Task Force as “propaganda”:

“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.“

Sweetman was taking what turned out to be a fairly gratuitous swipe at the F-35B’s raison d’être. Gratuitous, because he immediately changed the subject for the rest of the post with an awful(ly) lightweight critique of the ‘LHA/D-as-aircraft-carrier’ idea. I won’t dwell too much on what turned in to the main thrust of his agitprop in this post. Instead, I’d like to focus on his ‘damning with faint praise’ sucker-punch on the B’s STOVL capability as quoted above.

Comparing the F-35B STOVL to the CTOL (A) or CV (C) Models is a Red Herring.
The relevant comparison is the one that was NOT made by Mr. Sweetman: that of comparing the capabilities the F-35B brings to those of the plane it is replacing – The AV-8B. Could that have been because the disparity in total performance between the F-35B and AV-8B is the greatest of all in the F-35 vs. ‘legacy’ comparisons, with the F-35B blowing away the AV-8B ? In combat configuration the F-35B is supersonic, low observable, network-centric warfare capable, AND easy to land vertically for starters. The AV-8B is… ‘none of the above’.

About that ‘most expensive’ assertion Mr Sweetman then makes (and cites the UK as the source). We’ll assume that is true from a unit cost POV, but how do you account for the net equivalent combat power of a B model with forward basing vs. an A or C model staged more remotely?
Fortunately, this is an easy one to answer. The difference is found in the Sortie Generation rate KPPs of the three variants: The F-35B, as it is planned to be operated, will be capable of generating 4 sorties/day in a surge which is 33% more ‘surge’ sorties per the specification than either the A or C model as they are planned to be used. In a sustained operating environment the B model will be providing 50% more sorties per aircraft per day than the CTOL (F-35A) or CV (F-35C). The Marines, by operating ‘forward’ get a lot more 'Bang' out of their F-35 'Buck' than if they operated an A or C model from the big deck carriers or a main operating base farther from the fight.
This ‘forward operating’ capability advantage is not simply hypothetical. From an Armed Forces Journal article last year, as object lessons we find three conflicts with instances of the Marines exploiting ‘Forward Basing’ (emphasis mine).

Desert Storm
During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, shore-based AV-8B Harriers initially operated from a 10,000-foot runway at Sheik Isa Airbase in Bahrain. This resulted in a 45-minute transit to Kuwait with in-flight refueling, yielding a 30-minute time on station. The aircraft then moved to King Abdul Aziz Airstrip, a 4,000-foot asphalt runway 90 miles from Kuwait. With the addition of a flight line made of AM-2 matting, this forward operating base (FOB) housed 60 AV-8Bs for eight months. It was often referred to as “the soccer stadium” since the Marines set up headquarters and billeting in the adjacent stadium; from there, the transit to Kuwait was reduced to 20 minutes, yielding the same 30-minute time on station without aerial refueling. This reduced the burden on tanker aircraft, increased sortie generation rates and allowed these aircraft to be more responsive to ground forces.

Operation Iraqi Freedom
During the first phases of the war in Iraq in 2003, Marine Harriers were the first aircraft to conduct sustained operations from an airfield inside Iraq and the only tactical air aircraft to conduct combat operations from a road. In the first two weeks of the conflict, Marines established an FOB on the remains of the Iraqi airstrip at An Numinayah, just 60 nautical miles south of Baghdad. Damage to the runway rendered it unusable to other tactical fixed-wing aircraft. The FOB at An Numinayah facilitated forward positioning of aircraft to stand ground alert as well as a forward arming and refueling point for Harriers supporting combat operations in and around Baghdad. Eliminating the need for Harriers to reserve fuel for a lengthy return flight to ships or bases in Kuwait, the FOB at An Numinayah allowed the AV-8Bs to extend time on station without placing a logistical burden on aerial refueling assets. With an airfield in such close proximity to the forward edge of the battle area, Harriers stood a credible ground alert and reduced response times from one to two hours to less than 15 minutes.

Operation Enduring Freedom
The war in Afghanistan is the most recent example of the effectiveness of STOVL operations. In the last year, Marine AV-8Bs have routinely operated from FOB Dwyer, a 4,300-foot expeditionary airfield built by the Marine wing support squadrons. Just a few miles from the town of Marjah, FOB Dwyer was constructed to facilitate rapid logistical support and fire support for Marines operating in the southern Helmand River valley. Launching from their main base at Kandahar, Harriers recovered to Dwyer after completing a time on station and were able to quickly rearm and refuel while talking to ground commanders. A basing option in such close proximity to the supported unit enabled longer times on station and rapid ordnance reload capability, in addition to reducing the burden on airborne refueling assets.

