Is the added cost of buying and operating a stealth fighter worth it?
The answers will vary depending on who you ask—and it depends on if one believes stealth is a baseline requirement to survive over a future battlefield or not.
The U.S. Air Force has publicly embraced stealth as the end all and be all, while the U.S. Navy has taken a more skeptical approach. While Air Force officials publicly pronounce that the F-35 will be able fight alone and unafraid, the Navy has argued for balanced survivability using a combination of assets including electronic attack, stand-off weapons and, yes, some measure of stealth.
Part of the difference in the two services’ diverging positions can be explained by different political messaging strategies. Publicly, the Air Force doesn’t want to admit the utility of electronic attack or support platforms because they seem to believe that might erode support for the F-35. Meanwhile, the Navy has bills to pay other than for aviation and that service doesn’t see the performance differential between the F/A-18E/F and F-35C as being worth the massive cost plus up.
After a discussion with Air Force and Navy officials—it’s apparent that the truth lies somewhere in between. There is consensus that in the future as anti-access/area denial threats evolve, wide-band all-aspect stealth will probably be necessary. But that likely requires a large flying-wing aircraft like a strategic bomber. Moreover, support assets including electronic attack and cyber are going to be part of the mix. Against the Chinese or Russians, no one is going to be able to go it alone.
A dispute starts to emerge on the advantages of high-frequency stealth aircraft—jets like the F-22 and F-35 which are designed to operate primarily against the C, X and Ku band radars. Navy leaders are adamant that the service needs complementary capabilities that include stealth as part of a larger overall bag of tricks. Meanwhile, Air Force leaders will assert that the F-35 in particular will operate without the support of any external electronic warfare assets. However, the service’s own air warfare experts at Nellis AFB, Nev., freely admit that stealth works best when complemented with other capabilities like electronic attack—and those officers recognize the need for a platform like the EA-18G Growler. Detection via radar is decided by the signal to noise ratio—stealth reduces the signal while jamming increases the noise. That’s just basic physics—ideally, one works both sides of the problem to achieve the best results.
At the tactical level—as I recently discussed with a good friend who is an Air Force Weapons School grad with lots of stealth experience—a four-ship of F-35Cs supported by Growlers and E-2D Advanced Hawkeyes and other naval assets is likely to be more effective than a four-ship of Super Hornets operating with the same support assets. While the F-35C does not have good kinematic performance, it does (or will eventually) have stealth, excellent sensors and phenomenal electronic warfare capabilities. Indeed, combining the F-35C with the Super Hornet might work very well in a scenario where the Joint Strike Fighter is used as a spotter for the F/A-18E/Fs. Indeed, the Navy’s director of air warfare Rear Adm. Mike Manazir told me as such a couple of years ago when I was at the U.S. Naval Institute.
But the problem for the Navy is that the F-35C is expensive both to buy and sustain onboard a carrier. There are many in the Navy that simply don’t believe that any added performance benefits the F-35C brings to the table would be worth the massive additional cost. Moreover, there is a growing understanding in the naval community that the F-35C fundamentally does not have the range or payload needed to keep the carrier relevant in the anti-access/area denial environment of the Western Pacific. Indeed, there have been suggestions that the Navy truncate or cancel its portion of the Joint Strike Fighter buy. But only time will tell…
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.
Image: Northrop Grumman/Social Media.