The Navy has made its latest run against the Marine Corps version of the F-35 joint strike fighter, and for something like the twentieth time, it has been rebuffed. The latest failed assault came after the United Kingdom decided to switch its buy of joint strike fighters from the Marine vertical-takeoff version to the Navy carrier-based version. The Navy trotted out the same tired arguments it has been using for a decade — lack of range, lack of forward support, etc. — and the Marine Corps responded with its equally aged rationale for why tactical aircraft need to be where the troops are. The Marine Corps prevailed, as usual.
These ritualized exchanges have been going on for a long, long time. I well remember running into my old friend Gordon England in the Pentagon’s E-Ring shortly after he was made Navy secretary in 2001, and hearing his misgivings about the Marine variant. He said he wanted to commission studies of the subject, but the more operational doubts he cited, the more he started to sound like studies that OpNav had already conducted. It seemed that certain admirals were trying to maneuver the SecNav into believing he had discovered problems they had long since decided should doom the new jumpjet.
So now rumors that the Marine variant is in trouble have surfaced once again, and as is often the case, by the time word started getting around the issue had already been resolved. The plane is safe for the fiscal 2012 budget request, because there is no other option for replacing Harriers in the vital role of providing firepower and protection to forward-deployed Marines. The range issue doesn’t matter much if the planes are located close to the troops, which is what having vertical agility makes possible. What matters is being there when the air cover is needed. And while it might be nice to have forward-deployed jamming aircraft too, the fact that F-35 is too stealthy to be seen by enemy radars greatly mitigates that concern.
The main reason this argument never goes away is that Marine programs are funded out of the Navy budget, and the Navy usually has some other purpose to which it wants to apply the money. That’s why the argument over how many amphibious warfare vessels the Marines need also never dies. Each new amphibious assault vessel is a destroyer or submarine the Navy will never have. But let’s be realistic about what it would mean to the Marine Corps to lose the vertical agility it is buying in F-35. It would mean tethering expeditionary warfare to a handful of aircraft carriers that can’t be all the places the Marine Corps needs to be. Or it would mean sending Marines in harms way without the continuous air cover that the rest of the joint force counts on for its survival. Since the Navy doesn’t seem to have a solution for these dilemmas other than sticking with the program of record, we already know how similar arguments are likely to turn out in the future.