Basing AV-8Bs at FOB Dwyer during the fight for Marjah resulted in 65 percent of their sortie duration being spent on station. In comparison, aircraft based at Kandahar spent 55 percent of their sortie duration on station while aircraft operating from a carrier spent only 25 percent of sortie duration on station. Over the service life of an aircraft, the real benefit of STOVL aircraft is more time in support of ground forces with less time in transit to and from the fight.

As they say on the big blogs, read it all here.

In the meantime, the Marines will keep leaning (and basing) forward.


B.Smitty said...

I'm skeptical of the notion of realistically forward basing F-35Bs. We've done it with Harriers, yes, but at a significant cost in terms of logistics. The F-35B carries twice the internal fuel per sortie and likely will require more maintenance and support.

And then one has to wonder about the ability of forward fields to stand up to repeated STOVL landings from a much heavier, runway-melting aircraft.

IIRC, during ODS, A-10s were already at King Abdul Aziz airstrip when the Harriers showed up. So forward basing isn't just for STOVL aircraft.

IMHO, it's too bad couldn't have just continued development of the Harrier.

BB1984 said...

All of your examples are STOL operation,which is to say runways that the Grippen, or even the earlier Viggen, could operate from. They demonstrate how STOL aircraft would, in practice, have much of the benefit we've seen from the Harrier with far less cost, complexity, and design penalties. In three wars, how many combat sorties have been flown VTOL?

Is VTOL a good and valuable capability? Sure. Is it cost effective given the US Harrier experience? That's an open question and depends on somewhat on where the US goes with its carrier strategy.

Also ref the "It's better than an AV-8" argument, suppose I said this "The USAF should buy Typhoons/Rafales because they are better than F-16s" Would you just go "yes he has a point there" or would you say "No, the comparison is against other contemporary options, both actual and near term drawing board. The fact that the Euro-canards out perform a much older design is irrelevant for new procurement decisions"

Earlydawn said...

The F-35B is an awesomely capable aircraft to base forward, but I'm concerned with the cost element.

I'm skeptical that the DoD will get a full order of F-35s to begin with, and that would seem to hit the Marines disproportionately; they're replacing the most machines, and their aviation is directly tied to their land posture, which seems likely to be reduced post-Afghanistan.

Also, I just don't know how willing commanders will be to forward-base an aircraft with a price tag that could be higher than sixty million dollars.

SMSgt Mac said...


RE: Realistically Forward Basing, Logistics Costs, Maint Burden
Yes, the F-35B carries more fuel, but I think you’ll find that the AV-8 in combat scenarios will carry two ‘good sized’ wing tanks and/or touch a tanker far more often than an F-35B. I believe the Services, and the Marines in particular, did their homework well on the overall logistics footprint weight, volume and C-17 load equivalent KPPs. (Full disclosure: I played a VERY small part in developing the C-17 deployment load content prior to source selection). If the F-35B performs as expected, the maintenance on the -35 should be a fraction of the Harrier’s overhead. I work with a retired Marine who this time last year was in Afghanistan as the forward deployed LDO maintenance officer (there are only 13 of these billets in the Marine Corps and I come in regular contact with 4 former LDOs. I swear there are really only 20 Marines and they just move them around a lot – they all know each other.) managing the maintenance program for all the Harriers, Helos, and V-22s and he’s juiced about the F-35B coming into the fleet.

RE: Forward Field Resilience and King Abdul Aziz airstrip. I think you will find that the A-10s were at King Abdul Aziz Air Base and the ‘Air Strip’ the 3rd MAW used was at King Abdul Aziz Navy Base. The ‘Air Strip’ was an appropriate moniker: It was an old, abandoned airfield (built by US?) that is really about 8K ft long, but was crumbling and was in such bad shape that much of the runway was unusable. I’ve seen references to the field as being 2K, 4K ,6K ft usable length, and read a quote by a Harrier pilot that if it was peacetime, they never would have used it. I understand that the Marines are already working out what will be needed to forward-base similar to their King Abdul Aziz experience in a process similar to how the Navy does carrier integration.

