For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
for want of a shoe the horse was lost;
and for want of a horse the rider was lost;
being overtaken and slain by the enemy,
all for want of care about a horse-shoe nail.
For several weeks now, it seems my fellow Air Force and Air National Guard vets all have on their mind the F-35 or more specifically, how the USAF's pursuit of the F-35 is costing the service to lose everything else.
Picture credit: Wikipedia
In an attempt to build one fighter that meets the needs of the USAF (air interdiction, air-to-ground, and close air support), the US Navy (carrier operations, fleet defense), and the USMC (operations from unimproved runaways, close air support), Lockheed Martin has built the most expensive compromise ever. The F-35, in its variants, can almost do all of the missions….sort of.
For example, for the USAF air-to-ground role the F-35 needs to carry bombs but bombs on external weapons points aren't very stealth so the bombs have to be carried in the internal weapons bay. And because of that, the F-35 can only carry a few bombs and until recently, it could even carry the small diameter bomb that the USAF uses extensively. The idea of course of going to a small diameter bomb is so that an aircraft can carry more and thus be able to destroy more targets. The F-35 can carry four.
Close air support is the purview of the legendary A-10. It is a flying tank, built to fly low and slow over the battle field while carrying all of the bombs, rockets, missiles needed to destroy enemy armor. Most famously though is its 30mm cannon, capable of punching hole clean through any tank on the battlefield. It carries over 1,000 rounds as well insuring ample opportunity to eliminate enemy mech.
In contrast, the F-35 will carry a 25mm canon instead and only 180 rounds! The F-35 is designed to stealth and fly at supersonic speed, hardly the requirements for dropping ordnance near friendly troops engaged with the enemy.
But more egregious is the the USAF knows all of this and still is letting the A-10 go out of the inventory with NO replacement. Fewer tails (copies) of the F-35 means fewer sorties and with a flight to maintenance ratio of 1:27 (one hour of flight time equals 27 hours of maintenance), one has to wonder if there will ever be enough F-35s available to conduct an air campaign.
The F-22 is not instilling any confidence in USAF pilots either. After a projected history of causing hypoxia, the F-22 is perhaps one of the least liked aircraft in the inventory. It won't be able to backfill shortfalls caused by F-35 downtime. The Air National Guard, which flies the F-22, has gone so far as to ask the USAF to exchange the F-22s for F-15Es. Yet despite this please for a more sensible the solution, the USAF continues to want that nail.
The F-35 is ridiculously expensive and it is hard to believe that the Pentagon would want to see these shot down in combat, meaning no-fly zones are going to become increasingly rare (unless other technology is utilized).
The F-15E is a dual-seat version of the F-15 and carries more fuel and weapons than its sleeker, air interdiction cousin. The F-15E would make a much better replacement than the F-35 for the CAS role. Of course that would admit the F-35 is a high-priced mistake so it is unlikely that the USAF will do that. Another option would be to use drones to replace A-10s and allow the Army to assume doctrinal control of the CAS mission. That will not happen either. So the USAF is going to have the F-35 no matter what and it will lose so much in the process.