From time to time ComNavOps examines truisms to see whether they actually do contain truth. Today’s is the common argument that islands don’t sink. This argument is put forth to justify the F-35 program (and by extension, the Marine’s acquisition of the F-35B) or to demonstrate how we will dominate a Chinese conflict using remote, austere bases. Let’s look a bit closer at these ideas.
The F-35 program is often justified by the idea that F-35s (presumably “B” models) will be dispersed to numerous small airstrips carved out of jungle islands. The idea traces its roots back to the Pacific campaign of WWII in which island airstrips were constructed to provide forward operating bases in support of the march across the Pacific. The modern version of this espouses small airstrips hosting a “few” (half a dozen, perhaps?) F-35s that would presumably wreak havoc across thousands of miles of ocean, secure in the knowledge that their base would either be undiscoverable or, if discovered, be “unsinkable”.
So, let’s look at the logistics of such a base. Aside from the obvious need for fuel (modern jets, and the F-35B in particular, are voracious gas guzzlers – a couple of 55 gal drums of fuel aren’t going to suffice as they did for WWII Wildcats) and munitions, even a meager airstrip would need food, water, housing, large supplies of highly sophisticated spare parts and diagnostic equipment (the days of a mechanic with a wrench, duct tape, and wire are long gone). Getting all those supplies to the dispersed bases will be a challenge, to say the least. It was a challenge in WWII when we had thousands of warships and cargo ships and many thousands of delivery aircraft. Today, we have very little in the way of logistical supply ships or aircraft and what little we have will be totally consumed supplying our major bases let alone small airstrips housing a few planes.
|WWII Pacific Airstrip|
In addition, F-35Bs operating in vertical mode (we’re talking short runways, right?) have already been proven to damage existing carrier decks. What will these austere runways be made out of? Common steel? Doesn’t sound like it will hold up. Asphalt? A melted puddle. Concrete? No idea. Again, these are not WWII Corsairs. These are aircraft that are difficult to operate and maintain.
Let’s look closer at the “unsinkable” aspect. Proponents of these bases call the islands unsinkable. I take that to mean that they can’t be permanently destroyed. Strictly speaking, that’s true. The bases do, however, offer fixed targets that can’t move and are perfect for long range ballistic or cruise missile attack. Because these will be austere bases, according to the proponents, they won’t have the sophisticated equipment or technical expertise to repair runways or facilities damaged in attacks. Who’s going to repair destroyed computers, radar arrays, or even paved runways? Of course, we could maintain large stockpiles of extra computers, radars, diagnostic equipment, and specialized aircraft maintenance tools but then the austere base is well on its way to becoming a major base.
Well, the F-35s will provide their own base defense, won’t they? Ignoring the fact that F-35s don’t have an anti-ballistic missile capability and would probably be hard pressed to demonstrate an effective anti-cruise missile defense, if we only have a half dozen (or dozen) aircraft and they’re tied up on base defense, who’s conducting the offensive missions which are, presumably, their reason for existence? Of course, we could mount Patriot batteries and other, similar, high tech, powerful anti-missile defenses and radar systems but, again, there goes the concept of an austere base and the powerful radar broadcasts the base’s location. One quickly reaches a point where the base exists merely to defend itself.
Now, let’s look at the reason the base would exist – it’s offensive capability. We’ve got half a dozen or so high tech, stealthy F-35Bs. These are relatively short range aircraft with limited payload when operating in stealth mode. Presumably, these small, austere bases are going to utilize the F-35B’s vertical or short takeoff capability – if not, we’ve again got a major size base. In vertical or short takeoff mode, the plane sacrifices range and payload. Given the very high tech nature of these aircraft and the intensive maintenance demands – yes, read the initial reports; the maintenance demands are staggering, at the moment, and are unlikely to improve all that much – we’ll be lucky to field three or so aircraft at any given moment. So what will these few aircraft, assuming they aren’t consumed in base defense, do offensively? Well, they can patrol and strike out to a couple hundred miles. Yes, I know they can fly around the world if we want to set up a staggeringly complex tanker and support system. Are we going to have flights of tankers dedicated to small, austere bases housing a half dozen or so aircraft? Not likely! Are we going to dedicate electronic support aircraft (Growlers) to assist these aircraft? Again, no. So, we’ll have a few F-35Bs with limited range and payload attacking targets of opportunity in their immediate area. Does this justify the base construction, defense, and logistics necessary to support them? It doesn’t look like it. The island may be unsinkable but the austere basing concept is not.