This year’s opening article revisits the F-35B debate sparked by Jenna Higgins’ post from December 2016. Steve George’s response addresses the key issues.

Back in November 2014, I wrote a piece for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute on potential F-35B operations from the new RAN LHDs (LHD and F-35B: The Debate Opens Up). It received a mention in a recent piece here on The Central Blue by Flight Lieutenant Jenna Higgins (Is ‘A’ really better than ‘B’?), which set off a spirited discussion. As a result, I’ve been asked by The Central Blue team to provide a stand-alone piece to update my original article and touch on some of the main issues raised. My aim, however, hasn’t changed – to stimulate informed and objective debate on how the Australian Defence Force (ADF) could best deploy its F-35 force capability.

FLTLT Higgins referred to ‘a heated debate’ on the F-35B/LHD question. It’s worth noting that discussions about naval (or maritime) air power often seem to get ‘heated’, particularly when the word ‘carrier’ appears, or when it appears to compete with land based air power. Sadly, it’s my experience that much of the heat doesn’t shed any light, and the recent discussion thread on The Central Blue had some examples of the genre, which I’ll address. I’ll also update my assessment of the technical issues surrounding F-35B/LHD integration.

Strike Capability

I believe that the core issues can be simply framed.  How much air strike effect does the ADF want to be able to apply at long ranges from Australia? Can it (and should it) rely on Host Nation Support (HNS)? Would F-35Bs on LHDs provide a useful capability, and would it be cost effective?

Any debate on the use of air power should recognise the iron laws of distance, time and speed that affect all air operations. Increasing the distance from base to objective reduces the amount of air power (time over the target) and the weight of ordnance that a force of aircraft can deliver in a given time frame. This isn’t a criticism of land-based air power, it’s a simple statement of physical fact. The further you have to fly, the longer the time spent in transit. Time spent in transit (both ways) is time you can’t spend delivering combat effect. If you want the same combat effect, you need more aircraft.

This leads to my key conclusion. Proximity equals capability. Or, closer is better. This is why the US and the French have committed carriers to the current campaign in Syria and Iraq, located in the Eastern Mediterranean around 50 to 100 miles off the coast of Syria. It’s also why the Russians took the risk of basing their strike force on land in Syria. While I’m not arguing that Russian air strike tactics are a model for anyone in the West, their choice of a nearby land base has allowed them to deliver concentrated and devastatingly effective aerial bombardments.

Naval air power in the Mediterranean: French Navy Rafales from the aircraft carrier FS Charles De Gaulle fly in formation above the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. [Image Credit: US Navy]

Naval air power in the Mediterranean: French Navy Rafales from the aircraft carrier FS Charles de Gaulle fly in formation above the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. [Image Credit: US Navy]

Meanwhile, the ADF’s HNS for Operation OKRA (Iraq and Syria) is located in the UAE, well over 1000 miles away. Surely, no one could argue that this is the optimal location for medium range aircraft such as the F/A-18.

Proponents of land-based air power solutions will point to AAR technology and the ability of their aircrew to conduct very long-range missions as the solution. It is, if your solution is simply to be seen to contribute. But if you want to materially influence events on the ground in a reasonable time frame, you need maximum time on task and weight of effort. If you have to fly over 1000 miles to get to the target, that’s millions of gallons of fuel burned and hours of flying time spent not delivering weapons. (The ADF’s own figures from their website http://www.defence.gov.au/Operations/Okra/atg.asp) show average F/A-18 sortie durations of around 7.6 hours). They simply can’t deliver much ‘air power’ time over the target at that range, as nearly all of their flying hours are being spent getting there and getting back. Nor can they deliver much weight of bombs. Their own figures show that less than one weapon has been dropped per (long) sortie.

This isn’t an isolated example, and history demonstrates that HNS is very often not available where you really want it.  However, proponents of land based air power solutions sometimes simply deny that the problem exists. Back in 2014, the ASPI argued that:

…the ADF would reasonably expect to be able to operate land-based aircraft from the country whose own defensive efforts Australia would be supporting, or with whom we could come under common attack…

it’s prudent to assume that the [RAAF] would have access to land bases … to make a contribution to a future coalition air campaign…

Two years on, we might conclude that while the ADF certainly has access to land bases, they certainly aren’t in the right place.

