Friday, May 15, 2015

F-35 Austere Basing - It's Over!

Navy Times website reports that the Navy has announced that NAS Lemoore will be the focal point for the F-35’s operation and introduction into the fleet (1).  The website article contained some very interesting statements.  Read the following very carefully and then we’ll discuss the implications.

“One thing is for sure, an F-35C squadron will have what Douglass [Cmdr. Brian  Douglass, F-35C project officer on the staff of Strike Fighter Wing, Pacific] called a few more enlisted maintainers around. Currently, an F/A-18E squadron has anywhere between 226 and 234 sailors assigned. An F-35C squadron will include 245 to 250 sailors.

Most of the extra maintainers are due to the planned creation of a completely new maintenance shop for each F-35C squadron. It will only be responsible for maintaining the outside of the aircraft and will be manned by aviation structural mechanics.

The skin of the F-35C is designed to deflect radar and make it tougher to see by potential enemies. This stealth capability is so important that there will be a complete new shop in the squadron, manned by sailors with special training and skills to maintain it.

‘The low observability of the F-35C is considered a weapons platform and that's going to be a huge mind shift for us to treat the exterior of the airplane and the maintenance with such care,’ Douglass said. ‘It's not that we don't care for the exterior of our aircraft today, but this is on a totally different level, and we want to keep it pristine, because that's part of the weapons capability. That's why we procured this airplane.’ “

Did you catch the reference to the manning increase of around 20 personnel for each F-35 squadron?  Recall - what does the Navy claim is the biggest challenge it faces regarding budgets?  The answer is personnel costs.  In their attempt to address this critical issue (their view, not mine) the Navy has designed the LCS, Zumwalt, and Ford with crews that are hugely undersized and totally inadequate for combat and damage control.  Despite being willing to risk the loss of major combat vessels in a bid to decrease manning costs, the F-35 squadrons will increase maintenance manning by 20 people per squadron!  You’ll recall that the F-35 was supposed to have a magical, telepathic, all-knowing maintenance program (ALIS – Autonomic Logistics Information System) that would decrease maintenance manning requirements.  Instead, we see that the F-35 will require 20 more maintainers per squadron.

Did you also catch what those extra maintenance people would be doing?  External stealth maintenance!  I thought the F-35 was supposed to be relatively maintenance free as regards its external skin.  I guess that wasn’t true.

Now, think about the implication of the stealth maintenance requirement.  This is going to upset a lot of people so brace yourself.  This admission that the F-35 is going to need large numbers of highly specialized and exquisitely trained extra maintainers just for the stealth aspect means that the fantasy dream that many F-35 supporters have of operating a few F-35s from hidden, disbursed, austere bases is totally unachievable – a complete fantasy.  Note the key sentence from the article’s quote,

“It's not that we don't care for the exterior of our aircraft today, but this is on a totally different level, and we want to keep it pristine, because that's part of the weapons capability.”

Note the phrase, “totally different level”, and the word “pristine”.  These are not achievable by a few mechanics taking care of planes in an austere jungle base.  I have severe doubts that this “totally different level” of maintenance is even achievable in a carrier’s hangar.

Now, there’s nothing surprising about any of this.  Did we really think that the F-35 was somehow going to get by with casual, low tech maintenance performed by a cigar-chomping, roadside mechanic with a pipe wrench when the F-22 requires near-surgical operating room precision and cleanliness to maintain?

Supporters, this is the official death knell of the austere basing concept.  Embrace it. 

Increased manning costs and the end of the austere basing concept (not that it was ever realistic) - the F-35 is the gift that keeps on giving.

(1)Navy Times, “NAS Lemoore prepares for F-35 arrival, more F/A-18s” Mark D. Faram, May 10, 2015


  1. its more than just austere basing that is no longer possible. it also means that operating the plane from a carrier just became damn near impossible. have you seen an airplane after it comes back from even a few days at sea? they're remarkably nasty! i might be reading your article wrong but this also means that the Navy will have to change how it does things aboard a carrier. you can't keep these planes on deck. they're going to be in the hangar until its time to launch them.

    1. You're quite likely correct!

    2. How many airplanes can a carrier have in board if it is limited to below deck only vs the usual configuration?

    3. @SurfGW,

      From what I know, the same.
      Every spotted plane MUST (unless they've changed that in the last 20 years, in which case *eyeroll and exasperated sigh*) have a space on the hanger deck in case of a sudden storm, those ~30kt trudging beasts can't exactly outrun a weather pattern.
      ...And if someone thinks that foreknowledge of the weather patterns with all our modern reporting will save them... it hasn't worked yet, we still get caught unawares frequently enough (about once or twice a year) so I'm not holding my breath.

