Tag Archives: F-35

How Can the USAF Afford to Re-Equip with the New Equipment it Will Decide it Needs?

Further to this post,

Equipping the USAF to fight both China and Russia

Steve Trimble of Aviation Week explores the way ahead (note the fighters for the NORAD mission, especially vs cruise missiles, including the new F-15EX):

Era Of Hard Decisions Begins As U.S. Defense Spending Stagnates

advanced battle management system
The initial focus of the Advanced Battle Management System provides an airborne communications bridge for the F-35 (left) and F-22 (right), but it eventually will expand to replace command suites on E-8C and E-3 fleets with automated systems. Credit: U.S. Air Force/Jeremy T. Lock

Managing a flat or slightly declining budget is easier when the topline is over $700 billion, but some programs feel the pinch more than others.

The U.S. Air Force’s requested $169 billion share of a proposed $705 billion defense budget for fiscal 2021 reflects the dilemma facing fiscal planners. Although continuing to insist the Air Force needs scores of additional combat squadrons, service officials are proposing to accelerate retirements of dozens of aircraft across fighter, mobility and ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) fleets. The savings would be used to fund development of capabilities that mainly would be realized only after passing through several risk-prone years with an inconsistent military acquisition system.

Specifically, the Air Force proposes through fiscal 2025 early retirement of 44 A-10 attack aircraft, built by Fairchild Republic; 17 B-1 bombers, built by Rockwell; 24 Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Block 20 and 30 unmanned aircraft systems (UAS); 10 contractor-operated MQ-9 UAS, built by General Atomics; and 16 McDonnell Douglas KC-10 and 13 Boeing KC-135 refuelers.

Bucking a trend, the Air Force canceled the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW) to focus on a more advanced boost-glide missile as interest grows in hypersonic air-breathing cruise missiles. The requested fleet reductions also follow the Air Force’s decisions during the last budget cycle to retire the Northrop Grumman E-8C Joint Stars in fiscal 2025 and remove funding for the final planned member in the Lockheed Martin Space-Based Infrared Satellite (SBIRS) constellation  in the fiscal 2019 budget.

“We had to make additional tough choices and major cuts in some areas in order to free up money to continue to invest in the high-end fight,” Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist said…

Although inconsistent with the Air Force’s message that it needs to grow to 486 combat squadrons to meet operational requirements, the proposed fleet reductions since last year have a consistent purpose. The overall defense budget has stagnated since peaking at $716 billion in fiscal 2019, falling to an enacted level of $704 billion this fiscal year and edging up to a proposed $705 billion for fiscal 2021. With no top-line growth, the Air Force is financing an ambitious modernization strategy by leveraging savings from early fleet retirements and terminating certain upgrades.

Our adversaries have designed their forces to exploit our vulnerabilities, and unless we evolve, they will someday face a force they have readily trained and equipped themselves to defeat [emphasis added, see post linked to at top of this one],” said Maj. Gen. John Pletcher, the Air Force’s budget director, speaking to reporters on Feb. 10. “We cannot allow that to happen.”

But the Air Force’s approach carries near-term risks. Fewer aircraft would be available now so more advanced capabilities can be developed for later. The Air Force applied a similar strategy when a budget-sequestration policy was imposed in fiscal 2012, leading to the retirements of hundreds of A-10s and Lockheed Martin F-16s with no immediate replacements.

“We are seeing the fleet literally fall off a cliff,” said a source familiar with the Air Force’s budget plans. “The replacements are not ramping up fast enough or soon enough.”..

“The combatant commanders are focused on the next year to two to three years, and the service chief is looking at 10 to 15 years,” said Gen. Charles Brown, commander of Pacific Air Forces, describing the tension between officers in his position and the service chiefs in the Pentagon.

Although some capabilities are being subtracted, the Air Force’s budget request restores funding for some long-sought modernization programs.

A Next Generation Adaptive Engine (NGAP) program appears for the first time in the fiscal 2021 budget documents. As of last year’s budget cycle, the Air Force planned to wrap up by 2021 the Adaptive Engine Technology Demonstrator (AETD) program, which aims to demonstrate a 45,000-lb.-thrust turbofan with three-stream airflow technology for the Lockheed F-35. The lack of a funded transition path for adaptive engine technology prompted frustrated lawmakers to slash the AETD budget by $200 million and chastise the Air Force. With over $400 million committed through fiscal 2024, the NGAP program appears to fund development of a follow-on design, which perhaps could be tailored to a future twin-engine fighter.

