Get Task & Purpose in your inbox
The Navy's F-35 Flight Range Is Dangerously Low, Congressional Report Says
WASHINGTON — The Navy’s newest fighter jet, the stealthy F-35C, may not have the range it needs to strike enemy targets, the House Armed Services Committee said in a new report, raising troubling questions about whether the multibillion-dollar program is already outpaced by threats.
And critics say the Navy fighter — part of the Joint Strike Fighter initiative, the most expensive weapons program in history — may actually have been out of date years ago.
The committee’s conclusion, buried in the 606-page report on the fiscal 2019 defense authorization bill, is confirmation from lawmakers who support the jet program that the aircraft carrier-based version of the F-35 may not have enough effective range without refueling to function well in likely future wars.
“While the introduction of the F-35C will significantly expand stealth capabilities, the F-35C could require increased range to address necessary targets,” the report states.
The reason, experts say, is that the aircraft carriers from which the F-35Cs would operate may be required to sail too far away from enemies to avoid their increasingly long-range missiles.
The committee does not want to stop buying F-35Cs, but instead wants to start also buying new sorts of warplanes.
“After billions of dollars have been spent on the F-35C, but before the first aircraft are ready to deploy, lawmakers are already looking at the next carrier-based aircraft,” said Bryan Clark, a former Navy strategist now at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Dan Grazier, of the Project on Government Oversight, said the House directive “highlights just how poorly conceived the Joint Strike Fighter program has been from the very beginning.”
“The issue of anti-ship cruise missiles is not a new one,” he said. “The complexity of the F-35 program has dragged out the design process to nearly 20 years, which means we are not keeping pace with emerging threats.”
The F-35 program is developing and purchasing 2,456 jets in three different variants — the F-35C for the Navy, the F-35A for the Air Force and the F-35B for the Marine Corps — with allies expected to purchase hundreds more. The Navy will buy 273 F-35Cs for its carriers and another 67 for the Marine Corps, on top of the Marine Corps’ own model, which takes off and lands vertically.
The cost to develop and build all three models is projected to reach $406.1 billion, with another estimated $1.1 trillion to operate them.
If the Navy has to sail its carriers in the neighborhood of 1,000 nautical miles away from increasingly long-range missiles, then its stealthy F-35Cs will have to be refueled by tanker aircraft that are not stealthy.
The F-35Cs have an effective range — known as a combat radius (or the distance from the carrier they can operate) — that is now projected as 670 nautical miles.
The refueling operations would expose the fighter jets and tankers to adversaries, defeating the value of the F-35C’s radar-evading materials and sleek silhouette. Lt. Lauren Chatmas, a Navy spokeswoman, said the risk is “acceptable” because the refueling will occur far from enemy threats. But Clark maintains enemy fighters might still find U.S. aircraft even hundreds of miles out if any are not stealthy.
Alternatively, the Navy could operate its carriers — which have self-defense capabilities — closer to enemy territory or nearer to enemy warships and aircraft. But that would raise the risk to these floating cities, each of which typically carries more than 6,000 sailors and costs roughly $13 billion.
The Navy has already bought 28 of the jets and requested nine more for fiscal 2019. It won’t deploy F-35Cs on a carrier until 2021.
But the likely inadequacy of the F-35C’s combat radius should not surprise the Navy, experts say.
Approximately a decade ago, China finished developing its “carrier killer,” the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, with a reported range of 780 nautical miles, though the People’s Liberation Army is reportedly still perfecting the system for giving the missile targeting information.
The U.S. Tomahawk cruise missile has a range in excess of 1,000 nautical miles, and the Navy expects to field an anti-ship variant in four years. Given Chinese and Russian advances, and the fact that F-35s will fly for 60 years, the realistic prospect of adversaries’ having the ability to hold carriers at risk from 1,000 nautical miles or more during the F-35’s lifespan was foreseeable, critics say.
Already, China’s CSS-5 anti-ship cruise missile can strike ships about 930 miles away, the Defense Intelligence Agency has testified.
And Russia has apparently deployed the air-launched Kinzhal hypersonic missile, which can reportedly travel distances of more than 1,000 nautical miles.
The House Armed Services Committee has been unstinting in funding the F-35, despite software snafus, oxygen shortages in the cockpits and ejection seats that can endanger pilots.
The House will vote this week to approve a defense bill that authorizes purchase of 77 more F-35s across the services.
The fact that the F-35C’s limited radius may reduce its operational utility has received little public attention.
