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Monday, March 18, 2013

The Legacy of Lex: A Common Sense Call on the F-35

A little over a year ago, we lost Lex in a tragic accident.

F-35B (Lockheed Martin photo)
Lex did not leave us without the benefit of his experience and wisdom, though, and in the time of great debates over Defense cuts and other efforts to restrain the sending of tax dollars flying into "dry holes", he wrote on the F-35 aircraft situation in "Whisper: Missing the Boat", in which he noted the great tactical and strategic value of the F-35B (Short Take Off and Landing) version of the F-35 "Lightning" series, while suggesting the other versions might be better consigned to the "not ready for prime time" dust bin of history.

Over the past few weeks, we have discussed on Midrats at various times the concept of an F-35B equipped "small carrier" force (listen to Captain Wayne Hughes here, our discussion with Lieutenant Colonel James W. Hammond IIIhere). Lex, of course, beat us by a couple of years.

His argument - that the Navy needs twin engine fighters for the "big deck" carriers was then, and is now, correct. But we also need versatility. And Lex's suggestion is a pathway to having that flexibility that allow us to respond to all sorts of events appropriately. We want to avoid that "all problems are nails" problem, don't we?

LHA (Ingalls Shipyard image)
The Marines (and Army, if it comes to that) need more - local air support with rapid sortie rates. Small carriers (of which we have several) offer optinons. In Lex's words:
The new America class of amphibious assault ships represent a fork in the road for Naval Aviation. The USMC needs to embrace the concept and run with it. . . . While big-deck CVNs will continue to be the centerpiece of American overseas crisis response for the foreseeable future, the dynamics of the Arab Spring have shown us that we do not have enough assets to cover all of our interests simultaneously. The F-35B+LHA combination could be one of the most cost effective and efficient solutions for engagement in the changing landscape of crisis response.

Air Tractor AT-802U
My own modest thinking is that we also need to explore even more unconventional support for forces ashore and at sea - including looking at "navalizing" aircraft like the AT-802U for long linger time low and slow support. I bet we have engineers enough to add a tail hook to that "Air Tractor" (which needs a sexier name, like "Killer Bee" or something) so they can land on an LHA deck.

UPDATE: Experiment back in the late 1960's with an OV-10 Bronco:

And on LHA-4:

UPDATE2: So, it's doable. Probably just not popular with the jet crowd. If I were a Marine on the ground, though ...

And you might need some bigger/better brakes on the birds.


  1. Didn't we used to have the ability to land Broncos on the LHA?

  2. Well, they played with it. See the video and photos in the post update.

    1. I can't imagine what use a tailhook would be on an LHA. Having participated in some CAS (A-4s) and some testing of turboprop/tiltwing/rotary-wing aircraft on gators, I'd still endorses Lex's concept of STOVL jets on small-deck carriers, integrated with the usual MEU support helos.


  3. Anonymous1:42 PM

    If we can land and take off C-130s from a carrier, certainly we can operate Texan IIs or Super Tucanos on an LHA.

    I recall seeing OV-10s on a LPH, not sure why it was on board.

    Of course we flew Avengers off CVEs which were much smaller than LHAs.

    The ability to stop using reversible pitch props on turboprops may obviate the need for tail hooks and arresting gear.

  4. Single engined aircraft don't belong in blue water ops...We will have to re-learn this lesson it seems...The Harrier mishap rate is/was abyssmal. I don't expect the F35B to be much of an improvement. The Marine environment is to put it simply, hell, on aircraft...Salt water injection, FOD, all weather ops from a floating 600 ft runway, all scream for the reliability of having two engines between you and lost aircraft and crew...I know they got sold on single engines by studying the F-16...As you know, the F-16 operates from ten thousand foot runways. Now, take a look at an Air Force jet parked beside a Navy/Marine jet. There is no comparison, the Air Force spend a lot more money and time making their airplanes perfect. The Navy/Marine Corps are not budgeted that way, and again, the Marine environment is hell on two cents.


  5. Anonymous7:48 AM

    It was pretty common to see O-10s launch and recover on LHA and LHD during events such as Northern Wedding and Display Determination during the 70s and 80s. We should be able to do the same with other STOVL turboprops, though the F-35B is still attractive to provide fighter support as well as CAS from the smaller aviation ships. Probably more critical to the Navy than the C model, since the F-18 variants will be quite capable for some time to come, are cheaper and already ahve an established support pipeline.
    It remains my opinion that we still need a replacemnt for the S-3, given the increasing numbers of diesel and other submarines as well as support services, such as tanking.


  6. Anon, interesting notes about the OV-10s. Probably would be better ashore and definitely meant for different role than F-35B. I like the idea of using smaller ships to suport amphibs, but the USN only seems interested in larger, more expensive and therefor fewer gators?
    Right on about S-3 replacement. Any ideas?

    1. Anonymous6:35 AM

      No ready replacement for the S3 stands out, unless E2/C2 airframes could be modified for the task. Unfortunately not much is in production right now so it would require a new design and acquisition program. One of the great things about the S3 was that it was versatile and capable of ASW, tanker and ESM roles, pretty much filling a lot things the old A3D was converted to, wiht the primary ASW mission. Part of the thing with the tanker role is that it will have to be fast enough to tank the tactical aircraft, given that we do that with C130s, a turboprop should fill the bill. The ASW mission would require a long loiter time, again something turboprops are good at, otherwise some kind of fanjet as the S3 was. Might be a difficult sell if it uses an engine not in the current inventory, given the obsession with parts commonality that began at the turn of the century.
      It's kind of strange how the F6F went from concept to front line aircraft in a year, now it takes a decade, if you're lucky.