Moreover, the Air Force last year reduced the five-year budget for the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program by half, or $6.6 billion, nixing prospects to launch full-scale development of a replacement for the Lockheed Martin F-22 as early as fiscal 2023. But the fiscal 2021 budget offers a brighter outlook in the long-term for NGAD, with spending exceeding $2 billion annually for the first time, starting in fiscal 2025.

The F-16 fleet also is due for a major—and long-awaited—upgrade in the fiscal 2021 budget. The Air National Guard has upgraded 72 F-16s with Northrop Grumman APG-82 active electronically scanned array radars since fiscal 2017. The Air Force now plans to expand the upgrade to 330 more fighters, including upgraded mission computers and displays that were not available for the first 72 aircraft.

A subset of the F-16 fleet then will join the core of an advanced fleet of nonstealthy fighters, including the Boeing F-15EX, that will be tasked with defending air bases and the homeland from attack by combat aircraft and cruise missiles [emphasis added].

…the biggest new Air Force commitment is devoted to the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), with $3.26 billion requested over the next five years, including a $302 million down payment in fiscal 2021.

In the near-term, the goals of ABMS are modest. An initial “on-ramp” event staged in December allowed the F-35 and F-22 to exchange data through a ground-based communications gateway that reconciled the waveforms of incompatible low-probability-of-intercept data links used by both aircraft.

During the next two on-ramp events, the Air Force plans to install the communications gateway on the Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie, a potential new airborne communications medium for the Air Force’s different stealth fighters. A similar role also would be demonstrated by the Boeing KC-46 tanker.

Ultimately, the Air Force wants to expand beyond gateways. Once the service can deploy a seamless and resilient airborne communications network, the ABMS program plans to introduce a cloud-like processing system, with applications that automatically perform the role played by airborne battle managers on the E-8C and Boeing E-3 fleets today.

Meanwhile our government is still slowly. slowly working to select a new fighter for the RCAF (no winner until 2022), has no formal project to replace its aging CC-150 Polaris tankers, and has not committed any funds needed for the massive modernization of NORAD’s North Warning System.

Oh well.

Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds

Equipping the USAF to fight both China and Russia

Further to this 2016 post,

USAF “Officers Give New Details for F-35 in War With China”

one wonders where the money will come from for all this:

Air Force Needs Fleet Able To Fight 2 Major Wars: CSBA

“Creating a more range-balanced, survivable, and lethal force will require a commitment by DoD and the Congress to significantly increase the Air Force’s annual budgets,” CSBA says.

To meet Chinese and Russian threats, the Air Force needs to increase and modernize its combat air power, including more use of advanced, long-range drones and force multipliers such as its nascent battle management, command and control (BMC2) system for multi-domain operations, according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA).

In a study released today [Jan. 22], “Five Priorities For The Air Force’s Future Combat Air Force,” CSBA charts a course for the service to recover by 2035 from its current conundrum: an aging fleet with diminished force capacity and capabilities, trapped in a budget that continues to force choices between fleet sustainment and modernization.

The new study builds off an earlier CSBA report, mandated by Congress in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, on the Air Force’s future ability to meet the goals of the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) to ensure that the US military is able to take on peer power conflict. But CSBA now is arguing that the Air Force needs to build up a mixed manned/unmanned aircraft fleet and supporting infrastructure that can take on conflict with not just one peer power, but two at almost the same time.

While the study acknowledges that more money and people will be required, it does not offer cost estimates…

Hmm. More:

The upshot of the overall trend toward smaller procurement budgets, the study says, has been a much reduced fighter fleet facing increasingly lower readiness.

The bomber fleet has suffered in parallel. “The shortfall in the Air Force’s bomber force capacity has continued to grow over the last two decades, driven in part by force structure cuts, issues with force readiness, and a lack of modernization investment,” the study says.

Based on readiness rates in 2018, the last year included in the study, CSBA estimates the service currently has about 769 primary mission fighters ready for action, and “up to” 58 bombers ready to take off. This is out of a total inventory of 2,072 fighters and 157 bombers. (The readiness numbers for the fighter fleet may be slightly higher now due to an increased readiness rate for the F-35 in 2019.)

CSBA says the average age of Air Force fighters has “reached an unprecedented high of about 28 years,” and the average age of the bombers hovers at around 45 years. As often has been bemoaned by Will Roper, the service’s top buyer, this has led to increased costs and personnel resources to maintain the fleet.

