Friday, July 24, 2015


In the discussion comments about restarting the F-22 production line, a comment was made that the F-22 and F-18 aren’t STOVL (Short TakeOff Vertical Landing).  This comment prompted me to think - is there really any value to STOVL for the USN? 

Before I go any further, let me be quite clear and upfront about why I’m writing this post.  I am absolutely not using this as an opportunity to embarrass the person who wrote the comment.  Just the opposite, in fact.  The comment inspired me to continue the discussion and for that I sincerely thank the writer.  So, moving on.

Once upon a time we dreamed of hordes of jump jets operating from patches of jungle, rising up from nowhere, striking, and vanishing again with the enemy left helplessly trying to track down individual, well hidden mini-bases.  A nice idea, huh?  Well, reality has long proven that the dream is just that - a dream.  The logistics of supplying dozens of remote bases with fuel, munitions, and parts renders the concept void.  Further, modern stealth jets, the F-35B, in this case, require exquisite and extensive maintenance – hardly an enabler of remote bases.

The concept has never been used and as modern aircraft become ever more complex, the likelihood of it ever happening is as close to zero as can be.

That leaves operating from LHx amphibious vessels.  Now this is the real question: does the ability to operate a dozen STOVL aircraft really gain us enough to justify the impact on the LHx's main function which is delivery of fully equipped troops ashore? 

Given the significantly reduced size of current air wings, couldn’t we base the dozen extra F-35s on one of the carriers?  There will always be one or more around if we’re conducting amphibious operations.  Operating from a carrier will free up spots on the LHx for transport helos/V-22s and eliminate an entire maintenance line.  The carrier will already operate and maintain F-35s so, again, it makes sense to base the F-35Bs on the carrier.

Of course, this immediately leads to the next logical question:  why do we even need the F-35B if we’re going to base them on a carrier?  They have less range and less payload.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to simply have more F-35Cs?

OK, that covers the USN’s needs.  What about our allies?  Well, they have small carriers or limited carriers (like the Royal Navy) and may well have to operate a STOVL aircraft.  Honestly, I’m not familiar enough with foreign navies to understand their situations with certainty.  Still, are the needs of our allies enough to justify the abomination of a program that F-35 has become – and the F-35B is one of the major contributors to the disaster? 

What are we talking about for total F-35B sales?  A couple hundred?  Is that sufficient justification?  If it is, let the STOVL aircraft be a dedicated program with our allies paying the full cost.  I suspect we’d find that STOVL wasn’t all that important to them.

Recognize that I’m not trashing our allies.  They’re quite logically jumping on board to gain what benefit they can.  However, both the US and our allies need to recognize what the F-35 is doing to their budgets and their force structure.  The countries that want the F-35 will be forced to sacrifice major assets to free up enough money to get the aircraft or they will have to cut the buys to the point where, again, you have to ask what the value is.

The F-35, in general, and the F-35B, in particular, have wrecked the US Marine Corps force structure and many of our allies budgets and force structures, all in the name of a STOVL capability that is of very limited value.


  1. From a British perspective, limiting the new QE-class carriers to F-35B looks a lot like a dead end: when it is found to be inadequate to the job, no fixed-wing replacement will be available, and I strongly suspect the ships will end up as very expensive helicopter carriers.

    1. Its a shame, at this point may as well shut down the entire RN...

  2. CNO,

    I'm with you on the STOVL thing. It ends up requiring Rube Goldberg level engineering freakishness that has to be re-developed for EVERY aircraft that flies off the carrier.

    Canceling the F-35B won't rectify the negative impacts it's had on the overall F-35 program but it would save us some money.

    Unfortunately it would also piss off the UK, Italians and USMC.

  3. I am repeating myself but it is key to note that STOVL is a niche capability: the absolute first order of business for any air force is to sweep the skies of enemy aircraft - no STOVL aircraft has proven to be competitive with, let alone advantaged over conventional fighters.

    Herein lies the issue, the last capability that you want to give up is the A2A mission - STOVL does not trump that.

    I would trade off STOVL, and even A2G capability in order to gain a fighter that gets me air superiority. In fact, I would prioritize AWACS, EW, and tanker aircraft far above STOVL aircraft.