Radius is less of an issue for the Air Force because the service has long-range bombers and can reserve F-35As for shorter-range missions, Clark said. For the Marine Corps, the F-35B is a significant upgrade over the AV-8B Harriers now in the fleet.
The committee’s report directs the Navy secretary to brief the Armed Services panels by January 2019 on options, including manned and unmanned aircraft that would “expand the strike range of a carrier air wing in a contested environment.” That could include “developing a stealth tanker capability, improved engine technology or to develop and procure a strike capability that is purposely built to strike at increased range.”
To some critics, the F-35C report language is a play by lawmakers to justify development of a new drone that might be built by many of the same contractors as the F-35. The F-35 program has contractors in almost every state and is ultimately assembled at Lockheed Martin’s facility in Fort Worth, Texas, in the district of Republican Rep. Kay Granger, who chairs the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.
“A new program would benefit pretty much the same members now unless a new prime contractor emerges,” Grazier of the Project on Government Oversight said.
In fairness to the Navy, the service did envision the need for a longer-range fighter jet. But the effort collapsed.
In the 1980s, the Navy developed the A-12 Avenger II with a projected radius of about 800 nautical miles. The Pentagon killed that program in 1991 amid spiraling costs. Even that range might not have proved sufficient
©2018 CQ-Roll Call, Inc., All Rights Reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
A Minnesota Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter with three Guardsmen aboard crashed south of St. Cloud on Thursday, said National Guard spokeswoman Army Master Sgt. Blair Heusdens.
At this time, the National Guard is not releasing any information about the status of the three people aboard the helicopter, Heusdens told Task & Purpose on Thursday.
The Pentagon's latest attempt to twist itself in knots to deny that it is considering sending up to 14,000 troops to the Middle East has a big caveat.
Pentagon spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said there are no plans to send that many troops to the region "at this time."
Farah's statement does not rule out the possibility that the Defense Department could initially announce a smaller deployment to the region and subsequently announce that more troops are headed downrange.
The Navy could deploy a second carrier to the Middle East if Trump orders an Iran surge, top admiral says
The Navy could send a second aircraft carrier to the Middle East if President Donald Trump orders a surge of forces to the region, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said on Thursday.
Gordon Lubold and Nancy Youssef of the Wall Street Journal first reported the United States is considering sending up to 14,000 troops to the Middle East to deter Iran from attacking U.S. forces and regional allies. The surge forces could include several ships.
I didn't think a movie about World War I would, or even could, remind me of Afghanistan.
Somehow 1917 did, and that's probably the highest praise I can give Sam Mendes' newest war drama: It took a century-old conflict and made it relatable.
An internal investigation spurred by a nude photo scandal shows just how deep sexism runs in the Marine Corps
"I will still have to work harder to get the perception away from peers and seniors that women can't do the job."
Some years ago, a 20-year-old female Marine, a military police officer, was working at a guard shack screening service members and civilians before they entered the base. As a lance corporal, she was new to the job and the duty station, her first in the Marine Corps.
At some point during her shift, a male sergeant on duty drove up. Get in the car, he said, the platoon sergeant needs to see you. She opened the door and got in, believing she was headed to see the enlisted supervisor of her platoon.
Instead, the sergeant drove her to a dark, wooded area on base. It was deserted, no other Marines were around. "Hey, I want a blowjob," the sergeant told her.
"What am I supposed, what do you do as a lance corporal?" she would later recall. "I'm 20 years old ... I'm new at this. You're the only leadership I've ever known, and this is what happens."
She looked at him, then got out of the car and walked away. The sergeant drove up next to her and tried to play it off as a prank. "I'm just fucking with you," he said. "It's not a big deal."
It was one story among hundreds of others shared by Marines for a study initiated in July 2017 by the Marine Corps Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning (CAOCL). Finalized in March 2018, the center's report was quietly published to its website in September 2019 with little fanfare.
The culture of the Marine Corps is ripe for analysis. A 2015 Rand Corporation study found that women felt far more isolated among men in the Corps, while the Pentagon's Office of People Analytics noted in 2018 that female Marines rated hostility toward them as "significantly higher" than their male counterparts.
But the center's report, Marines' Perspectives on Various Aspects of Marine Corps Organizational Culture, offers a proverbial wakeup call to leaders, particularly when paired alongside previous studies, since it was commissioned by the Marine Corps itself in the wake of a nude photo sharing scandal that rocked the service in 2017.
The scandal, researchers found, was merely a symptom of a much larger problem.