What Might Have Been
An anonymous reader recently made a comment suggesting that the “B” model of the F-35 should have had different requirements and capabilities than it currently does. Though he didn’t explicitly state it, the implication was that those differences would have led to a cheaper aircraft that would have been fielded sooner.
Note: The reader commented anonymously. I’d love to give proper credit which is why I encourage everyone to offer at least an informal username in the body of the comment text.
This is an intriguing idea and got me thinking about what the “B” should have been.
Let’s start with the most obvious consideration: the “B” is strictly for the Marines (I’m looking only at
That means that, by definition, it’s not intended for air superiority,
carrier group defense, deep strike, or maritime reconnaissance. It’s intended for Marine ground support. In other words, it’s intended to operate over
a land battlefield. That means that it
doesn’t need exceptional speed, huge range (it will operate in close proximity
to land forces), high degrees of stealth, exceptional maneuverability (I guess
it achieved that one!), or 360 degree sensor fusion (let’s face it, that’s an
A2A requirement). US
What it did need was survivability to operate over a battlefield. That survivability could take the form of armor, like the A-10, reduced size, reduced IR signature, enhanced ECM, redundant controls, and a moderate degree of stealth. Stealth is only marginally useful in this role since the immediate low level battlefield threats are more IR and visual.
Another requirement should have been precision organic targeting. Depending on external laser spotting, for example, is a very iffy proposition in high end combat. The ground troops are going to be far too busy and pressured to conduct leisurely laser spotting. The aircraft would need whatever onboard laser, IR, or visual targeting capability that could be had. The ability to find and designate targets with minimal guidance from ground troops would be critical.
Hand in hand with onboard targeting should have been downward directed ISR. Sensors designed to find and identify enemy troops, vehicles, armor, and artillery would be highly beneficial and would allow the aircraft to not only engage targets but guide friendly troop movements and strategy. The ability to independently assemble a fairly comprehensive picture of the ground battle would be key. JSTARS and similar aircraft have some of this capability so it’s not a total reach of fantasy.
All of this requires maximum endurance (time over target). The ability to loiter and develop a ground picture and remain available for ground troops is paramount. Passing overhead once at Mach 17 is nowhere near as useful as being able to loiter and develop an understanding of the ground situation and monitor changes over time. That type of understanding would be of great benefit to the ground commander – perhaps more beneficial, even, then weapons on target. This requirement further suggests consideration of a two seat aircraft allowing the backseater to develop the ground picture and coordinate with ground forces without having to be distracted by actually flying the aircraft.
Finally, the “B” should have had a significant weapons payload. The weapons should have been a combination of high volume, suppressive fire like rockets as well as precision missiles like Hellfire and small guided bombs.
So, what does this give us when we assemble these requirements in one package? It suggests that the F-35B should have been a fairly basic and straightforward airframe, possibly a two seater, possessing moderate stealth, great endurance, maximum IR signature reduction, armor and redundancy, and average speed and maneuverability. It should have featured ground-directed sensing systems and the ability to interface with ground commanders. Weapons should have been plentiful (maximum use of hardpoints since stealth would not be an emphasis) with a combination of precision and area suppressive munitions. It should have had no emphasis on A2A beyond self-defense.
In short, the F-35B should have had far more in common with the A-10 than with the current F-35B.