In the Pacific, the F-35B debacle is a strategic nightmare

by Craig Hooper on November 17, 2010

So here’s where we learn that fluffing up a balky, poorly-managed defense procurement program has serious geopolitical consequences. What happens in Asia if the F-35B program collapses?

Well, it could get pretty ugly.

For a lot of Asian Navies, the F-35B offers the only viable means to match China’s first steps into carrier aviation. As a vote of confidence in America’s ability to deliver a fancy next-gen STOVL aircraft, big carrier-like flat-decks proliferated throughout the region. We’re talking billions of dollars–The South Korean’s ROKS Dokdo, Australia’s Canberra class, Japan’s 22DDH and smaller Hyuga Class all aspire to operate the F-35B, and regional defense planners have built scenarios around it.

The F-35B, if it ever arrives, would be a real help, serving as part of that indispensable inter-operable glue that holds America’s complex Pacific coalition together. The airframe would help tie strategically important countries to the US for years and open avenues for future regional collaboration–in say, a more formal arrangement, or a Pacific NATO. I mean, if you believe that melding together some sort of collaborative security coalition in Asia is important given the slowly-descending Bamboo Curtain, then standardizing aircraft is a big part of that picture.

So, if the F-35B does go away, America’s major Pacific allies will be left with, well, a brace of aircraft-less aircraft carriers. And that, on the part of those who spent their treasure to buy F-35B-friendly platforms, is going to sting a bit. Nobody likes to be left holding a few multi-billion dollar platforms that fail to provide the expected operational benefits.

With China looking set to finally field their first aircraft carrier, the demise of the F-35B means that America’s Asian partners will “loose face”–and a substantial security blanket. While it is too early to know just what the ramifications the likely F-35B implosion may have upon Pacific security, at the end of the day, it isn’t good news if regional partners cannot respond in kind to a Chinese carrier task force.

America’s allies counted on the US to produce. To date, we haven’t. So…it’s just anther arrow in the quiver of those who believe that America’s time has past. And that is never good when you’re looking to sustain a disparate defensive coalition.

The demise of the F-35 will also open a marketing opportunity. With all those flat-decks, somebody else can come in with a STOVL aircraft (imagine if China had a good STOVL design? Oy.) Barring another manned design, the Asian countries looking to justify their under-used flat decks (and re-purpose the money they save by not buying the F-35B) might try to find their own solutions–perhaps trying their hand at building an indigenous carrier-based UAV. That might be good. Might be bad. Again, too early to tell, but it does inject additional uncertainty into the region, and that, again, isn’t a good thing if you’re looking to sustain a disparate defensive coalition.

To some extent, it is a serious condemnation of the U.S. procurement process. I have been screaming this for years, but…you don’t go build the expensive parts of the inventory (the ships and other platforms) to conform with whatever high-risk future-tech stuff that happens to be in the pipeline. I mean, how did the F-35B become the raison d’etre for the America Class (LHA-6) in the first place? We simply can’t keep allowing multi-billion dollar platforms to be led around by a set of smaller high-risk programs. Build the expensive stuff (ships and operating platforms) for what we have now…and modify later if warranted.

Wrapping next-gen amphibs–the LPD-17 and future LHA/LHDs–into an interlocking, mutually-supporting procurement arrangement with the MV-22, EFV and JSF was a terrible mistake. It allowed the formation of an impressive “if you’re against platform X, you’re against everything else, too” coalition that resisted all oversight. Sure–it was politically expedient for the Marine Corps to cite an enormous sum of “sunk costs” to help bolster their case for new Marine Air-Ground Task Force toys, but it has become one god-awful strategic mess (and, I might add, the whole scheme enabled the LPD-17 disaster-one of the biggest procurement debacles in modern U.S. history).

Without the F-35, then the array of small, potentially-useful flight-decks of Asia will have to wait for EMALS, hope that system will work and fit within the existing platforms…and then try to come up with some modest CATOBAR kludge of a refit. Not only is it disappointing, but it will be kind of a tall order given that China will, at the same time, be busy learning how to operate Flanker variants at sea–and bragging about it, to boot.

Which, of course, isn’t the best thing if you’re looking to hold a disparate defensive alliance together.

  • Redshirt214

    Why not a remanufactured version of the A4 Skyhawk? Or perhaps a mod of the BAE Hawk fighter, like the Goshawk? Maybe a Naval Variant of the Yak130? These planes are small and affordable, and a good match for smaller navies, who could use them as light strike fighters or interceptors. IMHO Speed is sort of a non- issue, it is unlikely they’ll be getting into dogfights, what with modern missiles, which can travel much faster than jets (MACH 2.5 for a Sidewinder vs 1.8 for a Super Hornet).

  • JLogan

    My concern is the failure of the F-35 program … combined with the failure of the F-22 program will kill the U.S. air superiority element by 2016 (+ or -). This reality truly threatens the wisdom of a nuclear weapon free world; we’ll need to maintain the nukes to realize functional global security.

    At any rate … the F-35B program with all of the small flat tops in Asia is an anti-terrorism alliance … more then an anti-china issue. If the U.S. fails to produce a meaningful number of F-35B’s ( a sea going and modern version of the F-117’s … remember their effect in Iraq in the first gulf war) the strategy against the U.S. is clearly defined at this time: Iran, China and Russia can easily turn a blind eye to terrorist groups or actively help them. The terrorist groups harass the U.S. costing trillions; while, Russia and China build a real air superiority and nuclear threat to the U.S.. This is call the hounds and the bear tactic. We’re clearly falling prey to this simple ass tactic. It’s a war of attrition.

    I kind of remember us using this tactic on the U.S.S.R. … is turn around fair play?

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  • CapnVan

    Sorry to be late to comment.

    It occurs to me that from an American perspective, a few additional carrier-based medium strike fighters aren’t particularly important in the Western Pacific. If we get involved in a conflict, we’d most likely have a goodly number of both carrier-based and land-based aircraft that could easily handle the loss of the handful that these kinds of pocket carriers could contribute.

    (This all assumes a fairly low-level conflict — if we start seeing carriers going down, bases in Japan and Korea being hit hard, etc., well, all bets are off anyway, right?)

    On the other hand, what we would be severely lacking in is ASW assets — something these kinds of vessels are ideal for.

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  • B.Smitty

    I wonder if it had more to do with also choosing Navantia to build the Hobart class AWD. Maybe they got a bulk discount.

    The Spanish LHD is also larger than the Mistral. I believe the DCNS entry for the Aussies was a stretched version of the Mistral. So maybe the Juan Carlos just had less design risk as well, given the size requirements .

    Good question about the Japanese flat-decks. One small, Japanese carrier wouldn’t have shifted the balance of power in the region significantly. However it might have been intended to be a slow, measured progression towards an eventual CTOL carrier.

  • Yeah, they’re not great platforms for the F-35B, but they certainly were built with an eye at using the platform to take a few F-35Bs on occasion. But…Here’s the real question: If the F-35Bs were not in the picture, would Australia have purchased the Spanish LHD? Or would they have gone with the less ambitious Mistral?

    How would the early demise of the F-35B have informed Japanese flat-deck development?

    Admittedly, this is all wild-eyed theorizing, but…it might teach us something.

  • B.Smitty

    The South Korean Dokdo, and Japanese Hyuga Class are really meant to operate helicopters. Neither are set up well to fly F-35Bs or Harriers (short flight decks, no ski jump). The 22DDH and Canberra are, in theory, better suited. However the Canberra is primarily an amphibious ship, not a carrier.

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