The USNI’s Proceedings magazine has recently published an article by Adm. Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, in which Greenert questions the value of stealth technology and aircraft and suggests standoff weapons and “modular” systems as alternatives.
His article is, however, being misinterpreted (by people like Rowan Scarborough, Winslow Wheeler, and Philip Ewing) as one questioning the need for the F-35.
But I’ve actually read the article that Scarborough refers to and it’s clear that Scarborough is reading far too much between the lines. NOTHING in Adm. Greenert’s article hints even REMOTELY at jettisoning the F-35C. Greenert only says that the Navy should stop singularly focusing on platforms and their stealthiness, and start being more inclusive in its search for capability and, for that purpose, look to “payloads”.
I repeat: NOTHING in Greenert’s article hints even remotely at ditching the F-35C. Read for yourself at http://www.usni.org/magazines/…
Moreover, the article is totally ridiculous and shows why Greenert is not fit to be the commander of a Coast Guard cutter, let alone CNO. He shows his total ignorance.
LCS as a model for acquisition?
Throughout most of the article, he brags about different “payloads” that the Navy can use and deliver, including tiny, almost useless drones that cannot do any missions other than the narrow niches they were designed for, including the Fire Scout. He also lectures the reader about modularity and the weapon program he claims to be the model for future procurement is… the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS)!
The LCS is modular, but neither it nor any of its much-vaunted “modules” are capable of doing anything well, whether mine clearance, ASW, or littoral combat. It’s so easy to think and so toothless that it constitutes an easy target.
Nor has it been an acquisition success story. Its unit cost has more than tripled from 220 mn USD to 750 mn USD per unit, including the modules – all of that for ships that are not useful for ANYTHING. Compared to the LCS, the F-35 is an acquisition model.
Three cheers for “old” ships and aircraft
Yet, while praising such expensive and useless niche weapons, Greenert lambasts “platforms” such as fighters, destroyers, cruisers, frigates, and amphibs as relics of the Cold War, and dismisses the missions they were primarily designed for (surface warfare, ASW, A2A combat, amphibious assault) as relics of the past (“high-end missions against the Soviets”):
“most of today’s ships and aircraft were designed in the latter days of the Cold War, with limited reserve capacity and integral systems of sensors, processors, and weapons for the entire range of high-end missions against the Soviets: antisubmarine warfare (ASW), integrated air and missile defense (IAMD), antiair warfare (AAW), surface warfare (SUW), and strike.”
Yet, these are the missions the Navy will most likely and most frequently be required to carry out – not humanitarian assistance or littoral combat. And these platforms carry out those missions very well. Drones, new payloads, and other toys are no substitute for these high-end platforms and cannot carry out their missions. There is no substitute for these high-end platforms and will likely never be. Yet, these high-end missions need to be carried and this will almost certainly continue to be the case, if the armament programs of China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela are any indications.
Greenert’s fears about stealth aircraft are unfounded
As for stealthiness, Greenert’s biggest problem with stealthy aircraft is that radar will try to detect aircraft from many different aspects, and that one aspect of a plane might not be as stealthy as its frontal one. But those fears are unfounded: the F-22 and the B-2 are highly stealthy from ALL aspects (i.e. all directions), and the USAF’s Next Generation Bomber program will almost certainly be as well. It’s a requirement for them. (It is not clear how stealthy from the side and rear aspects the F-35 is.) Building a plane that is stealthy only from the front would be pointless.
Greenert worries that lower-frequency radar (which is now very rare) will be able to detect such aircraft, but that’s highly unlikely, given the scarcity of such radar and the fact that F-22s and B-2s are designed to be stealthy even from LF radar, and the NGB will likely be as well. This means that, even if Greenert’s claim was true and practical, it would be irrelevant.
Moreover, stealth technology is not standing still. It’s advancing, and the NGB (and probably the F-35 as well) will incorporate its latest version. The NGB will be Extremely Low Observable even against VHF and LF radar.
Cruise missiles are no substitute
Standoff weapons such as cruise missiles are no substitute for the following reasons:
COST. While a single cruise missile costs less than a plane, it’s still expensive, and a barrage of such missiles would be very expensive. Cost is why CENTAF commander Gen. Charles Horner was ordered by the DOD to stop shooting Tomahawks in the Desert Storm after launching 132 of them. The cost of launching more Tomahawks was simply prohibitive. Attacking enemy targets (including decoys) solely or mostly with standoff missiles is cost-prohibitive. Such missiles are useful only for taking out a small number of lucrative targets.
EXPENDABILITY. A missile is basically a small expendable aircraft. Once you use it, it’s gone. A plane can be used to bomb enemy targets for decades.
ACCURACY. Cruise missiles cannot be used against fleeting targets. Aircraft can be.
SURVIVABILITY. A plane or a missile, penetrating or standoff, is useless if it cannot survive in enemy airspace. America’s current conventional cruise missiles are nonstealthy, meaning they can be easily shot down by the enemy. Stealthy aircraft can enter and persist in enemy airspace. This is crucial, because all of America’s potential enemies (Venezuela, Syria, Iran, China, Russia) are deploying and upgrading radar/SAM systems that can easily detect and shoot down anything that isn’t stealthy.
Payloads and standoff weapons are no substitute
Last but not least, Greenert’s proposal to focus on payloads, and his premise that payloads and long-range drones can replace stealthiness and thus survivability, is downright laughable and ridiculous.