    1. "No STOVL aircraft has proven to be competitive with, let alone advantaged over conventional fighters."

      How do you explain Falklands War? Sea Harriers shot down 20 Argentine aircraft for zero air-to-air losses.

    2. Air superiority isnt going to help the troops on the beaches much against other ground forces.
      The reality of the F35B is its performance is on par with the F35C, the same avionics. And as a dedicated anti air fighter the Sea Harrier with its advanced radar and longer range missiles could provide CAP and a measure of air superiority.
      Just wait till they refine the F35B tactics with what is a in effect an movable rear nozzle , you might find against a dedicated air combat fighter there is a more than even chance.

    3. Ztev, remember that air superiority is exactly what will allow the attack helos and transport helos/V-22s to provide the close ground support that the troops will need. Also, if we can establish air superiority, we can probably free up some aircraft for ground support. Air superiority will be vital for the success of ground troops.

    4. "How do you explain Falklands War? Sea Harriers shot down 20 Argentine aircraft for zero air-to-air losses."

      I may be wrong about this but, as I recall, the Argentines made no attempt to engage in A2A combat. The kills were all made against passive targets. That hardly demonstrates any inherent superiority about the Harrier or STOVL. Am I remembering this correctly?

    5. The Harrier was never equal contemporary fighter aircraft; most of its "kills" in the Falklands war were against aged subsonic attack aircraft like the A-4.

      The Harrier was distinctly inferior to the A-10 and SU-25 in the ground attack mode: the only thing that "justified" the Harrier was STOVL.

      The whole "helping the ground troops" argument is a canard as the greatest support a friendly air force can provide is to prevent the *enemy air force* from observing and attacking friendly ground forces.

      We have bee luck to face small or non-existent enemy air forces in the past 70 years, but a peer competitor like China or Russia is going to contest the skies. Devoting significant resources to acquiring ground attack aircraft at the expense of fighters, or emphasizing the ground mission over A2A training is a fatal error.

      Keeping modest numbers of aircraft like A-10s , OV-10s, Super Tucanos, SU-25s is not a bad thing, but building the core of your fighter assets around a fighter whose design has been compromised for STOVL is borderline insanity.


      Get used to it, and bring the tanks and artillery

    6. "... bring the tanks ... "

      You mean if there are any left after the Marines are done cutting them?

    7. "We have bee luck to face small or non-existent enemy air forces in the past 70 years, but a peer competitor like China or Russia is going to contest the skies."

      An accurate observation and it reinforces my constant refrain that we have forgotten what real war is and have certainly forgotten how to fight one.

    8. CNO,

      The corollary is that serious fights result in expenditures of ammunition that far out weigh pre-war near universal observation from Manila, to Stalingrad, to the heart of Nazi Germany; ground forces generally expended 150-200% of their ammunition capacity daily!

      Even "mopping up" operations required at least one tank or direct fire artillery (!) round applied to every house or bunker. for larger masonry structures like apartment buildings, required at least one 150/152/155mm howitzer round direct fired *per floor* - nobody trains or brings that level of logistics support anymore, but digging out infantry is tough, and PGMs are not the complete answer.


    9. "Even "mopping up" operations required at least one tank or direct fire artillery (!) round applied to every house or bunker. for larger masonry structures like apartment buildings, required at least one 150/152/155mm howitzer round direct fired *per floor* ..."

      And that raises another of my constant refrains: we've abandoned the notion of area firepower (like taking out a floor to get a sniper or a squad of infantry) due to our obsession with avoidance of collateral damage. If we get into a war with China, NK, Iran, or Russia, we'll quickly be reminded what war is and just how indiscriminately firepower is employed by our enemies. If we attempt to limit collateral damage as we do now, we'll be fighting with one hand tied behind our back.

      I'm not suggesting indiscriminate fire but if a sniper is in a mosque or church, we'd better be willing to destroy the building. If a squad is in an apartment building, we'd better be willing to destroy the entire building. Any other approach is just going to get us killed and give our enemy an unreasonable advantage.

      We need to develop doctrine for clearing buildings without going door to door. Clearing has to be done with high explosives to minimize our own casualties and get us moving on to the next objective. Unfortunately, we have a generation of "combat" leaders who think the highly restrictive ROEs they've lived with are how combat is done. Nothing could be more wrong.