A Way Ahead: Modernization, New Capabilities

CSBA sets out five priorities…

CSBA says that over the next two decades the Air Force “should accelerate the purchase of aircraft with next-generation stealth capabilities,” including B-21 bombers, F-35As, “a new multi-mission Penetrating Counterair/Penetrating Electronic Attack (PCA/PEA) aircraft,” and “penetrating” unmanned aerial vehicles carrying intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance payloads. The Air Force should also include “maintaining the survivability of the F-22 and procuring next-generation weapons, including a family of hypersonic weapons.”

Maintain the Air Force’s ability to generate combat power forward while dispersing to lower threat areas.

“Large scale Chinese Russia missile attacks on US theater airbases may not be the most significant threat to the CAF’s survivability,” Gunzinger said.

The future Air Force fleet should be “capable of supporting joint operations to deter or deny China or Russia the ability to achieve a fait accompli in these regions,” and at the same time be “able to generate strike sorties from bases located in areas that are at less risk of high-density missile attacks and generate counterair and other combat sorties from dispersed networks of closer in theater airbases.”

To enable this, DoD needs to “field higher capacity airbase defenses against large-scale air and missile attacks.” And the Air Force would require “additional resources and personnel end strength should it be given greater responsibility for the airbase defense mission.”..

Accelerate the development of Air Force next-generation force multipliers.

These include “next-generation hypersonic weapons, cruise missiles with counter-electronics high-powered microwave payloads capable of attacking multiple targets per weapon, advanced engines that will increase the range and mission endurance of CAF aircraft, and the datalinks needed to support multi-domain operations in contested environments.”..

Good luck and all that. Curious there in no mention of NORAD (and need for its modernization, e.g. North Warning System radars–see “Missed Opportunities: Why Canada’s North Warning System is Overdue for an Overhaul”) and growing threat from Russian cruise missiles, both ALCMs and SLCMs:

NORAD to Face Escorted Cruise Missile-Carrying Russian Bombers?

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a2/Mikoyan-Gurevich_MiG-31BM_in_flight.jpg/640px-Mikoyan-Gurevich_MiG-31BM_in_flight.jpg

Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds

Mark Collins – Now Likely? Canada to Sole-Source Some Super Hornets for RCAF After All?

Further to this post, keep your eyes open during my blogging break for a week beginning tomorrow, November 22–whole lot of anonymice being sources:

Cabinet could decide fighter jet plan as early as Tuesday [Nov. 22], industry sources say

Industry sources expect the Liberal government to decide as early as Tuesday whether to purchase a new fighter jet without a competition.

Federal cabinet ministers are reportedly considering three options for replacing Canada’s CF-18s, one of which they are expected to pick during their weekly closed-door meeting on Parliament Hill.

The options include holding a competition, buying a new warplane without a competition, or purchasing an “interim” aircraft as a stop-gap measure until a future competition.

The government was eyeing the third option in the spring, with the intention of buying Boeing Super Hornets, until an outcry from industry and the opposition forced them back to the drawing board.

But while Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan held consultations with different industry players in the summer, industry sources say the interim option is back as the preferred choice [i.e. a limited number of Super Hornets–perhaps some of the Growler persuasion (good expeditionarily)?].

Sajjan’s office refused to comment on Monday, with a spokeswoman saying only that a decision still has not been made…

Sajjan would only say that the government had done “a considerable amount of work” on the file.

“We will make a decision on replacing the fighters and will pick a process that will meet the needs of Canada.”..

Perish the thought that the Liberal Party’s political needs might be another consideration.

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds

Mark Collins – Canada to Sole-Source Some Super Hornets for RCAF After All?

Further to these posts,

Cabinet Committee to Take Sting out of Sole-Sourcing RCAF Super Hornets? CF-18 Life Extension? [June]

New RCAF Fighter: Consult, Consult, Consult (with industry)–Why Not Just Compete? [July]

here we go again, perhaps–things are getting embarrassingly ridiculous as the government twists desperately to distance itself from the F-35, at least for now:

Liberals again considering sole source purchase of Super Hornet fighter jets to replace CF-18s

A Liberal government proposal to buy Super Hornet fighter jets as a replacement for the air force’s aging CF-18s is back on the table.

But whether it will move ahead is still unclear.

In June [see link at start of post] the government proposed the purchase of Boeing Super Hornets as an interim measure, but that option disappeared as it faced intense criticism from the aerospace industry and opposition MPs.

