Lightning may seldom strike twice in the same place, but Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II manages to be struck on a regular basis in the media — often for fanciful or downright foolish reasons. The latest tempest now blowing out to sea was spawned by a think piece Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert authored in the current issue of the U.S. Naval Institute’s magazine Proceedings. Greenert didn’t actually mention the naval version of the F-35 fighter that will one day populate aircraft-carrier flight decks, but some observers thought they detected waning support for the plane in a passage about low-observable (“stealth”) technology:
It is time to consider shifting our focus from platforms that rely solely on stealth to also include concepts for operating farther from adversaries using standoff weapons and unmanned systems — or employing electronic-warfare payloads to confuse or jam threat sensors rather than trying to hide from them.
This is not a new line of reasoning. In fact, Admiral Greenert’s footnotes on stealth reference a Bill Sweetman article that appeared in Popular Science 11 years ago. However, caution about relying too heavily on stealth could be applied just as easily to submarines as aircraft, and it merely states the obvious point that the joint force shouldn’t depend too much on any “silver bullet” technology. The same could be said about relying too heavily on electronic warfare or unmanned systems. The Navy’s next-generation jammer will have to cope with a vast array of new electronic threats when it is fielded at the end of the decade, and unmanned aircraft will be too vulnerable to survive in contested air space for the foreseeable future (unless they’re stealthy).
Admiral Greenert’s representatives have now reiterated his support for the naval version of F-35 and said that the Proceedings article was not intended as a criticism of the program. However, there has always been a faction within the naval-aviation community that thought the Air Force was relying too heavily on stealth to protect its next-generation fighters and bombers. The aviators voicing that view argued that tactics and jamming were just as important as stealth. Ironically, when a first-generation stealth fighter was shot down by Serbian defenders during the Balkan air war in 1999, it was mainly because the pilot used poor tactics and a Navy jamming aircraft was not where it was supposed to be. If an F-35 had flown that same mission, it would have escaped unscathed despite the pilot’s mistake in exiting the target area and despite the absence of effective off-board jamming.
The CNO’s think piece was only being sensible in saying that stealth is no panacea for future operational challenges, and other ideas need to be investigated too. At the rate new technologies are spreading around the world, the Navy will probably need to use all the innovative concepts at its disposal to cope with potential adversaries like China. On the other hand, people who understand how stealth works realize that the Navy’s F-35 will provide a much more powerful deterrent to Chinese aggression than its current fighters ever could.