I too am a fan of the Harrier. Aside from the stealth and systems limitations, it still represents the apex of the direct-thrust STOVL technical approach-- as you cannot generate more vertical lift without massive weight-penalty spirals AND even more hot gas ablation/impingement problems. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Marines came up with 2-3 techniques they could use to mitigate the exhaust of the B depending upon operational need. It is certainly NOT something they haven't thought about.

SMSgt Mac said...


RE: STOL operation
While the Gripen’s TO and landing data is impressive for a non STOVL aircraft, I submit that with a combat load to extract the maximum combat range, you cannot take off in anywhere near as short a distance as a B in combat configuration. If you reduce the load to take off in the same distance, you cannot fly nearly as far as the F-35B. In any case, the Gripen cannot land in the same distance as a vertical-landing F-35B and would probably have a hard time coming close to a B when landing with a rollout. In all instances, the comparisons are worth making ONLY if you discount either the F-35Bs Low observables or the advanced systems on board the B that are not in the Gripen.

RE: Utility of STOVL (vs. STOL or VTOL). Now we’re getting into operational philosophy and doctrines. The Marines now have 40 years(!) of STOVL experience under their belt, which I’m inclined to believe means that they ought to know the value of STOVL to their MAGTF operational visions.
Design Penalties: I categorically reject there are any ‘penalties’ incurred by the design vis a vis the mission: there are only tradeoffs made as in any other aircraft design problem (or life
for that matter).

RE: What If "The USAF should buy Typhoons/Rafales because they are better than F-16s"
If they met the definition of ‘better’ from a Warfighter POV, I would probably go with "yes he has a point there" and would even agree to a going with either aircraft if they were ‘better’ than the F-35 from a Warfighter POV. But I happen to believe neither the Typhoon nor Rafale are ‘better’ than the latest F-16 iteration (for the US anyway) much less the F-35 – and this is from the individual unit POV all the way up to the grand systems-of-systems POV. ( I have a long history of advocating ‘best value’ over America-First ’ism’ in defense. See this old post from after Northrop Grumman/EADS won the KC-X and before Boeing stole the program back: http://elementsofpower.blogspot.com/search?q=B-57)

SMSgt Mac said...


RE: Cost and Full Order
The key to the cost is not whether or not the current ‘total buy’ stands. The key will be how fast the production rate can be ramped up to maximum velocity. I don’t think I’d be too far out on a limb to say that the reduced lot buys made as a ‘risk reduction’ so far have contributed greatly to the LRIP cost increases to date, just as stretching SDD has increased SDD costs. It costs money to run a production line at below capacity AND you can’t get a learning curve unless you start putting a curve to the production.

RE: how “willing commanders will be to forward-base” ($60M aircraft). We (and especially the Marines) don’t buy things we don’t intend to use. These same fears had been posited by the media for the B-1, B-2, C-5, and V-22 (oh and Tomahawk missile) prior to their employment – it’s like a boilerplate story that gets pulled out for the weapon system du jour. If we build it , they will bomb.

SMSgt Mac said...

Good comments all. Thank You

M&S said...

The Marines flew only a handful of sorties out of Dwyer, were again playing the 'we got here second!' game and now have the wonder of wonders as a writeoff of what, 8 jets? Due to insurgent action that they never would have faced back at Bagram or Kandahar.
The truth of onstation time is that nothing beats the drones, nothing. Because the drones are there /before/ the convoy or the troops go in, they see the tire burners and they watch the bushwackers moving into position and in trade for a 60,000 dollar hair, teeth and eyeballs experience (when something like Pyros or APKWS might be a bit more economical) they roust the routers before they can play Indian to the settlers.
All this as 5 times the endurance and 1/30th the CPFH of an F-35B makes the notion of manned fixed wing NTISR for 4-6hrs utterly ridiculous.
The F-35B is only going to be land based irregularly in deployment and will only bring detachments of 6-8 jets to the boat so long as they even pretend to have an RW heliborne assault capability. Insufficient to even escort the STOM birds in, let alone maintain a pair of FORCAPs and a DLI Ready 5.
Thus the entire thrust of the Marine argument to supplant carriers in areas that would otherwise be gapped if a blatant lie because when POTUS-next asks 'where are the Carriers' he will not be meaning the J3s as jump jet jeeps.
Of course 'helping the USN out' is really just Marine speak for "We read the tea leaves and it's time to become full time air exponents before the SWA funding dries up completely and ground warfighting becomes unfundable before Congress.'
Which would be mad genius but for Key West or I'm sure the USAr would be screaming for new Mohawks.
Key Point: in a Pacific Pivot that 850ft LHA-6 is going to look just like a 1,000ft Ford to whomever wants to chuck a mine, or an ASBM/ASCM or an SSK at the battlegroup.
It's going to cost just as much if not more to operate (more frequent trips to the fleet trains for POL and Ammo plus no-nuke = more fuel oil) than a CVN and the 25 jets they plan on putting aboard at who knows what cost to the /real/ Marine ready mission of quick SPOD capture and Embassy rescue with Rotary Wings is not going to mean a
Because until the USMC fesses up to needing another 50-100 billion, _minimum_ for pressurization, COD, Tanking and AEW&C variants for Osprey to support their little toy jet, they won't have even a third world carrier capability (and I mean that, the Indian Vikrant with MiG-35 and LCA will have better reach.