Other arguments are deployed in an attempt to make the HNS issue go away. One recent post asked  ‘how often (would) the Australian government … want to bomb countries that the neighbours of that country do not wish to be bombed’? With respect, that’s a good example of ‘situating the appreciation’ – asking the question you want to answer. The question could be framed as:  ‘why might countries deny us HNS?’ and there’s a long list of answers to that one.  The first is the obvious one – they don’t want us to bomb their next-door neighbour. (Or their co-religionist.) But history provides us with lots of examples why a country might want a neighbouring country to be bombed, but might still refuse HNS.

They might not want to be seen to be involved. They might not want it bombed by you, because they disagree with you over something else. They might have an election coming, and they might have an issue with a certain segment of their population that shares certain cultural values with the country you want to bomb. They might offer HNS, but with strings, such as only for only for AAR sorties, not actual strike missions. Countries that you don’t even want HNS from may deny you overflight.

In my view, any debate over the utility of carrier-based aviation should look at the evidence offered by history. The ability to forgo HNS issues and locate a meaningful force of aircraft at a time and place of a country’s own choosing is precious and useful.  Maritime nations that possess such capabilities use them, all the time, all over the world. (Every enemy aircraft shot down in air combat by the UK since the end of WW2 has fallen to a carrier-based aircraft.) I suggest that Australia, by reason of basic geography, is a ‘maritime nation’. Of course, others may differ.

The Cost

So, what about the cost aspect? Nobody suggests that putting F-35Bs on to LHDs would be a cost-free exercise. Various improbable figures have been put forward, many resting on an assertion that this would be a risky technical enterprise, with many unanswered questions. The USMC’s recent successful trial of their ‘Lightning Carrier’ concept on board USS America, as noted by FLTLT Higgins, must surely lay many of these concerns to rest. The Canberra-class LHD was designed to accommodate 12 F-35Bs. That ski jump is a valuable (and currently unused) asset.  Perhaps the costs of putting the F-35B to sea should be re-examined.

An F-35B takes off from the flight deck of USS America during the Lightning Carrier Proof of Concept Demonstration. [Image Credit: US Marine Corps]

An F-35B takes off from the flight deck of USS America during the Lightning Carrier Proof of Concept Demonstration. [Image Credit: US Marine Corps]

Some argue that any additional expenditure within the current national defence budget must by definition displace an existing capability. Not necessarily. If you have a fixed budget and want to do so something additional, you can increase the budget, or you can stop doing something that you’re already doing. Or, you can do something you’re already doing in a different way. Strategy, priorities and politics drive the choices. Of course, once a service (for example the RAAF) has its desired equipment programme (a substantial F-35A buy), it’s easy to argue that anything else is unaffordable.

But if we are to talk costs it might be interesting to get better visibility of the actual costs of the ADF’s current long-distance air support operations. Spending around 10 hours in the air for each weapon dropped (from ADF figures) to ‘take out’ a pick up truck fitted with a cannon cannot, in my view, be an economically sustainable form of war. AAR tankers deliver huge amounts of fuel – but they also consume large amounts themselves, and frequently have to dump unused fuel to land back at base. Apart from the colossal fuel bill, these flying hours are generating huge aircraft support costs in manpower, parts and repairs. They will also be consuming the (fixed) service lives of the aircraft. Have these sums been done?

A counter-argument recently advanced is that the ‘substantial’ additional cost to the RAAF of getting pilots trained to fly at sea (described as a ‘non-combat’ skill) could only be met by losing or degrading an existing RAAF aircrew ‘combat skill’.  In the first place, carrier deck training isn’t a ‘non-combat skill’. Ships and their air groups go into combat. Such training delivers a combat capability – delivery of high tempo operations from a mobile sovereign base. Describing it as a ‘non-combat‘ skill illustrates a profound misunderstanding of how maritime air power is generated.

But automatically assuming that learning to operate from a ship would result in a ‘loss in combat-related training across the RAAF’s air combat capability’ or a ‘decrease in proficiency’ is, in my view, another example of ‘situating the appreciation’. I’m sure that RAAF pilot training constantly gets adjusted to meet changing requirements and to field new equipment. If the Government decided to go for F-35B, the training would be part of the cost. How big might that cost be?

