The Buzz

The Master Plan to Save America's Aircraft Carriers: Kill the F-35C?

The U.S. Navy should consider cancelling the Lockheed Martin F-35C Joint Strike Fighter in favor of new long-range strike capabilities the service actually needs, according to a new report from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).  

Analyst Jerry Hendrix made the proposal in a new paper titled Retreat from Range, which the powerful Washington, D.C., think-tank is releasing today. He noted that since the 1950s, carrier aviation has consistently dwindled in long-range striking power, but the problem is now so acute, it threatens the relevance of the giant 100,000-ton vessels.

Hendrix writes: “If the Navy terminated its portion of the F-35 program, it could afford to purchase two squadrons of 12 Super Hornets (in addition to the two Super Hornet squadrons already present) to replace the two squadrons of 10 F-35Cs and purchase six squadrons of UCAVs [Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle] with 16 aircraft apiece (12 strikers and four tankers) and still be able to return money to the taxpayers.”

If those new jets and unmanned combat aircraft were to be combined with the Navy’s existing E-2D Hawkeyes, EA-18G Growlers and helicopters, it would grow each carrier air wing back up to eighty-four aircraft.  “A number and mass capability not seen since the 1980s,” Hendrix wrote. “There would even be room for four dedicated carrier-based unmanned ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] platforms.”

Hendrix acknowledges that there are disadvantages—there would be a price tag for research, development and initial production of a UCAV. Indeed, a long-range unmanned strike aircraft designed to have a combat radius of more than a 1,000 nautical miles will be expensive, Hendrix acknowledged. Such a machine would easily cost at least $175 million per aircraft, but it would offer much better capability than today’s platforms.  “It would, however, have two to three times the unrefueled combat radius of manned fighters, several times the mission endurance, and enhanced survivability,” Hendrix wrote.

One way to keep the cost down would be to slash the number aircraft that are procured. The Navy wouldn’t need to buy as many UCAVs. Hendrix notes that autonomous unmanned aircraft don’t require training, thus 110 jets would be enough to equip each of the air wings with a single squadron of UCAVs.

Hendix’s UCAV would be a broadband, all-aspect stealth aircraft—and it should be able to provide stand-in jamming capability. That seems to be something of a consensus in Washington. As Hendrix views it, a new Navy UCAV should have a wingspan of about sixty to seventy feet—roughly the maximum size allowed for a carrier-based aircraft. It would also have a gross takeoff weight of roughly 60,000lbs to 70,000lbs and an internal weapons bay capacity between 4,000–6,000 pounds—or roughly the size of Super Hornet or Tomcat.

Hendrix’s proposed UCAV should also have an unrefueled combat radius greater than 1,500 nautical miles. But it should also have a mission endurance that could be measured in days. Navy officials have told me that 50 hours is not outside the realm of possibility; longer than that, engine oil and other consumables become a problem. Hendrix would also like the new aircraft to act an aerial refueling tanker capable of off-loading 25,000lbs of fuel.

Hendrix acknowledged that a UCAV would have some challenges to overcome. One of those is enemy jamming and cyber attacks. There are also unresolved legal issues with an autonomous UCAV.

However, if the Navy were to pursue Hendrix’s vision, the carrier air wing would be able to restore much of its reach and payload capacity. Under Hendrix’s plan, the air wing would have an average range of 902 nautical miles and carry an average of 12,000lbs of weapons. But even then, it would not match the striking 1200 nautical mile range offered by USS Forrestal’s air wing in 1956.

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