    10. CNO,

      We "know" how to clear buildings and other structures without entering them, by 1945 the ultimate solution was to tow a major caliber artillery piece into the street and blast buildings at point blank range (also repeated at Hue in Vietnam).

      Lesser efforts were to put an HE or WP tank round into every room of every building that dominated approach routes. Tanks went through upwards of 120-200 rounds a day. The amount of machinegun ammunition expenditure was also fantastic.

      This is why PGMs, though useful, are not the entire answer. Accuracy was not a problem, the issue was that the enemy could reoccupy any firing position as required. This obligated the total destruction of every building or bunker when possible, or the necessity of repeatedly suppressing a position with explosives and machine gun fire. You can see how repeated firing of $100,000 munitions into a structure makes things costly.


  4. With carriers, the bottleneck is usually available deck space. The issue with trying to squeeze more airplanes on a carrier is, is there enough deck and storage space for them?

    As far as VTOL and STOVL, I'm generally against them. VTOL in particular is a bad idea because it means you have to have short, stubby wings (low wing loading) and the design of the aircraft means that it has to have a large draggy hull (either for the lift fan in the case of the F-35, or the smaller nozzles for the Harrier).

    It leads to an aircraft that will not have a good range, is not very agile, and is extremely vulnerable to being destroyed (the F-35 has fuel around the engines and the Harrier's design makes it easy for IR missiles to home in on the vulnerable points).

    On top of that, the idea of VTOLing aircraft in austere front line bases is not possible. They are simply too vulnerable to FOB and the logistics tails are quite long.

    1. Oops, I made a typo - there, it should be "high wing loading".

      Finally, there is one other thing to note, and that is that a VTOL aircraft tend to cost more than more conventional aircraft. That means you cannot buy as many for a given budget.

      They also tend to have reliability issues. So they have a worse flight to maintenance ratio and they are more prone to peacetime incidents. Look at the incidents for the Harrier for example - apparently it has been nicknamed, the Widowmaker.

    2. Yeah, and then there are always 'basic planes', often one engined, or two (small engines), like the Hal Tejas, that have all the bells and whistles stripped away. They cost even less than a normal plane. It is bassically the Indian version of the american F16 (not the actual plane, but the lightweight fighter). Which makes the STOVL proposition look even worse, when such planes as the Tejas could potentially make operating 'difficult'.

      Such cheap, high availability planes could see you heavily outnumbered for a fixed investment, particularly if the people operating the STOVL plane, are bringing it via naval vessels...

  5. Let history repeat itself in a good way for once. Let's go back to separate Strike and Fighter aircraft. Each can be optimized for what its mission needs and NO MORE. IF commonality works at the lower levels (fuel pumps, engines?, etc.) do it but do not become slave to commonality. And for Heaven's sake get rid of these electronics that are unproven and ridiculously expensive.

    1. I disagree, you don't necessarily need to completely separate the missions to achieve something effective, you can still retain some multi-role capability. But you do need to separate the dedicated bombing missions from everything else. A bomber is and always will be a specialized plane that is less manueverable than a multirole plane or a dedicated fighter.

      Actually I like the LMFS concept, I think it has room for a single bomb/missile, it's a good concept for a multirole figher, as in theory you could have some sort of Anti-radar/installation weapon in there, which helps it to operate over enemy air-space, or at sea, where there are enemy ships. Yet it is not a dedicated bomber, and a dedicated bomber would deliver much larger or far more munitions. I think the F22 goes to far towards being a single-purpose airplane...

    2. I am not saying that aircraft can ONLY do one role. The definition of F is to perform primarily Fighter with a secondary attack role. The term F/A was made up by NavAir in violation of the naming convention.

      So can a Fighter carry a couple of bombs and attach targets. Yes, given the primary purpose is fighting and once you lose the bombs (either by attacking or jettisoning) the performance goes back to that of a FIGHTER. Do NOT add fancy ground targeting, excessive load points that induce drag, etc.

      Likewise an Attack aircraft can do other missions that only require low speed, long range, heavy haul, etc. (tanking or observation) Again Do NOT try to make it a supersonic stealthy (internal stores only) beast. Bombers DO NOT need to go straight up!