It would be substantial if the objective were a full ‘cat and trap’ or ‘STOBAR’ capability, where getting aircraft back on board takes high-end pilot skill levels, and executing a high tempo flying programme from a small deck area requires a well trained and thoroughly worked up ship. However, F-35B has been specifically designed to provide low workload launch and recovery to small flight decks. F-35B operations will require a much (much) smaller training ‘delta’ for aircrew than either ‘cat and trap’ or legacy STOVL aircraft. The LHDs will already have to work up a core capability to operate their current complement of aircraft – F-35B ops would be another small ‘delta’.

Survivability of the ADF Fleet

There is also the issue of defending a deployed ADF fleet. With China and India fielding capable ship-based combat aircraft, the issue of how to defend the fleet against air attack must be considered. F-35B would offer a hugely capable air defence capability in addition to its strike role, but the idea has attracted some passionate opposition.

One (somewhat novel) argument put forward against the F-35 in this role is that that putting a potent air defence capability on the LHDs would invite an air attack on the LHD that otherwise wouldn’t happen. It’s further argued that it would be less risky to rely on missile defences to provide ‘air denial’ immediately around the fleet, relying on the new Air Warfare Destroyer (AWD). (Strangely, an AWD would apparently not attract attack in the same way that an F-35B equipped LHD would.) Actually, this is a hugely risky strategy. It’s been tried and it usually fails.

In my view, this is wholly flawed thinking. What if the foe wants to shadow your fleet at or beyond your missile range? Or wants to attack a fleet asset other than the LHD? Or wants to attack the LHD because it’s already your capital ship, and the biggest (easiest) target? Or wants to attack you because you have no defences? I’m no expert on air power terminology, but aiming for basic air denial over the airspace immediately above your own fleet looks to be rather a long way down the capability scale – it’s only just above ‘air incapability’. I think you’d probably want at least air parity over the whole fleet, but I’m happy to be corrected. (I note that air power proponents have no difficulty in making the case for land-based air defence aircraft to provide air supremacy for land-based operations.)

I’d be interested to know how the ADF plans to use land based F-35As to provide air defence for the surface fleet. Those iron laws of distance and time haven’t changed since the UK’s Royal Navy was supposed to be defended by RAF Phantoms in the 1970s. It didn’t work then and it’s unlikely to work now, unless the RAN is planning on staying very close to the mainland.

Technical Issues

Two years on from my previous assessment, it’s clear to any impartial observer that the US has put a massive effort into getting the F-35B cleared and capable from decks and ships that are comparable in size and capability to the RAN’s LHDs. Along the way, many myths and misconceptions have been laid to rest.

The flight decks don’t melt. The gear around the flight deck doesn’t fall apart under jet blast. People don’t get blown away by the jet blast. The aircraft can happily perform ski jump launches. It can be supported at sea, and can safely take off and land from small decks. The aircraft software works, although there’s still much to do. In a nutshell, there are now very few issues with the F-35B that aren’t shared by the F-35A and which aren’t being solved.

The capability of the aircraft is clearly a huge step on from first-generation STOVL aircraft such as Harrier. In combat evaluation, the aircraft is showing what its massive situational awareness, and data collection and handling capability can bring to the fight. Imagine what such a platform could do when linked up with modern ship mounted radars and sensors to build a truly integrated intelligence, air defence and strike system.

Conclusion

Countries’ defence plans are always changing in response to circumstances and external developments. In my view, the ADF’s intended area of operations, which is largely maritime in nature, will become a far less certain place in the years to come. Again, just my view, but previous assumptions on the availability of HNS will have to be reviewed along with existing plans for deployments of a purely land-based F-35A force.

The F-35 will deliver a ‘game changing’ capability for the ADF. Surely, as F-35B equipped US LHAs and LHDs (and possibly the UK’s Queen Elizabeth-class carriers) become increasingly common visitors to the China/Pacific region, the ADF will have to look again at how it might develop an ability to more freely deploy its main striking force at long range. Or how it might protect its surface forces against developing air threats.

When those reviews take place, it is to be hoped that objective and honest analysis prevails over single service interests. There’s too much at stake.

Steve George was an air engineer officer in the Royal Navy for 28 years, and served in HMS Invincible during the 1982 Falklands operation. During his career, he was closely involved with the Sea Harrier, and also with joint RN/RAF Harrier operations. Retiring from the RN as a commander, he joined the JSF programme to work on F-35B ship suitability. He is now an engineering consultant.