Contrary to his fantasies, China, Russia, Venezuela, and other countries are building dense integrated air defense systems combining SAMs and radar. These are capable of detecting and shooting down ANY nonstealthy plane or missile. Thus, if any such plane or missile flies over them, no matter from what distance, it will be shot down. Any nonstealthy plane and missile is NOT survivable in their airspace and is therefore useless. (That includes the Bug and the Super Bug.)
Basing aircraft (such as drones) at faraway bases and on carriers stationed far away from China’s coastline is no panacea. They would still have to fly into, and survive in, enemy airspace to deliver ANY payload ANYWHERE, to ANY target. Moreover, some of China’s submarines, anti-ship cruise missiles, ASBMs, and aircraft are capable of attacking carriers that are thousands of miles away, well outside the range of any current or projected Navy aircraft, including drones. Thus, if the Navy wants to be relevant at all and be able to attack anyone, it will have to be able to STAY in these missiles’ and aircraft range and SURVIVE there. There is no alternative. This means investing in defenses against ASCMs and ASBMs and in submarine-hunting equipment and skills, as well as fighters to defend the fleet against missile-carrying aircraft – namely, F-35s.
Survivability is the sine qua non, and stealthiness is the key to it
Remember, folks, the overriding reality: if you can’t enter enemy airspace, survive in it, and deliver weapons to the target deep inside it, NOTHING ELSE MATTERS, including your precious payload, drones, modules, and other toys. This is the overriding reality that no one has yet managed to overcome.
If you can’t enter enemy airspace, nothing else matters, because you can’t bring your weapons to the fight. Standoff distance is no compensation for this.
In naval warfare, if you cannot survive and repel enemy attacks, you don’t matter, and again, standoff distance is no compensation for this. You cannot afford to hide behind a maritime Maginot line. You need to enter shark-infested waters and survive within them.
Survivability, not payload, is the key to ANY modern operations. You can’t survive, you can’t play the game at all.
The smears against F-35 are ridiculous
Scarborough’s and Greenert’s article prove only one thing: that the Admiral, Wheeler, and Rowan Scarborough himself are totally ignorant about defense issues, including aircraft, stealthiness, and the F-35.
First of all, the F-35 is very stealthy and will remain undetectable to radar for decades to come. High frequency X-band radars may ultimately become so sensitive that they will be able to detect an F-35 – or even a B-2 – but that has not yet happened and will probably not happen for decades to come. Even then, assuming strict export control systems, only Western countries will have such technology. Russia, China, and Iran will not. Even then, F-35s and other aircraft can rectify the problem by flying at low altitudes or hiding behind geographic obstacles such as mountains.
Secondly, even if the F-35 does eventually cease to be undetectable or hard to detect (which it will not for many decades), it is far better to have a plane that offers at least some degree of stealthiness (and even better to have one that is as stealthy as the F-35) than not to have such a plane. Super Bugs are, for all intents and purposes, nothing more than easy targets, and their combat radius (400 nmi) is decisively inferior to that of the F-35C (650 nmi, making the F-35C the second-longest-ranged combat plane ever flown by the Navy, second only to the A-6 Intruder).
Drones are no substitute
Thirdly, drones and “standoff” weapons such as missiles would be subject to the same risk of detection such as the F-35, F-22, and B-2 – actually, even a higher degree of risk given that America’s current and projected cruise and ballistic missiles are not stealthy and thus are easy to detect.
Fourthly, all drones that the Navy currently plans to develop will have a payload and weapon diversity substantially INFERIOR to that of the F-35 or even the Super Bug. The Navy will not have a drone matching the F-35’s payload for many decades to come.
Fifth, drones are too light to operate from the Nimitz class because of the minimum aircraft weight requirements of their steam catapults. They can only operate from the Ford class, and by 2025, the Navy will have just two of them.
Thus, these guys are proving nothing but their own sheer ignorance, which they’re trying to compensate for with arrogance.
Winslow Wheeler is NOT an “analyst”, merely an anti-defense propagandist. The “Center for Defense Information”, which should actually be called Center for Defense Misinformation, is NOT a “budget reform group” or a “defense reform group”. It is a far-left group campaigning for deep defense cuts and misleading the public and the Congress about defense issues. It’s clear that Scarborough has decided to join them in their misinformation propaganda campaign.
Scarborough’s garbage rag is clearly a hit-piece designed to smear the F-35 and mislead the public about it. It contains only negative information and comments about it, and no positive information or comments. No comments from any supporter of the program.
Three cheers for the F-35
The fact is that the F-35, despite the way it has been maligned, is fully on track to become the most capable and most cost-effective fighter in world history. It will be very stealthy, very lethal, and very capable while being CHEAPER to operate than Hornets, F-15s, F-16s, and A-10s. It will guarantee US air supremacy for decades to come.
Don’t believe me? Ask the Air Force. Ask the Marine Corps (whose Commandant, a Naval Aviator, is a firm supporter of the F-35). Ask the SECDEF. Ask the eight foreign program partners, NONE of whom have so far left the program. Ask the Iranians, who are deadly afraid of the F-35Is that Israel plans to acquire. Ask the Chinese, who virulently oppose any sale of F-35s (or even F-16s) to Taiwan.
If the F-35 is such a lousy plane, why is Iran worried about it? And why has the Chinese lobby worked so hard (and so far, successfully) to ensure that Taiwan will not be allowed to buy it?
That’s because they know it’s a stealthy, deadly plane far outclassing anything they have or plan to operate, including the J-20 that caused so much fuss last year.
And that, by itself, is a sufficient testament to the F-35’s worthiness, rendering Wheeler’s and Scarborough’s smears irrelevant.