The Buzz

The F-35 Is Slowly Starting to Replace the F/A-18 (But One Big Problem Won’t Go Away)

The United States Navy is pressing ahead with plans to replace the original model Boeing F/A-18A/B/C/D Hornets with the Lockheed Martin F-35C Joint Strike Fighter. Four F-35Cs are scheduled to arrive at Naval Air Station Lemoore on Jan. 25 as part of a new Fleet Replacement Squadron for the West Coast.

“The ‘Rough Raiders’ of VFA-125, which reactivated on Jan. 12, will be the Navy's west coast Fleet Replacement Squadron for the F-35C Lightning II, responsible for training the next generation of Naval Aviators on the aircraft,” reads a statement from Naval Air Forces.

The Navy will hold a formal ceremony to mark the event. Dignitaries including Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker, commander of Naval Air Forces will speak at the aircraft arrival ceremony. The F-35’s arrival at Lemoore marks the beginning of the Navy’s transition onto the new type, but that switch onto the new platform is not proceeding particularly smoothly.

The Navy’s F-35C variant is supposed to enter operational service in 2019 if all goes well. But the carrier-variant has hit a snag with its nose gear—which oscillates during catapult launches when the jet is lightly loaded as Lee Hudson reports. The Navy is implementing some short and medium-term mitigation efforts for the problem, but in the longer term, the nose-gear will have to be redesigned to fix the issue. That adds to the cost and delays already incurred by the program.

Meanwhile, though much of the Navy’s bureaucracy has been lukewarm toward the single-engine F-35C, chief of naval operations Adm. John Richardson acknowledged that the service needs the stealthy new aircraft. There is simply no alternative stealth aircraft that can be developed in the near-term that could perform the penetrating strike mission before an F/A-XX or Next Generation Air Dominance platform could be fielded in the mid-2030s.

"We need the F-35s," Richardson said at a Defense One conference recently. "That is our 5th-gen capability which we need, supplemented by healthy cadre of advanced Super Hornets."

With the proliferation of advanced Russian and Chinese air defenses such as the S-300V4, S-400 and the HQ-9, the Navy will need a stealth platform to penetrate those potent air defenses. The S-300V4 and S-400 are extremely capable weapons that have the potential to engage targets as far out as 250 miles when equipped with the appropriate missile. Thus, such missiles pose a deadly threat to conventional combat aircraft.

However, analysts and even Pentagon officials have questioned the utility of the F-35C in the Western Pacific. China has developed a series of anti-access/area denial weapons such as the D-21D and DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missiles, a host of anti-ship cruise missiles and other systems that are specifically designed to keep the carrier at bay. If the carrier is forced to launch strikes from outside a 1000 nautical mile radius of the enemy shoreline, the utility of carrier-based strike fighters comes into question. Indeed, for the past ten years, Naval strategists in Washington have envisaged a long-range strike aircraft that would be able to launch and recover from outside the radius of those weapons, but the Navy has, thus far, in pursuing that option.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.