      An F-18C/D costs $29M (2006), when we try to make it do everything the F-18 E/F costs $61M (2013). The old A-6 cost $43M (1998) and I have to believe that the majority of that was in the electronics. So we could have 2 optimized aircraft for almost the cost (I believe less) of one do everything (less than well) aircraft.

    3. The F/A-18C/D is a "do everything" aircraft too. We just chose to make a newer, larger version. That's why SH costs more.

      For reference, using your numbers but adjusting for inflation based on CPI (FY15):

      F/A-18C/D - $34.3 million
      F/A-18E/F- $62.5 million
      A-6 - $63 million

  6. I big issue is that the Harrier mishap rate is almost four times greater than fixed wing jets. When aircraft fly, minor engine hiccups are common, but the aircraft is gliding on wings so pilots have time to react. When in VTOL, that aircraft is in delicate balance with engines near full power. Any minor glitch makes it instantly fall because it is not flying on wings at that point. Nearly half of all Harriers have crashed from mishaps. So now we are building an even more complex and far more expensive VTOL beast - The F-35B?

    1. If Harrier/AV-8 mishaps were due to glitches in the main you'd have a point. Incidents are overwhelmingly pilot error operating a complex flight mode.

    2. I think that's the point. The aircraft operates in a very unforgiving mode during take off and landing. The slightest glitch, whether mechanical or human, is much more likely to result in a crash.

    3. There's a bigger issue. If an aircraft has such a low margin of error in peacetime, what kind of combat damage will it take? Probably not much.

      And even if there is minimal damage from combat, wartime wear and tear of equipment where margins are so low will exact a toll in losses.

  7. It depends on the war really.

    The Falklands is a poor example for most wars, but although Argentina had the airports, it was England that had the airpower.
    In a VERY logistically challenging environment, we mananged to build a harrier forward operating base and keep it operational.

    All that said, had we built the originally intended fleet carriers, with Phantoms Buccaneers and Gannet AEWs would have had little need for a FOB.

  8. I think the desire now comes from the fact that an lots of countries and people would like to turn their flat-top troop transports into 'mini-carriers', and I suppose that makes some degree of sense, and it probably wouldn't be that bad if the plane didn't cost so much and have such bad reliability and high maintenance needs and operating costs...

    And the Harrier was fairly good at the time, probably wasn't the best, but it was al right, which meant those flat tops had some proper air-support. And there were some fantastic visions for it, their were a series of propossed 'harrier carriers', that were often around 8,000-12,000 tonnes and were to carry upto a combination of about a dozen harriers and helicopters outfited for AEW and ASW. That offers a great deal of distributed lethality right there, and would have made such ships highly capable for the time...

    I think though, the employment of STOVL planes by the USMC is in effect an implementation of Zumwalts 'Sea Control Ship'. And fundamentally I think troop transport, and sea-control should be seperate missions with seperate ships. I think if the US was too build a series of small 'DDGH' as the japanese refer to them as, running improved 'next gen' helicopters like the JMR AVX design (not tilt rotors which are unnecessarily complicated and heavy, and expensive) equipped with radar like searchmaster, MALD, Sonar buoys, etc..etc.. I think then it would make an awful lot of sense to have some sort of STOVL plane to provide air-cover, as building an angled flight deck and putting catapults on it, would probably add signficantly to the cost.

    Other than that, and any possible expeditionary utility to the army, I think that sea-control would be better done by actual small or 'escort-carriers' with angled flight decks, and a modern version of the S-3 Viking, as the primary ASW and ASuW platform, supported by a small number of fighters.

    1. "And fundamentally I think troop transport, and sea-control should be seperate missions with seperate ships."

      Anon, overall an interesting comment. What do you think sea-control is and how do you see it fitting into a high end war? I ask because a small carrier with a dozen Harriers (or F-35s) is not much of a combat power so I wonder how it would fit into a modern conflict against a peer enemy.

      Very nice comment.

    2. Basically attempting to excert a controlling influence over some portion of the sea through specialized ASW and ASuW assets. Zumwalts original proposal during the cold war was based around a loadout of ASW helicopters which would hunt Soviet Subs, with a small number (like 4) of fixed wing fighter planes to keep soviet bombers and MPAs away.

