Saturday, June 15, 2013

Free Super Hornets

The current issue of Proceedings (1) has an article about the worsening tactical aircraft shortage and the role the F-35 plays in it.  The author’s recommendation is fascinating.  He suggests that the Navy drop the F-35C and, instead, buy the same number of F-35A’s.  Because the “A” model costs $79.5M less than the “C”, the author claims that for each “A” the Navy purchases they can get a “free” Super Hornet.  The F-35A’s could be returned to the Air Force, warehoused, or whatever;  it doesn’t matter.  This course would maintain the overall purchase numbers that are vital to the Air Force and State Department (foreign sales) and yet provide the Navy with new Super Hornets.

It’s becoming clear that the F-35C is not well suited to carrier life and represents little improvement for the Navy over the Super Hornet.  The author’s suggestion is an intriguing alternative!

(1) United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Averting the Navy’s Tactical Aircraft Crisis, Ensign Anthony Robinson, June 2013


  1. For a long time I've gone the other way and suggested the air force drop the A.
    In theory, the C can do everything the A can do, most of it better, and every aircraft being carrier capable provides a vast attrition reserve for a Pacific War
    However, if the C cant land on a Carrier, thats all a bit moot....
    All B's?

  2. This is about the stupidest idea (his, not you) I have heard of and falls into the trap that most haters fall into. They compare the current costs of the F-35 instead ow what they would be when a bulk of them are purchased, ie FRP.

    As far as "It’s becoming clear that the F-35C is not well suited to carrier life and represents little improvement for the Navy over the Super Hornet.", that is just ludicrous.

    Here is what the F-35C has over the Super Hornet (combat loaded at IOC):

    1. Goes faster with better maneuverability
    2. Goes farther
    3. More survivable
    4. Cheaper to operate
    5. Better Situational Awareness
    6. Higher weapons load, especially the farther the range.
    7. Higher bringback load
    8. Better, more frequent, and cheaper upgrades
    9. Stealthy datalinks
    10. Better data fusion
    11. Has a MLD/MAWS
    12. Does not lose a hardpoint to mount a FLIR
    13. Has an IRST without the need to cobble one into a fuel tank thereby loosing range.
    14. Requires MUCH less in the way of supporting assets to get the job done (IFR, ISR, Jammers, Escorts, Decoys, etc).

    Advantages of the Super Hornet over the F-35C

    1. Cheaper to buy
    2. Two engines

    You're soooo right, the F-35C is only a "little" better. ;)

    1. SpudmanWP, you and I are on a roll! Objectively, the F-35 isn't going to be as good as it's claimed or as bad as it's feared. The reality will be somewhere in between.

      You claim the haters are failing to see the cost savings that full production will bring. The reality is that full production cost savings almost never materialize for any program. I'm not an Air Force person but as the most recent, similar program go check the unit cost of the last F-22s versus the initial ones. I'm betting (I think I actually read this but I'm not sure) that there was little or no production savings or the final ones may have been more expensive.

      Regarding your points about the F-35Cs advantages over the Super Hornet, per your list,

      1. The speed and, more importantly, maveuverability have been cut down to the point that the differential is minimal, IIRC.
      2. Somewhat but not significantly.
      3. Fair statement due to stealth.
      4. Remains to be seen but hopefully true unless stealth coatings impose a large maintenance burden which may happen.
      5. True if the 360 can be made to work
      6. Not true! F-35=3000lb, F-18=17750 The only way the F-35 matches the F-18 is with external ordnance which drastically cuts stealth, speed, maneuverability, and range which then invalidates the previous claims of advantage. F-35=18000 with external (for A, don't know C) which is barely better than F-18 and F-18 has a built in gun.
      7. ??No idea??
      8. C'mon. That's just pure conjecture!
      9. No idea but is that even a problem?
      10. If the software ever works!
      11. ? I don't recognize the abbreviation.
      12. Good but it loses a hard point to mount a gun.
      13. Good.
      14. Maybe. Remains to be seen.

      While you criticize the haters, you've gone the opposite extreme as a lover and are buying into the full Powerpoint claims. By way of analogy, who could not love the LCS based on the Powerpoint claims for it? The reality, though, is that little of the claims have materialized or ever will in a useful time frame. The F-35 is already being scaled back with plans being made to push the full combat capability (helmet, sensor fusion, 360 awareness, etc.) into future blocks (if ever). The objective reality is that many of the claimed advantages will not be fully realized. Looking at it objectively, the F-35 will represent a small improvement, at best, over the Super Hornet.