      However, it's also worth pointing out that being rained on will ruin the F-35's stealth... so if they HAVE changed the rules and based their present figures on that, then our real plane count just plummeted to around the upper 30s (because of internal pathway space would have to be factored in as well).
      ...Meaning the old Essexs would hold just as many aircraft, and that's plain stupid.

      - Ray D.

  2. Fact of life for any low observable platform. Take it or leave it.

    1. You're right but the implications fly in the face of official and unofficial plans for using the F-35. See Solomon's comment above about the impact on carrier ops, maintenance, and hangar space in addition to the post's point about austere basing.

  3. Honestly, this whole project is falling apart because the original requirements were totally contradictory.

    Stealth aircraft are totally incompatible with the idea of austere basing requirements. They require special care for their skins and various other components.

    The F-35B, a VTOL aircraft also has problems because what's needed for a good air to air fighter is totally at odds with VTOL, which requires a lift fan (large draggy fuselage) and small wings.

    Something that can land in an austere base means:

    - Engines have to be FOD resistant
    - Not too complex to maintain (doesn't need an army of technicians)
    - Easy on the logistics chain
    - Can land/take off in poorly prepared landing areas (maybe no more than dirt strips), so wide tires
    - Able to function reliably if handled in a "rough" environment

    This is totally incompatible with the F-35.

    Actually this demands another question - can this aircraft survive the humid conditions that may be at sea or for that matter, extended exposures to salt? What are the implications to the stealth skin?

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  5. Here is a novel idea. Since the Navy is new to stealth, why not borrow an F-117 or F-22 and lift it onto and park it on a carrier deck for a training rep off of our coasts. Wash it, rub it down (or polish it, baby it, whatever), per the maintenance instructions, then lift it off and go fly it on a range and see how the stealth works.

    Wow prove it out before you buy, what a novel idea. But no instead we mortgage the entire Naval Aviation budget for something we don't know works in a carrier environment.

    1. Historically, stealth has not held up to the rain well at all.

      From article:

      "It ''must be sheltered or exposed only to the most benign environments -- low humidity, no precipitation, moderate temperatures,'' said the report by the General Accounting Office.

      The report said that the skin of the plane cannot handle the heat or the damp or the rain. That skin, made of thermoplastics and composites transparent to radar, is supposed to help give the bomber its much-touted radar-evading ''stealthy'' qualities. "

      Unless there have been advances in this area, I get the feeling that the results are not going to be pretty.

      The F-22 I would imagine with so few are simply too expensive to put on an aircraft carrier to "test".

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  6. Concerning austere basing see this old post by ELP

  7. 16 aircraft, 20 extra maintainers
    I'm not seeing the sky falling here.

    Its not a good thing, but this isn't going to be the straw that breaks the camels back.

    Austere is relative
    The b2 and the f22 exist in a climate controlled micro bunker.
    The F35 can live outside with 1.5 full time washers

    We've known for a while it wasn't going to be operating out of a clearing blown that morning with c4 and diggers...

  8. Can the Marines maintain four F-35 bases (plus Iwakuni)? The Corps will be lucky to get one F-35 for every two Hornet/Harriers now in service. This guy speculates the Corps will move to two master jet bases too.

    Establish two F-35 master jet bases

    Over decade ago, plans were presented for the expensive F-35 that called for basing all Marine Corps F-35Bs at two "master" jet bases: MCAS Beaufort SC and MCAS Yuma AZ, like the Navy has done at NAS Oceana and NAS Lemoore. This is cost effective due to maintenance, logistics, and training (including simulators) demands. As budgets soared after 9-11, plans for F-35 squadrons increased and the need to economize became less important.

    Budget growth has ended while F-35 costs continue to rise. The Corps must accept that fewer F-35 squadrons are likely and consider ideas to save money and manpower. A return to the idea of two F-35 master jet bases is one solution, allowing the elimination of MAG-11 headquarters at MCAS Miramar and its MALS-11, as well as MAG-14 headquarters at MCAS Cherry Point NC and its MALS-14. Not basing F-35s at Miramar also resolves the ongoing noise complaint battle with San Diego residents, and removes some Marines from an area with high housing costs. This would leave Cherry Point with just one flying squadron, but one of the two MAGs from nearby MCAS New River can move over with some squadrons.