Aerospace industry officials say they believed the Liberals were moving towards an open competition for a fighter replacement. But the option to buy the Super Hornets on a sole source basis and forgo a competition until around 2030 has again resurfaced [that would be impossibly late with CF-18s supposed to go out of service around 2025], industry sources now say.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office, with advice from Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, has been pushing the option, despite opposition from some leaders in the Royal Canadian Air Force, sources add.

Jordan Owens, a spokeswoman for Sajjan, said Thursday [Nov. 17] that no decision has been taken yet on replacing the CF-18s…

The acquisition of an interim fleet of 20 Super Hornets would push off the need to acquire a new fleet of fighter jets for more than a decade [actually just a decade or less if that 2025 date for retiring CF-18s holds–and a decision on the further new fighter would have to be made well before that to get the jets into service in time]…

Oh dear. Relevant:

New RCAF Fighter: Debate on F-35 vs Rest, esp. Super Hornet

RCAF and F-35: New Fighter Requirements, NORAD and Overseas

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds

Mark Collins – RCAF and F-35: New Fighter Requirements, NORAD and Overseas

A Canadian Global Affairs Institute tweet of a pro-F-35 piece:

But see from 2014:

F-35 and Canada: Good for “Discretionary” Missions, But…

…its “capabilities…are not a good fit for Canada’s non-discretionary missions.” So writes (near end of link) a recently retired RCAF major-general…

Recent and very relevant, note further links:

F-35 JPO PEO Goes to Ottawa

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds

Mark Collins – F-35 JPO PEO Goes to Ottawa

Lt. Gen. Bogdan pays us a visit:

U.S. pitches F-35 jet to Ottawa as Liberals aim to replace fleet

The U.S. Air Force made a last-minute pitch [the general actually represents the whole Pentagon] to the federal government in favour of the Lockheed-Martin F-35, hoping to reassure officials about the long-term viability of the stealth fighter jet that the Liberals promised not to buy in the past election, sources said.

A top American officer who leads the F-35 Lightning II Joint Program Office, based in Virginia, travelled to Ottawa on Oct. 14 to meet with Canadian officials who are working on the purchase of Canada’s next fleet of fighter jets. Lieutenant-General Christopher Bogdan discussed the ongoing development of the state-of-the-art fighter jet, which has clients around the world but is still facing a series of technological problems, officials said.

The visit from Lt.-Gen. Bogdan came at a crucial time, as a small team of Liberal ministers are set to choose one of three options to replace Canada’s fleet of CF-18s: launch a full and open competition [see “New RCAF Fighter: Consult, Consult, Consult (with industry)–Why Not Just Compete?”]; buy a small number of fighter jets for an interim fleet [see “Cabinet Committee to Take Sting out of Sole-Sourcing RCAF Super Hornets? CF-18 Life Extension?“]; or purchase an entire fleet of jets through a sole-sourced acquisition [don’t think I’ve seen this possibility made explicit before].

Defence-industry officials expect the cabinet committee on defence procurement to meet on this matter next week. Federal officials declined to comment on the timing of the coming meeting, but said the government does not plan to let the complex file drag on.

There are widespread concerns in the Liberal government about the short-term risks associated with the acquisition of the F-35, which is still in development.

In September, 15 F-35s were grounded over the discovery of faulty insulation in avionics cooling lines in the aircraft’s wings, an issue that should be be fixed by the end of the year [see “Grounded F-35As Expected to Fly Again Soon“].

On a broader level, some Canadian officials were preoccupied by a recent report that raised a number of questions about the ability of the F-35 to achieve its promised capabilities.

Leaked to Bloomberg News over the summer, the report [in fact an  internal Pentagon memo] from the U.S. government’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation warned that the F-35 program was “not on a path toward success but instead on a path toward failing to deliver” full capabilities by the scheduled end of its development in 2018 [more here, here and here (Norwegian pilot)].

Lt.-Gen. Bogdan was in Ottawa earlier this month specifically to discuss the Canadian government’s plans to buy new fighter jets.

“The general provided an update on the status of the program and answered questions to help ensure officials had as complete information as possible on the F-35 program, as the Government of Canada considers all of its options to replace their legacy CF-18 fighter fleet,” said Joe DellaVedova, a spokesman for Lt.-Gen. Bogdan.