M&S said...

Now look at _The Carrier Myth_ and tell me: what are we paying for a third fixed wing air force for when the SOI for the F-35B /without/ V-22 tanking is likely going to be about the same 300nm that you might expect from a SHAR equipped Hermes in the Falklands in 1982?
Finally, let's be real here. If the USD collapses as our debt holders get tired of our telling them 'Not right now' on return of their gold and China unpins the Renminbi when pipelinestan brings South Pars petrogas to her Silk Route II rail lines, how are we going to pay for all this with a currency that massively overeased and not worth the toilet paper it's printed on?
'Sequestration' at that point is going to make Pearl Harbor look like fuss in the enlisted mess.
All the big think tanks which analyzed the strategic change memorandum and put forth their own recommendations included reductions in Big Deck Carrier Air, down to as few as 6-8 total.
This means we could not even sustain a scramble force.
WHY would we want to preserve mini decks which only have roughly half the installed airpower as sortie generation numbers (and if we returned to a Roosevelt deckload would have only a third as many) when we cannot keep the big decks with _no fuel oil consumption_ going at all?
We get into a 700-900nm SOI campaign with Iran or China as A2AD blocked and we will be needing significant numbers of real airplanes (which is to say those which have Tanking, EW, AEW and Escort/Suppression already in the mix of an airwing), sufficiently sized to do major Alpha Strikes at least twice a day until the carrier gets blowed out from under them like a bad Tilmann novel or they run out of bombs and JP-8 and have to retire to the nearest friendly port willing to suck up DF-21s for playing Montevideo to USN airpower.
The USMC can provide _none of the above_ with the F-35B because it has only 14K of fuel 'natural' and will likely be operating at 10-12K once daytemps are taken into account. NGJ is not an F-35 package. The jet cannot carry suppression ordnance internally (no a sufficient number of AAM) and is going to be as hardpoint/pylon limited for externals as it is on bay ordnance. Which is to say 25% of the bring back lost as pylon
No, the real reason the USMC wants to be STOVLized after decades with the A-6 and A-4 is because the F-35B doesn't work on real carriers and not being the USN's RAG is a plot they have been working on for well night on 30 years.
The runup from in front of a JBD is too short, the pendant is hard to roll over on recovery and the deckpark makes over the side VL impossible as well.
IOW: You have it all backwards. It's not what the F-35B 'can do' but what it can't that makes it special to the USMC.
Mores the pity, we would be better off with a much smaller Corps that did more of their traditional, reaction force, missions than the secondary army/navy/airpower all in one that the U.S. taxpayer now have to pay for.

SMSgt Mac said...

M&S, you're all over the place. And most of it's off the deep-end. I don't have time for scattershot commentary, so I'll just hit your two most egregious errors.

RE: Kandahar:
"Got there second?" Oh, somebody else was flying attack jets out of there before the Marines? They flew more than just a handful of sorties out of forward bases I knew and worked/hunted with the Marine AMO who was assigned there and left before the attack. Athe aircraft flew enough to do the mission. Poor airfield security is poor airfield security no matter where you put the airfield. I believe one of the last, if not the last instance of airfield compromise and aircraft destruction by 'terrorists' before this was in Puerto Rico, when a cell of 'separatists' satchel charged PRANG A-7s.

RE: UAVs: I know what UAVs can and can't do. Unless your hands-on history with them goes back prior to 1982, I guarantee I know better than you. They are nowhere near ready to replace manned combat aircraft.

Small deck LHDs have already been THE ONLY decks available when there weren't any super-carriers around for the Libya hoopla. Expect more of the same in the future.

If you got a point, next time make it and provide support for it. Otherwise I'll assume your name is Kurt Plummer.