    A miracle may occur and budgets grow while F-35 costs fall. The two master jet bases could still accommodate all the F-35 squadrons planned since a third of these squadrons will be deployed at any given time. Another option is to demand that the Navy host the planned five (now four) Marine Corps F-35C (carrier versions) aboard one of its air stations. This simplifies logistics and training by co-locating with the other carrier air wing squadrons, and saves the Corps base operating costs. Since the Navy argued that maintaining F-35Bs on its carriers would be too complex, the Marines can argue that maintaining F-35Cs at its air stations is too complex. Yet another option is to transfer Cherry Point and its operational costs to the Navy to ease crowding and noise complaints at NAS Oceana while also hosting four Marine F-35Cs at "NAS" Cherry Point.

    The Marine Corps needn't make this decision soon. The first F-35 squadrons are already slated for Beaufort and Yuma. As events unfold over the next two years and if fewer F-35s will be procured, the Corps should adapt by announcing a plan for two master jet bases."

    From this link:

  9. I’m not really sure of your model for austere basing. But the definitions I have tended to work with are forward basing focused on re-fuel and re-arm only.
    The advantage of this is in the form of quick response and\or sortie rate for the likes of CAS. Or in the case of air defence it creates massive difficulty in predicting and monitoring possible counters to a planned air penetration.
    Austere bases tend to be temporary and will move regally, either in support of the front line dynamics, or simply to prevent targeting and to continue to provide uncertainty for an enemy strategy.
    Maintenance beyond the simples Items would be conducted on a carrier or a main land base. Aircraft are regularly rotated through austere basing, as and when.
    So I’m not sure the additional maintenance load will necessarily offset the advantages listed above, or even affect it?

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    2. Austere basing is about movement and flexibility. It’s about options.
      You only obviously need to supply what the aircraft use. If a base relocates or runs low on supply aircraft use another base or the sortie must return to the main facility.
      Because an austere based aircraft is close and only used when needed, we are not operating a CAP situation with extended sortie times.
      If you want enduring high level, high tempo operations you use a main base.
      This is why they call them austere.
      ( I would however note that 6 tonnes towards the front lines is not an unfeasible amount at all for a US Army, USMC advance. )

    3. my punctuation is awful sorry ;
      "You only obviously need to supply what the aircraft use. If a base relocates or runs low on supply, aircraft use another base "

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    5. Beno,

      I never bought into the austere basing concept - we have ships(CVN or LHA/LHD) which are capable of moving 480-720 nautical miles a day, providing all of the C4ISR, fuel and munitions along with the all important maintenance folks: why on earth do we need an "austere base" unless it is to support operations further inland?

      Six tons per sortie sounds great until you realize that a flight consists of four aircraft, and if you are looking at trying to get at least two sorties per day per aircraft... the math gets formidable.

      But riddle me this, how much slower are operations at austere bases? that is to say, what is the performance hit in turning around aircraft?

      How many "extra sets of tools" does an F-35 squadron deploy with to support "austere bases"? Ho many extra bomb carts, how many extra spare parts?

      Again, the math is pretty decidedly against austere basing.


    6. Hi Gab,
      Obviously I can’t tell you the numbers. We haven’t figured out exactly how to do it for the F35B yet. I think we both agree that it’s an expense. Its “less than optimal”.

      From a naval point of view it’s about extending inland in support of an assault.

      As I think CNO has posted before the Navy now want to stay well off shore, to the tune of hundreds of miles. This is killing sortie rates and time on target.

      Once we theoretically have a beach head and start to move significantly inland, we are already looking for land bases. Obviously they aren’t always there, and if they were likely they will be left in a poor state by this point. The ability to establish quickly a forward base, without existing infrastructure is a significant advantage. ( we forward base in terms of mechanised land forces and rotary wing already remember )

      The only information I can offer is this;

      Obviously its Harrier based, but does prove it can be done, and that it’s a war winning capability.


    7. Beno,

      The point isn't simply feasibility, we also have to take into account the opportunity costs compared to other options.

      Reality check: the unrefueled combat radius of a laden (no sling loads) H-53 is ~300 nautical miles (it has to fly back) without air to air refueling.

      Even if we could push that to 600 nautical miles; what exactly have we gained (and lost) as opposed to simply adding a tanker mission rather than tying up two or more desperately needed heavy lift aircraft, disrupting squadron integrity (particularly maintenance), and deploying these F-35s without EW, tanker, and airborne early warning support . And this still does not address all of the intelligence and mission planning that will have to go to support the F-35.

      As you point out, we do not have good data for the logistics bit, but I can tell you that the deployable assets just for mapping will really put a twist on most units.

      Austere basing in continental Europe was an imperative; austere basin in the Pacific is silly if we are talking about peeling off 4-6 F-35s from a CVN, LHA, or LHD and then having to use a carrier group or ARG to sustain the austere base.

      Is we are talking about driving 300 nm into mainland China, then we are not talking about "austere basing" at all, but rather rebasing alongside with the entire military might of the USA.

      Just saying.



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