The Navy held a conference call with reporters today to shoot down any rumors that it’s going soft on the carrier version (F-35C) of the Joint Strike Fighter in favor of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
The Navy intends to buy 124 Super Hornets in a multiyear purchase plan between FY 2010-2013, for a grand total of 515 F/A-18E/F/G aircraft, said Rear Adm. Mike Manazir, head of naval aviation programs.
But the fact that the Navy continues to buy large numbers of Super Hornets does not mean it doesn’t plan to buy even more F-35s, a true “game changing” 5th generation stealth aircraft, he said.
The Navy and Marines planned buy remains 680 JSFs, Manazir said. How many of that total will ultimately be the carrier version F-35C or the Marine’s short take-off and landing version F-35B, remains a topic of discussion between the two services.
On the much discussed Navy tactical strike fighter shortfall, Manazir said the worst case projections see the shortfall sitting at about 177 aircraft peaking in 2017. By tweaking “mitigation levers” - which includes how long older versions of the F-18 continue to fly, the delivery rate of new Super Hornets, how soon F-35s can begin to roll off the production line in large numbers and the demand from combatant commanders for carrier strike – that shortfall can be reduced to about 100 aircraft.
The current demand for F/A-18A-D flying off carriers in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is “what is really stressing us right now,” he said. “If that demand signal was to decrease at some point then it would mitigate some of that shortfall.”
The Navy’s projections of a strike fighter shortfall are based on models that assume the Navy will continue flying carrier missions in support of counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan at current levels, Manazir said.
Asked if the expected drawdown in U.S. forces from Iraq, and thus reduced flight hours for carrier aviation in the Central Command area, could erase that shortfall, he said that any change in the “demand signal” would change that shortfall number. “I can’t predict that it will drop,” he said.
Asked if he would rule out buying more Super Hornets to reduce that projected shortfall, Manazir said right now the Navy is focused on extending the life of the “legacy fleet” of F/A-18A-Ds.
Ultimately, though, the Navy really wants a 5th generation strike fighter and is counting on the F35C.
The Navy has expanded the capabilities of the Super Hornet to about “4.2-ish” generation capability, Manazir said, which is the limit of how much it can be upgraded. While some 5th generation low observable features are built into the Super Hornet, the fact that its weapons hang-off the wings, it cannot internally store weapons, means it has upper limits of stealthiness.
“The F-35Cs sensor fusion, data fusion and the stealth characteristics… allow it to get in there on day one of an anti-access denial kind of a fight,” Manazir said.
The Navy plans to operate the JSF and Super Hornet in combination, covered by an E-18G in a jamming role, to maximize the abilities of both aircraft. While functioning as a stealthy strike aircraft able to penetrate enemy air defenses the F-35C will also operate as a communications “node” on the Navy’s battle network, providing and transporting data to other ships and aircraft.
The Navy’s long-range aircraft force structure requirements are based on the current fight, that is Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a heavier fight against a “near-peer competitor,” he said.
The first flight of the F-35C is planned for some time in the next couple of weeks and the aircraft’s initial operational capability remains 2016, Manazir said. “It should be in [Patuxent River] by the end of the summer and actively participating in flight tests.”
“We continue to closely observe and interact with the contractor Lockheed Martin, and tell them what our requirements are.” Those requirements have not changed, he said. The Navy plans to field ten F-35C in the first squadron.