The much maligned F-35 program recently received a vote of confidence from two of its three major constituencies, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. A revised interservice agreement between the two envisions the procurement of 680 F-35s. The Navy will buy 260 F-35Cs, specifically designed for carrier operations. The Marines will buy a mix: 80 F-35Cs and 340 short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing (STOVL) F-35Bs. The Marines will operate their F-35Cs alongside the Navy version from aircraft carriers. The F-35Bs will operate primarily from large deck amphibious warfare vessels, thereby more than doubling the number of U.S. warships capable of launching combat aircraft.
The Navy/Marine Corps agreement is only one sign that the F-35 program is moving forward and that this aircraft will form the backbone of U.S. tactical airpower in the decades to come. The program really is making steady progress. One reason for this is the extent to which the new Marine Corps Commandant, General James Amos, himself an aviator, is taking a direct hand in the program. According to a recent interview with The Hill newspaper, General Amos “has vowed to be ‘a player-coach’ by monitoring the program in real time.” He defended the program in recent hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee, saying that the aircraft is vital to the Corps future and that there is “no plan B.” The general also is seeking to define a set of performance metrics that will be used to identify when the F-35B can come off the “probationary” status imposed by Secretary of Defense Gates.
One reason for the Commandant’s relatively upbeat attitude with respect to the program is progress that has been made in recent months with respect to a number of outstanding issues. In the first two months of 2011, the F-35B has accomplished three times the number of vertical landing test events as were accomplished in all of 2010. If it can continue on this path, the program will be back on its planned test and evaluation schedule within a few more months. Fixes have been identified and are being implemented for some structural problems the aircraft encountered in prior testing. In his statement before the Senate, General Amos said that his oversight of the development program will be so intense that “they can’t put a pound on it without my approval.” If anything, the plane will get lighter as the engineers refine their designs and test new components.
The Marine Corps is not the only service that needs the F-35. With the termination of the F-22 program, the F-35 is the only option available to the Air Force and Navy for a fifth-generation fighter. Moreover, as pressure grows to cut the defense budget, none of the services can long afford to operate anything but the most capable and efficient systems. With its commonality of parts among variants, advanced diagnostics and modern systems, the F-35 is the answer to deploying a force that is both effective and affordable.
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