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Could the F-35B Really Be Cut?

An F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter in Hover Mode

Well, it looks like the Pentagon may be joining those who recommend scrapping the short take-off and vertical landing variant of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.

The last few weeks have seen some serious punches thrown at the would-be-wonder jet. First, the British announced that they were cutting their nearly 150-plane F-35B buy in favor of an unknown number of F-35C carrier variant JSFs. Next came reports that the Pentagon is bracing for the possibilty that the program will suffer more delays and cost growth. Then, last week, a presidentially-mandated panel recommended that the government completely scrap the B-model JSF as well has half the U.S. Air Force's and Navy's purchases of F-35As and Cs, respectively, through 2015. 

Now, InsideDefense.com reports:

"Senior defense leaders are questioning the Marine Corps' need for its variant of the Joint Strike Fighter as Pentagon leaders consider a radical restructuring of the program that could accelerate the development of the Air Force and Navy F-35 variants." 
Apparently, the move is being discussed in order to free up money and other resources "from the most risky version of the plane to the least." 
“There are questions being asked at the senior level, up to the secretary of defense, about whether we really have to have the STOVL,” said a Pentagon official, referring to the short takeoff and vertical landing variant of the F-35 being developed for the Marine Corps. Gates last week conducted a high-level review of the Pentagon's fighter aircraft portfolio to explore options for revising current procurement plans, sources said, including a scenario for slowing down the F-35B and invigorating the development of the F-35A, the conventional takeoff and landing variant, and the F-35C, the version designed to operate from aircraft carriers.
If this is true, it would make some sense. Pentagon officials have to be at least considering axing the Bravo, given the fiscal environment the world is in right now. Whether they would actually do that is a separate question.  Remember, not only does the future of U.S. Marine Corps tactical aviation rely on the F-35B, but F-35-maker Lockheed Martin and Uncle Sam have already spent a ton of money on developing the STOVL airplane.

Maybe such a move will ultimately save time and money but  it would still cause a serious stir. How would such a cut impact the cost profile for the program? Would the Marines get C-model JSFs, new F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, keep flying their current F/A-18s, AV-8Bs and EA-6Bs or lose their Tacair fleet altogether?

These are the issues that senior officials at the Pentagon and Lockheed have got to be hashing out right now.

Teal Group aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia makes an interesting point in an e-mail to DefenseTech, saying that while "USMC programs are almost impossible to kill,"  the Marines' budget "is badly overstretched, and much of it goes to develop and buy aircraft for unique USMC needs." 

"With the U.K. leaving the B program, a complicated, expensive, single-customer program—rather like the V-22—might be an easy target for budget cutters," Aboulafia said.

We'll know what the Pentagon wants soon enough when it announces the content of its Technical Baseline Review for the program, establishing a new schedule and cost profile for the plane.

-- John Reed

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