  3. I apologize ahead of time for the length. I’ll try and go through each are where you have questions:

    1. Me: Goes faster with better manoeuvrability
    You: The speed and, more importantly, maveuverability have been cut down to the point that the differential is minimal, IIRC.

    Reason: Speed has never changed. It has always been m1.6 combat loaded with 2k JDAMs and AMRAAMs. The SH cannot even get to m1.6 with two AMRAAMs and two Aim-9s. Take a look at THIS CHART (yes it’s a simple one) that shows that the upper limits of the envelope are not limited by speed, but the “Program Limit” of m1.6 (notice the flat wall at m1.6).

    2. Me: Goes farther
    You: Somewhat but not significantly.

    Reason: See THIS SLIDE that shows the F-18E’s range with 4k of bombs and three 480 gal tanks at 520nm. Taking the lowest public number of 600 that puts the F-35C at 15% greater range. Taking the inside the program number of 642, puts the F-35C at 23.5% greater range. Even using the lower number of 15, it is a significant increase.

    4. Me: Cheaper to operate
    You: Remains to be seen but hopefully true unless stealth coatings impose a large maintenance burden which may happen.

    Reason: A vast majority of the “coatings” on the F-35 are not coatings but integral to the structure of the F-35. Most of the panels can be accesses without any need to reapply anything. The radome is designed never to need to be to be opened in the field as all the FRUs are accessible from within the front landing gear bay.

    One of the leaders of the DoD’s program recently announced that the current O&S costs for the F-35 have been estimated by CAPE & others based on historical 4th gen patterns and that from what he has seen of actual F-35 numbers, the costs will come down “significantly” A new report is due out this fall from the DoD to support this claim.

    5. Me: Better Situational Awareness
    You: True if the 360 can be made to work

    Reason: You have to keep in mind that there are several aspects of Situational Awareness (SA). Most people get hung up on the display of live video in the helmet, which has been the only area of concern for the program. However, that is only one small aspect of SA as is an issue with the helmet and not the EODAS sensors themselves. The sensors themselves have been working fine for a very long time. They provide the date to the mission computer just like they are supposed to. They have even exceeded the specifications on several occasions and demonstrated artillery fire, TBM launch & track, etc. SA also cover how information is shared across the battlespace, which plays into point #9.

    6. Me: Higher weapons load, especially the farther the range.
    You: Not true!

    Reason: In order for the F-18 to carry 17750, it has to give up range by giving up EFTs. The F-35 does not.

    7. Me: Higher bringback load
    You: ??No idea??

    Reason: See the slide on point #2

    8. Me: Better, more frequent, and cheaper upgrades
    You: C'mon. That's just pure conjecture!

    Reason: There are two fronts that address this, Economy of Scale (EoS) and technology. The F-35 benefits from already having a lengthily post-SDD program in place and funded. The EoS comes into play by distributing the dev cost of the upgrades to a lot of users flying 3000+ airframes. EoS also help keep costs low when it comes to hardware involved in the upgrades. The technology of the F-35 also helps with upgrades due to its open concept and specifics like UAI (which is not even on the F-18’s radar)

    1. 9. Me: Stealthy datalinks
      You: No idea but is that even a problem?

      Reason: In today’s battlefield, not much… in tomorrows battlefields, most assuredly so. Given that the primary sensor on the F-22 is the ESM, any time you broadcast info (as in a broadcast datalink like link-16) you give the enemy a chance to find you, target you, and kill you. There is also the issue of losing the element of surprise. With the F-35’s directional datalinks, the enemy never has an meaningful chance of detecting them.

      10. Me: Better data fusion
      You: If the software ever works!

      Reason: There is no indication that it will not.

      11. Me: Has a MLD/MAWS
      You: ? I don't recognize the abbreviation.

      Reason: MLD = Missile Launch Detector and MAWS = Missile Approach Warning System. The F-18 has no clue that missile is headed it’s way unless the pilot saw it or until the missile goes active.