Mr. DellaVedova would not give details of what was discussed at the meeting, but provided a statement by Lt.-Gen. Bogdan to dissipate concerns over the report from the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation…

Relevant:

New Canadian Fighter: F-35 vs Super Hornet–Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Hit the Fan

New RCAF Fighter: Debate on F-35 vs Rest, esp. Super Hornet

RCAF CF-18 Life Extension: Will Canadian Government Actually Act?

Avions F-35: une manne de 1 milliard au Canada

Sic Itur Ad...?

RCAF-badge-UB499b-tn.jpg

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds

Mark Collins – RCAF CF-18 Life Extension: Will Canadian Government Actually Act?

Further to this 2014 story,

Canada [Conservative government] to funnel money into upgrades to keep CF-18 fighter jets flying 

and to this April post,

RCAF: Decisions Needed on Extending CF-18 Hornets’ Service to 2025

will a blinking decision finally be made?

Canadian military to ask Ottawa to approve up to $500 million in spending for CF-18 upgrades

The Canadian military is hoping to ask the government early next year for approval to spend up to $500 million to modernize its CF-18 fighter jets.

The upgrade would keep the planes flying until 2025, giving the government some breathing room to organize the purchase of replacements and make sure they are delivered before the older jets are taken out of service.
Work has already started to ensure the CF-18s are structurally sound.

Now, the military is analyzing improvement options for communications equipment to deal with changes in civil aviation regulations. There could be other upgrades to weapons and how the CF-18s communicate and operate with Allied fighter jets.

“This project is expected to go for potential government submission early in 2017,” said Ashley Lemire, Department of National Defence spokeswoman.

The options focus “on what is required from a regulatory and interoperability perspective.”

The DND estimates the cost of the modernization at between $250 million and $499 million, depending on the options chosen and what the government accepts, say defence sources.

Military officers say the upgrades will have to be done by 2021 to make financial sense — new fighter jets are expected by 2025. That means decisions on the upgrades must be made and contracts placed by 2018.

Since 2002, Canada has spent $2.6 billion modernizing the CF-18s [more here]. The planes were bought in 1982…

Industry sources say they believe some senior Liberals still hope to revive the Super Hornet sole-source purchase in the near future [see “Cabinet Committee to Take Sting out of Sole-Sourcing RCAF Super Hornets? CF-18 Life Extension?“–that “capability gap” is mentioned at the latter part of the post].

Sajjan has said the Canadian military is facing a “capability gap” since the CF-18 fleet can’t handle the country’s commitments to NATO and the North American Aerospace Defence Command’s needs to protect the continent.

“Between our NORAD and NATO commitments and how many jets are serviceable at one time, we cannot meet both those requirements simultaneously,” he said in July…

As for actually acquiring a new plane…

New RCAF Fighter: Consult, Consult, Consult (with industry)–Why Not Just Compete?

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds

Mark Collins – “The Fourth Dimension: The F-35 Program, [Canadian] Defence Procurement, and the Conservative Government, 2006–2015”

Have a look at Vimy Paper 33 by Richard Shimooka (a long-time supporter of the Joint Strike Fighter), at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute; lots of–unattributed–inside stuff, especially interesting is the botched 2014 effort to acquire four USAF F-35As for the RCAF (p. 34 PDF, more here on that from a government that made a policy of being economical with the truth).

More F-35 posts.

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds

Mark Collins – Yes, Virginia, There is a Canadian “Cabinet Committee on Defence Procurement”

Further to this excerpt from an earlier post,


Sources said the file is currently in front of the cabinet “ad hoc” committee on defence procurement, which is chaired by Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr…

The other members of the committee are Treasury Board President Scott Brison, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, Procurement Minister Judy Foote, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, Science Minister Kirsty Duncan and Mr. Garneau…

[That committee is also in charge of the government’s–inherited–shipbuilding morass (more here, here and here); they sure do have a huge and messy plate.]..

we have a (modified) tweet today:

The membership is at p. 11 PDF here–foreign affairs minister Dion has been added, presumably to provide a second Quebec member (transport minister Garneau is the other) as he has no other discernible qualifications for inclusion. Good luck to them on the pressing matter of how to go forward in choosing the RCAF’s new fighter.

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds

Mark Collins – War Between the Dragon and the Eagle: USN Carriers up to It?

Further to this post (note “Comments”),

RAND on War Between the Dragon and the Eagle

the carriers’ future capabilities are questioned (both the people quoted are retired naval officers):

The US Navy Is Now Facing Its Greatest Fear: Obsolete Aircraft Carriers?