      There were serious proposals to do the same thing with the harriers, called the 'harrier carrier', with a few shipyards actually pencilling out designs.

      How such a concept would slot into a modern conflict, you would probably go one of two routes:
      1.) Cheap, non-angled, flat-top carrier with no CATs, operating Helicopters outfitted for ASW and ASuW with options to carry offensive weapons, it would have a few (3-4) STOVL planes for aircover, and some defensive weaponry like CWIS and CAMM, Torpedo defences etc..etc..

      It would operate in a cruiser role, independently without escort, it would provide situational awareness to all near bye naval assets, and a strong independent ASW and ASuW capability. It would be similar to the Bremer Vulkan HC-800 to HC 1100PV. Probably being around ~10,000Tonnes.

      2.) A proper aircraft carrier, it would have angled flight decks, CATs and it would operate a combination of proper fixed wing MPAs (with ASW and ASuW capabilities) similar to the S3 Vikings, A small number of fighter planes, and potentially 1-2 AWACS and a tanker/cargo plane. It would similarly have defensive systems for self protection.

      However this option would cost much more, it would also need to be much bigger to have that angled flight deck, therefore it would carry more Aviation Assets.. However it would be the more capable and survivable option.

      In both cases, the utility is that such SCS (sea control ships) can (each) patrol a large amount of water, and many such ships (regardless of what route is taken) can be fielded (with airwing) for the cost of a single 'mega-carrier', particularly if they are too operate independently without escort.

      They would work in conjuction with other naval platforms, submarines with antiship missiles, larger carriers with a much stronger A2A capability for example. They wouldn't go toe-to-toe with say a Chinese mega carrier with a much larger airwing, in an air-battle, they would work to control the seas, and provide targeting information for other platforms which would take out the carriers.

    3. What would make the SCS really work is a suite of small, low cost UCAVs instead of huge, F-15-sized fighters.. :)

    4. FOR Sea-control you really, really need aviation assets that are great for detecting surface vessels and submarines. Existing CATOBAR 'F15 sized' fighters are really not what you want or need, they have virtually no capability to detect submarines, and their radar systems are probably not very well optimized for detecting surface vessals (as opposed to a system with something like the searchmaster radar on it).

      Also the high-speed, high-altitude, high-g sustained manuever, high-combat payload, low-rcs features of a top-line fighter jet are not required to conduct ASuW and ASW operations. Yet these features which define modern fighterplanes, are features that you need to pay a large premium for.

      What you want is a more basic plane, that has a reasonably low signature, which cruises efficently at a medium-low altitude, which has reasonable range and carry a combination of ASW and ASuW weapons. At the most you would be looking for limited short-ranged defensive capabilities (i.e. within 20KM through IRST and/or basic radar).

      The fighters would only be to provide a limited defence for the carrier, and it's MPAs (maritime patrol aircrafts) in its operations zone.

    5. Anon said, "Also the high-speed, high-altitude, high-g sustained manuever, high-combat payload, low-rcs features of a top-line fighter jet are not required to conduct ASuW and ASW operations. "

      The Russians developed an ASW/ASuW variant of of their long range SU-32 Fullback fighter. There is value in having a fighter-class aircraft perform ASuW and ASW, if there is a threat of enemy fighters in the operating area.

      If using UAVs, I'd split the role between two aircraft: a "looker/listener" and a "shooter".

      Make the former a MALE UAV along the lines of Predator/Reaper. Configure it with a pod-mounted sonobuoy comms relay and a maritime search radar. It can sit comfortably at 20kft for long periods.

      The shooter is little more than a reusable munition/payload bus, perhaps only somewhat larger than a cruise missile using a bizjet engine. Essentially a Reusable Cruse Missile (ReCM). Design a sonobuoy dispensing payload for it, as well as an ability to carry a torpedo or two.

      Given that the ReCM is rather small and thus inexpensive, you can buy and carry quite a few in the same deck spot as a fighter.