      12. Me: Does not lose a hardpoint to mount a FLIR
      You: Good but it loses a hard point to mount a gun.

      Reason: That mount is only meant for a gun, so it’s not being to anything.

      14. Me: Requires MUCH less in the way of supporting assets to get the job done (IFR, ISR, Jammers, Escorts, Decoys, etc).
      You: Maybe. Remains to be seen.

      Reason: Look at the entire history of stealth fighter/bomber ops and you will see the trend. I know that some have used it a lot, but Package Q is a classic example of this.

      Yikes.. that was long 

      Sorry, what plans have been pushed beyond 3F in regards to the helmet, sensor fusion, EODAS, etc. While there certainly has been some shuffling around of capabilities within the SDD program, the basics (the ones you mentioned) are part of 3F.

      On thing to keep in mind about the future of naval warfare and how airpower will play a part is:

      There is only so much room on a carrier for planes. There is a push coming to bring more UCAVs onto the carrier and that will happen. The question to ask yourself is “How do I best utilize the limited number of manned fighters that I have left on each carrier?”. Since each F-35C is a good deal better than the F-18 at most of the missions involved, why would you want to use F-18s instead?

      On the cost front, most people think that because the F-18 is cheaper to buy than the F-35C, that you can get more fighters on the carriers. This is a fallacy. There will be the same number of fighters on the carrier because of the limited space. Does it not make sense to put the most capable manned fighter on the carrier if you can afford them?

    2. SpudmanWP,

      You: Yikes..that was long
      Me: Yikes..that was long

      heh, heh. little humor there :)

      In the interests of not writing a book, I'll refrain from going item by item and just hit a point or two.

      Speed/Maneuverability - Wiki lists the F-18E/F speed as m1.8+ and the JSF as m1.6. Acceleration and roll specs were cut back to the same approx level as the F-18, IIRC.

      The slides you linked are unreadable (resolution) and have no context that I could see. Who produced them, when, and what was the data source? For instance, I've seen manf's slides for many programs that made claims that were nowhere near reality.

      As a general observation you appear to believe that the F-35 will achieve all promised capabilities to their max extent (even though some specs have already been cut back!). If that happens then I largely agree with you that the F-35 is a significantly superior aircraft. Unfortunately, history suggests with near 100% certainty that the F-35 will not achieve anywhere near its promised capabilities anymore than the LCS did. Heck, the F-22 is still struggling to achieve its initial promised capabilities (or even to keep pilots alive on O2). There is no reason to think F-35 will be the exception to the rule.

      Unfortunately, aside from waiting several years, I can no more prove that the F-35 will fail to meet some/many of its claims than you can prove it will. If you choose to believe the F-35 will meet all claimed capabilities there is no way I can convince you otherwise. Your mind is made up and there's no point in further debate. We'll have to disagree and wait several years to see how it turns out.

      Consider this, though ... The Navy is making it clear that it is not excited about the F-35C with very tepid endorsements. They're being forced to go along with the program to support the Air Force and foreign sales and have all but said so.

      Consider further ... If the F-35 were so clearly superior and affordable there wouldn't be any detractors and yet the detractors are everywhere. Same with the LCS. That tells me that the F-35 is not what it's claimed.

      I did read a report that the program is looking at pushing many of the F-35's combat capabilities out into future blocks. I don't recall the report off the top of my head to cite it. If you're really interested, I'll dig it out. I've got hundreds of reports on file, as do you, I suspect, and it's hard to remember specific references!

    3. SpudmanWP, I can't agree with your comment about room on the carrier. The Nimitz class was designed for 90+ aircraft and currently operate around 60+. The Ford class is even bigger. Air wings are closing in on half the size they once were. I've done posts on this. There is plenty of room on the carriers. We could add two more squadrons of Hornets (or JSF!) to current carriers with no problem. Unless someone decides to drop dozens of B-2 bomber size UCAVs on a carrier, room is not an issue.

  4. Sorry for not getting back sooner (BDay + Father’s day in the same weekend)… and I‘ll keep it short (for a change)
    1. The top speed for an F-18E is CLEAN, not combat configured. Take a look at this OFFICIAL CHART and you’ll notice that with weapons (even conformal only) it cannot get above m1.55

    2. Sorry about the resolution of those slides. Unfortunately some people only post low res slides, even though they have access to the actual PDF/PPT. We have to work with what we got.

    3. Yes, the F-35 has failed to meet some specs, on the FIRST try. Keep in mind this is still in SDD and there has not been any SHOW STOPPER issues that have come up. For a while, budget issues looked like they might be a show stopper, but thankfully they are getting them under control.

    4. Like you, I am a bit disappointed in what has happened with LCS. IMHO they should have done more work with the mission modules. The NETFIRES issue is just embarrassing. They should have done what LM did with the F-35, have its system in development and working many years before production started. For example, EODAS was in testbed aircraft before the X-35 flew, EOTS and APG-81 were also flying long before production started.

    5. A while back I came up with a simple plan to UpGun the LCS using today’s systems without the need to use any internal space and would still leave space for planned larger weapons like Harpoon/NSM and Mk41s.

    6. Unfortunately, they have been reducing the fighters on a CV for decades. Sure, there is room for more, but they will not go back to 90+ as it’s just too expensive to operate. They have found out that they can do more with less. By reducing the density of airframes on a CV, they have been able to increase the sortie rate. This, in addition to the move to multi-role airframes means that everyone can do every mission, no more dedicated airframes (except the Growler).

    7. Another benefit of the F-35 when it comes to stealthy UCAVs is that the F-35 can accompany them and delegate targets based on its superior Situational Awareness and a shared data picture. In a high-threat environment, the SH will not be able to accompany them without supporting assets to keep it survivable. However, this would eliminate the element of surprise.

    Damn… so much for short….

    Well, at least each answer was short

    1. Do you have the corresponding flight envelope for the F-35?

      Your LCS upgun plan is intriguing and would represent an improvement although I have my doubts that anything useful can come from the LCS regardless of how it's modified due to its inherent structural problems.

      Again, I offer the observation that you are buying totally into the F-35 claims and all claims of superiority are based on that totality. Nothing wrong with that and we'll have to wait and see whether the claims materialize. It leads me to wonder, though, why you don't buy completely into the LCS claims, or maybe you do?

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. For what the F-35 is intended to be, that is a replacement for the F-16/F-18/Harrier, there is nothing coming out of the program or from credible sources that says that it will not meet that need.

      I'm not just talking about JPO/LM PDFs, but sworn testimony given in front of AU Parliament, anecdotal pilot interviews, Partner interviews, common sense, etc.

      Did they miss the boat on several things (budget, schedule, weight, etc)? Sure, but the features and capabilities that it will bring to the field have not been diminished significantly.

      Exit question:

      If you can only have X number of planes on a CV then why not buy the best planes that you can?

    4. "... why not buy the best planes that you can?"

      Because they cost 2X-3X the existing aircraft in a time of very limited budgets!!! If we get 2X-3X performance, then it's probably worth it. I don't think even the most optimistic assessments claim that kind of performance improvement.


      If you can only have X number of planes on a CV then why not buy the best combination of performance and affordability so that we can fill out the air wings?

    5. I assume you've read GAO-13-309 (Mar 2013). If you can read that and not have a twinge of doubt about the F-35 delivering on all its promised capabilities then you're not being objective. You may hope for the best but there is plenty of evidence that not all capabilities may be met (and, in fact, some have already been scaled back).

    6. The most expensive tool is the one that can't perform it's task. With military aircraft the primary tasks are to: deter enemy attack, destroy the enemy, bring the pilot back alive. As technology advances it becomes harder to achieve these objectives with older airframes, even if they have been upgraded. New technology that is pushing the envelope of combat is very expensive to acquire & implement. But since the technology of our enemies doesn't sit still we must continue to acquiring new & better tools in order to: deter the enemy attack, destroy the enemy, bring the pilot back alive.

      I admit that I do not have the expertise to fully access the merits of the F35C vs F35A & Super Hornet. But I hope what ever the outcome we do not find ourselves in a position analogous to some countries, at the onset of WWII, of having a great number of 235 knot fabric & wood bi-planes facing a smaller number of 350 knot metal mono-wing. Having a larger number of out classed aircraft fails to: deter enemy attack, destroy the enemy, bring the pilot back alive. Having 2, 3, or more low cost tools that can't accomplish the objective is more expensive than have 1 that can.

    7. Anon, your comment addresses a few good issues. First, no one, least of all me, would argue in the abstract against better technology and better aircraft. However, when you factor in cost versus budget versus other priorities, you quickly run into the "is it worth the price" question. The F-35 is going to be 2X-3X the cost of a Super Hornet. Will we get 2X-3X the performance from the F-35? Not even the most optimistic supporter of the F-35 is claiming that. At best, the F-35 will offer a modest enhancement. Given the cost, and recognizing that every dollar spent on the F-35 is a dollar not spent on some other weapon system, the question is whether the F-35 is worth the cost. It's not a question of whether the F-35 will be better than the Hornet - it will, to some extent. It's a question of whether the cost is worth it. To put the issue another way, what other weapon are you willing to give up or have less of, because, make no mistake about it, that's what's happening. The F-35 is staggeringly expensive and other weapon systems are being dropped or reduced to pay for it.

      The second issue you touch on is the age-old quality versus quantity. The saying "quantity has a quality all its own" is still true. Go back through your military history and you'll find endless examples of technologically inferior weapons surviving against and even beating superior ones (Wildcat vs Zero, Soviet tanks vs German tanks, etc.). We do not need to have weapons that are 10 generations beyond our enemies especially if we can only afford to produce a few of them. Quantity counts! Of course, there's a balance point and the technology gap can't be too large. A Sopwith Camel isn't going to beat an F-16. With that in mind, the gap between the F-35 and Super Hornet is not very big and the gap between the Super Hornet and our likely enemy's aircraft is not very big, if there even is one. I'm not at all concerned about a technology gap between us and any enemy. I am concerned about runaway budgets that won't allow us to build enough of whatever weapon we need. Consider the B-2 bomber. An amazing piece of technology but we could only afford to build 20 of them. In a war, they'll quickly be lost to a combination of combat and simple maintenance failures. In a sense, I'd rather have 200 B-52's than 20 B-2's.

      Did this help?

    8. “6. Unfortunately, they have been reducing the fighters on a CV for decades. Sure, there is room for more, but they will not go back to 90+ as it’s just too expensive to operate. They have found out that they can do more with less.”

      This is wishful thinking born out of decades of peace – we no longer take attrition into account. Look back at historical examples of air campaigns and you will find that wings are likely to suffer substantial losses during every strike. Ask yourself what a 10-15% casualty rate does to the model. The 90 aircraft CV could sustain those losses and stay on station for a few days longer. That may be the difference between stopping an invasion of Taiwan, or not.

      Also, the business of doing more with less, is in reality a result of a lack of threat which has enabled the Navy, perhaps foolishly, to move the carriers closer to their targets. What happens to that equation when the fleet is forced to fight at extended ranges due to threat? The sortie rate goes into the toilet. This highlights the lack of range on the F/A-18. In fairness is not a problem with the aircraft, but instead with the Navy’s procurement strategy.


  5. Purchase price is only a minor part of the cost of having X number of aircraft on a CV. O&S costs are the largest part. While today’s F-35C costs 2-3x a SH, FRP F-35Cs will not. Given that, their O&S costs are on par or cheaper than the SH, especially when it comes to completing missions. Read up on Package Q, it’s an eye opener and directly relates to the SH and F-35C.

    I glanced through the GAO report and the most I see is a lot of reference to “risk” and “possible” when it comes to cost and delays, nothing definitive

    Most of the recent news has been about costs coming down.

    1. SpudmanWP, you are optimistic in the face of all evidence to the contrary, I'll give you that! Offhand, I can't think of a major program that had significantly reduced costs in serial production. Know of any? Did you ever look into the F-22 serial costs versus initial?

      "Risk" and "possible" are the points to the GAO report. If a house is filled with smoke, only the most extreme optimist would assume there's no fire. The GAO report is filled with cautions, technical shortcomings, risks, and possible problems. Maybe nothing bad will come of any of it but that would not be the most likely outcome. With that many potential problems, it's far more likely that some of them won't be resolved satisfactorily. Same with all the early LCS warnings. It was possible that none would become problems but, as recent history has borne out, many did which was the most likely result.

      No offense but when recent news is coming from the head of Pentagon procurement, I'm pretty sure the information is being heavily spun!

  6. it's just a matter of time.

    The navy will keep it's Super Hornets until 2040 probably updated to the Advanced Super Hornet version. No rush for the F-35C.


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