If the United States Navy is either unwilling or unable to conceptualize a carrier air wing that can fight on the first day of a high-end conflict, then the question becomes: Why should the American taxpayer shell out $13 billion for a Ford-class carrier?

That’s the potent question being raised by naval analysts in Washington—noting that there are many options that the Navy could pursue including a stealthy new long-range, carrier-based unmanned combat aircraft or a much heavier investment in submarines [emphasis added]. However, the current short-range Boeing F/A-18 Hornet-based air wing is not likely to be sufficient in the 2030s even with the addition of the longer ranged Lockheed Martin F-35C Joint Strike Fighter.

“If these carriers can’t do that first day lethal strike mission inside an A2/AD bubble, why are we paying $13 billion dollars for them?” asks Jerry Hendrix [see here], director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security [see here], during an interview with The National Interest. “There are people making that statement: ‘it’s not our job on day one’—they can say there are all these other missions—presence and show-the-flag—but if that’s where they fit, their price ought to be scaled to that.”

To justify the expense of the carrier, and to keep them relevant, the U.S. Navy needs to revamp the composition of the carrier air wing so that it can participate in countering anti-access/area denial bubbles on the first day of combat, Hendrix said. The Navy must develop a new, long-range, unmanned strike aircraft that can counter those emerging threats, “Otherwise, what’s the point?” Hendrix asked. “If you’re not willing to make the shift in investment to have an asset that can do long-range strike from the carrier, perhaps we need to look at investing elsewhere [see “New US Navy Drones: UCLASS to be Tankers Not Recon/Strike?“].”

Bryan McGrath [see here], managing director of the naval consultancy FerryBridge Group, agreed with Hendrix. “The case for the carrier will suffer if the Navy drags its feet on what comes next in the air wing,” he told The National Interest—also advocating for the development of a new carrier-based long-range unmanned strike aircraft. “Always remember—the carrier doesn’t care what it launches and recovers. It is just a floating airport. The air wing is the key. Get the air wing wrong—or continue to—and yes, the CVN investment makes less sense.”

While many within senior Navy leadership know and understand the problem—the protracted and expensive development of the Lockheed Martin F-35 has left the Navy gun-shy. “The plain truth is that the F-35 acquisition has negatively reinforced learned behavior in naval aviation acquisition. There is real fear in what you hear acquisition officials saying in why they want to slow-roll UCLASS into a tanker/ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] platform rather than a rangy, semi-stealthy, striker,” McGrath said. “Of course the tanking and the ISR are important… But they are additive to what is already in the Joint architecture. What the Joint architecture lacks is mobile, semi-stealthy, long-range strike. Utterly lacks it. But the technical challenges are judged to be more difficult than those associated with an ISR/Tanker bird, and there is no appetite or stomach—or any other appropriate noun—within the acquisition community to take on tough technical challenges.”

Not only has the F-35 experience scared the Navy away from developing an unmanned strike aircraft, it is also one of the major factors behind the sea service’s vision for a scaled-down F/A-XX that is little more than a ‘super’ Super Hornet. “They’ve been burned by F-35, and no one wants to get burned again. But this is exactly the wrong lesson to be taken from F-35,” McGrath said. “What should be taken from F-35 is how difficult it is to create a ‘one-size-fits all’ solution to a great variety of missions and conditions. We can, should, and must design and build a largely unmanned semi-stealthy long-range carrier strike aircraft purpose built for carrier aviation.”

However, if the Navy doesn’t embark on developing a long-range penetrating strike aircraft, at a bare minimum, the service needs a stealthy new air-launched cruise missile—ideally with supersonic terminal speeds—with a range of more than 500 nautical miles. That missile would have to fit onto pylons underneath either the Super Hornet or the F-35C—which would carry the weapon the first 600 or so miles before releasing it…

Yet another alternative is to stop building aircraft carriers and focus on building additional submarines—which are extremely stealthy and operate with all but impunity, Hendrix said. The Navy could buy two Ohio Replacement Program (ORP) ballistic missile submarines or four Virginia-class attack submarines for the price of a single Ford-class. That would address the Navy’s pressing need to replace the Ohio-class ballistic missile boomers and start to address the  attack submarine shortfall much more quickly and without breaking the bank. Moreover, given the that future attack submarines will add the Virginia Payload Module, which would allow the vessels to carry 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles, those vessels are expected to deliver an enormous punch…

So maybe subs the way to go.

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds