The Marines are counting on the F-35B as their new close air support (CAS) aircraft. Heck, let’s be honest, they’ve bet all-in and by all indications this is the hill they’re willing to die on to get it. OK, that’s fair. The Marines need CAS they can count on, in their view, as opposed to CAS that’s only available when the Navy or Air Force has the time or feels like it. I get that. But, is the F-35B really a great CAS platform? It’s a single engine, unarmored airframe that has a very limited weapons load (2-1000 lab JDAM) in stealth mode (internal weapons only) and a modest weapons load (15,000 lb according to the LM website spec list) with external hardpoints. As best I can determine, the aircraft has only 4 external hardpoints plus 2 internal for a total of 6 hardpoints. While the weapons weight capacity is adequate the number of hardpoints is quite limited and restricts the aircraft’s flexibility and number of combat drops per sortie. Note that the external weapons load is a theoretical maximum and would be difficult to achieve in practice if the aircraft were used in its short take off and vertical landing modes. Also, a full weapons load would severely reduce the combat radius.
The Marines want to purchase 350 F-35Bs to replace their current Hornets and Harriers.
Wiki reports that the Air Force looked at the F-35B to replace the A-10 but opted not to due to the F-35’s inability to generate enough sorties. Wiki further reports that the Marines plan to operate the F-35B from “unimproved surfaces at austere bases”. However, they go on to note that this will require “special, high-temperature concrete designed to handle the [exhaust] heat”. It’s not really an unimproved surface then, is it? The exhaust heat issue is severe and has even required the
class to have special, more heat-resistant decks installed. F-35B shipboard testing has cause heat damage to the test ship’s deck. I guess this invalidates the popular notion of operating the F-35B from remote roads, fields, or “unimproved” airstrips – they’ll all melt or catch fire. America
As noted, as a CAS platform, the F-35B has limited weapons flexibility and capacity. Further, the plane has only one engine and no armor – not good characteristics for an aircraft intended to fly low and slow over the battlefield and if it’s not going to fly low and slow then it’s not really suited for CAS. Add in the presumed lack of loiter time and this is not an ideal CAS platform.
Now, here’s the interesting part. The Air Force wants to get rid of their A-10s. The Marines ought to give serious thought to acquiring the A-10s. To be fair, I’m not the first person to come up with this thought. Regardless, the A-10 is the finest CAS platform we have. It has a weapons load of 16,000 lb on 11 hardpoints plus the Avenger cannon. The aircraft has a 250 mile combat radius with a nearly 2 hour loiter time. Decades of actual combat have proven the worth of the A-10 as a CAS platform and it’s the one that the men on the ground call for by name. It’s rugged beyond belief. If the Marines are serious about CAS for their ground force, they’ll drop the F-35B and jump on the A-10s. I don’t know what the current inventory of A-10s is but over 700 have been built. This option makes overwhelming sense. If they want some F-35s for some other purpose that I don’t really understand, then fine, buy a handful. For now, though, the A-10 is the undisputed master of CAS and it’s apparently free for the taking. That’s a tactical and budgetary win for the Corps.