The coalition air operation against Muammar Ghadaffi has demonstrated the enormous capacity of the U.S. military. Precision weapons took out Ghadaffi’s surface-to-air missile sites and aircraft shelters. E/A-18G Growlers jammed Libyan electronics. F-15s and F-16s conducted both counter-air and surface-attack missions. Unmanned systems, most likely the Global Hawk, provided critical reconnaissance and surveillance.
One system that is providing a critical service in this operation is the Harrier jump jet. This Marine Corps close support aircraft has been operating from U.S. large deck amphibious warfare ships in the Mediterranean. Without an aircraft carrier in the area the Harriers are the only system available to conduct responsive air missions. The Harriers provide prompt air power from the coalition platform closest to the Libyan coast.
But the Harrier is aging and must be replaced. The planned replacement is the F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) version of the Joint Strike Fighter. The F-35B will have numerous improvements over the Harrier, notably stealthiness, advanced avionics, improved sensors, and a more powerful engine. This last feature is particularly important because it means the F-35B can carry a significantly greater bomb load to a greater distance than the Harrier.
The current conflict clearly demonstrates the continuing value of the capability the F-35B will provide. The ability to operate from ships other than aircraft carriers, from airfields with short runways or from expedient airbases is of tremendous value in a period of uncertainty and local conflicts.
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