:: July 2002 Newsletter ::
The world is a scary place, and only getting scarier. You don’t need to be a hack sci-fi writer to envision the unpleasant future. Angry combatants will battle fiercely for scarce resources, showing no signs of compromise or mercy. Cultural conflicts will grow worse with every passing year. Understanding and moderation will be in desperately short supply. India and Pakistan? Israel and the Palestinians? The Koreas? Actually, I was thinking of the three US fixed wing military air arms. The Air Force, Navy, and Marines appear headed for total separation. Given the current state of affairs, you have to wonder if there’s any hope at all.
To be fair, relations between the services have always been kind of rotten. Recent history points to the TFX/F-111 debacle as a particularly relevant example, followed by the YF-16/YF-17 divergence in the lightweight fighter competition a decade later. But ask any veteran Air Force pilot what he thought of the F-4 Phantom (originally a Navy plane, and still beloved by some Navy and Marine pilots) and you’ll realize that even the “successful” examples of jointness were seriously over-rated.
The new Era of Bad Feelings is best illustrated by the current debate over airborne electronic warfare (EW). Pretty much every type of inter-service dysfunction is visible in the current analysis of alternatives. While once (incorrectly) pointed to as an example of inter-service cooperation, the joint EA-6B force is getting long in the tooth. And each of the three air arms have plans that don’t involve the other guys.
Let’s start with the Navy. They want to get rid of the EA-6Bs ASAP, and replace them with EA-18G electronic attack Super Hornets. Simple enough, and we think they’ll get them. But the Air Force will never operate Hornets. And the Marines don’t want Super Hornets—they would threaten funding for an all-ASTOVL F-35 fleet, including an electronic attack version. This “EA-35” won’t be available until 2012, at the very earliest, so the Marines have to keep flying an orphan EA-6B force until then.
Much of the Navy, meanwhile, regards the F-35 as enthusiastically as they’d regard a proposal to go drink bleach. The F-35 is conspicuously absent from the Navy’s draft 2004-2009 Program Objective Memorandum (POM), which focuses on accelerating Hornet E/F deliveries to replace F-14s and older Hornets. It isn’t just that the Navy would prefer the Super Hornet, and regard funding for one as a threat to funding for the other. There’s also the unpleasant prospect that the ASTOVL F-35 version could be nearly as effective as the CTOL naval variant, making large nuclear carriers relatively less appealing. And the Navy’s biggest problem with the F-35 seems to be that it’s a joint plane. Joint planes threaten Navy hopes for ever getting a purely Navy combat aircraft again.
So, the Navy is threatened by the Marine’s plan to not buy Super Hornets, and could make life very difficult for them as they become the last EA-6B operator (there is some precedent for this—when the Navy phased out the A-6 fleet, they sunk the best planes first for use as coral reefs). The draft Navy POM, by the way, calls for EA-6B retirement around 2010. Conveniently for the Navy, the EA-18G could be operational in 2009.
The curious Navy-Marine TACAIR integration plan has arrived in the midst of this debate, looking a lot like an ice cream truck driving into the middle of the Gunfight At OK Corral. This plan promises to reduce the total number of aircraft needed, through better cooperation and joint use of resources. The only aircraft proposed for major cuts: F-35. How long until the Marines revolt?
Meanwhile, the Air Force seems to think the best place for a jamming pod is on someone else’s aircraft. After all, an all-stealth combat force doesn’t need EW. In fact, EW would only attract the defender’s unwanted attention. But as a fall back, the USAF has mooted an EB-52. That’s right: a B-52 with a standoff jamming capability. Vulnerable, difficult to deploy, incapable of accompanying an attacking force; all of that’s true. It might never happen. But proposing the EB-52 sends a signal that you aren’t turning back—the future is all stealth, or bust.
The Marines are using similar tactics with their H-1 upgrade program. It’s ridiculously expensive, and the UH-1Y rebuild is clearly inferior to an MH-60 acquisition. But from the Marines’ standpoint buying a few MH-60s would be catastrophic—it would be a Trojan Horse for more MH-60s, forced on them instead of MV-22s. As with the USAF and stealth, the USMC thinks the future is all tiltrotor transports, or bust. Of course, the MV-22 is still very much at risk, and if it’s cancelled the Marines’ best laid plans could come to naught.
In short, the EW fight isn’t just a disagreement over equipment preferences; we’re seeing a divergence of warfighting philosophy. That’s worrying. This could get ugly—Texas Clock Tower ugly. Already the Air Force has made it clear that their Romulan Cloaking Device stealth capabilities would be compromised by cooperation with unstealthy planes (like Navy F/A-18E/Fs, or Eurofighters, for that matter). So don’t count on the two services being in the same skies together anytime after 2010-2015.
What does all of this intra-necine conflict mean for aircraft programs? Bizarrely, it’s probably good news for all of them. Thanks to the increasingly politicized atmosphere, you can’t cut one without cutting them all, and you can’t cut them all. And the F-35 may not have many friends in the Navy, but the Air Force seems to have reached a chummy accommodation with the Marines: the USAF will accept limitations imposed by ASTOVL design parameters in exchange for the Marines program support. Yet the Marines may be somewhat over-extended. Getting those STOVL F-35s and MV-22s sounds difficult to pull off. Since the F-35 looks relatively safe, I’m increasingly worried about those MV-22s. Perhaps the Marines’ F-35 TACAIR accomodation with the Navy is a desperate way of trying to get both F-35s and V-22s?
Back to work. This is kind of an overgrown supplement. There are updated Regional and Rotorcraft overviews, the 747, CH-47, Embraer 170/190, Learjet, Hawker/Horizon, L-39, EC 120, Dash 8, and the airliner inventory appendix. Special Guest Update: Lockheed’s F-35 JSF, now with a procurement forecast. So don’t expect a huge August supplement—just a few helicopters and Russian planes, but we’ll also update the Commercial Jet Transports overview. But as always, call if you need the latest spreadsheets. And have a great summer.
Yours, Until The World Learns To Play Nice,
© Richard Aboulafia 1997-2006, All rights reserved.