      Launch multiple ReCMs to seed the appropriate number of sonobuoys in the configuration you want. Launch one or more UAVs to retransmit sonobuoy data back to the ship (or back to CONUS via SATCOM) for processing and analysis. If a sub is detected, additional ReCMs can fly with more sonobuoys to localize the sub and torpedoes to attack it.

      ReCMs could also carry cruise missiles or other munitions to attack surface ships detected by the UAV or other means.

  9. Note: Amphibs most often operate part of MEUs where no carrier support is provided, but all spectrum (but limited) capability is expected. If no Harriet or VTOL, what else can operate from LHDs?

    1. SurfGW, MEUs operate without carrier support only in a completely permissive environment. If the air space is contested at all, a carrier or land based air would provide support. So, if there is no A2A requirement then the F-35 is not needed. The only aviation need in that case is for troop/supply transport and ground support (CAS). In fact, an attack helo would be much more useful to ground troops than an F-35B.

  10. @ComNavOps

    Worth remembering that JSF was birthed from UK and USMC STOVL programs. USN and USAF inclusion came later, at the insistence of US Congress.

  11. I actually don't remember that. Point me at a link that describes that history.

    1. The US-centric view is summarised here:

      Worth using only as a starting point.

      The UK centric view is less reported, however a look at the P.1216 program, best defined in NST.6464, is recommended as that program (which was developed alongside what would become Eurofighter to give an idea of tech level) contained systems development that made it directly into F-35.

      e.g. STOVL system (three bearing swivel nozzle in particular) to early forms of sensor fusion. Eurofighter has been able to link PIRATE between the aircraft in a flight since conception and those materials were transferred (amongst others) as part of the UK share of what became F-35.

      Timeline-wise, the advanced forms of P.1216 were withheld even from the US during the early 80's. DARPA/Lockheed's work was likely a result of the combined "lower tech" solutions being jointly developed with McD.

      Once DARPA's hand in a more advanced project was unveiled, the advanced P.1216 work was shared.

      The aircraft takes a lot of flak from being "compromised" by the lift fan. It's the other way around, USN and USAF requirements were added later. If the "B Model" were left to it's own development it would have been in full service years ago. It didn't need to outfight an F-16 (just be competitive with the less manoeuvrable Mig-29). It didn't need to be a stealth fighter, benefiting instead from the Eurofighter reduced RCS approach. It didn't need to be able to smash into a deck at 100+ knots, instead alighting gently in a much more civilised manner (likely while Brit pilots sipped their cups of tea...).

    2. Your link and other references document a slightly different pedigree. In shortest form, the JSF came from the JAST which began in 1993. The UK became officially part of the effort in 1995.

      Regardless, all the models should have been developed as separate programs, as you suggest.

      I particularly like your suggestion that the B model didn't need to be what it is today. I may do a post on that!

  12. "Still, are the needs of our allies enough to justify the abomination of a program that F-35 has become – and the F-35B is one of the major contributors to the disaster? "

    As the other Tier 1 original project starter, the UK put in the money and the expertise to start the project.

    This pretty much justifies it right there.

    You'll note the F35C is currently benefitting from the UK developed "Magic Carpet" technology and starting to hit the deck pretty much inch perfect, so its not all bad hey ?

    1. Ben, I'm unfamiliar with Magic Carpet. What is it? Is it a reference to automated landing systems which have been around for decades?

    2. Ben, according to Wikipedia, the UK paid $200M towards the concept demo phase. That's equivalent to a it more than one plane. That's not exactly an ironclad justification for the program!

    3. Hmmmmm, that's weird I got $2.5 billion.

      "The United Kingdom is the sole "Level 1" partner, contributing US$2.5 billion"


      Wiki is always a little dubious tho isn't it.

      I think my point really was that the implication that relying on outside expertise\cash was a favorable "option", may be misplaced. Particually in the current financial situation.

      I'm pretty sure, if we look at the actually issues, that the program would be going at least as badly if you had tried "going it alone"

      This isn't a bad thing, because personally I thing F35 is going to be a triumph of UK\US cooperation.

      I do of course realise in present company I am in a minority, but that's no reason not to affirm my positivity :)


  13. Magic Carpet.

    Good little article.

    Developed on HMS Illustrious, brilliantly applied in US\UK co-development for F18 and F35C, some very big benefits.



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