The House Armed Services Committee has sent its report on the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to the floor. And buried in that report are words of caution about the F-35C, the Navy’s version of the F-35 Lightning II, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter—and the Navy’s whole carrier air capability in general. The reason for that concern is that the F-35C doesn’t have the range to conduct long-range strikes without in-flight refueling—and the Navy’s tanker planes are not exactly “stealth.”
The F-35C suffers somewhat from the length of its development cycle. Competition for the Joint Strike Fighter program began in 1993—25 years ago—when the military threats facing the United States were significantly different. In 1993, there was no concern about Chinese “carrier killer” anti-ship ballistic missiles, for example; but in 2010, China introduced the Dongfeng (or Dong-Feng) 21D, an anti-ship ballistic missile with a range of 900 miles and a circular error probability of 20 meters. That’s accurate enough, with satellite tracking and terminal guidance, to hit an aircraft carrier far offshore.
The F-35C’s advertised range is 1,200 nautical miles (roughly 2,200 kilometers), roughly 10 percent longer than that of the F/A-18. But for most strikes, that would require the carriers launching F-35C sorties to be much closer to the coast than falls within the comfort zone. And with advanced air and coastal defense systems—including, for example, the sorts that are popping up on islands in the South China Sea these days—less-than-stealthy tanker planes would give up the whole game.
The House Armed Services Committee report hinted at this issue:
The committee notes that the aircraft carrier air wing has been optimized for striking power and sortie generation and believes that it may not be configured to support the long-range strike required by current and future threat systems. While the introduction of the F-35C will significantly expand stealth capabilities, the F-35C could require increased range to address necessary targets. The committee believes that several options could be used to address this issue to include developing a stealth tanker capability, improved engine technology, or to develop and procure a strike capability that is purposely built to strike at increased range.
The third option—a stealthy long-range strike aircraft—is something the Navy already attempted with its Advanced Tactical Aircraft program, launched in the late 1980s. The McDonnell Douglas A-12 was the winner of that competition. A low-observable delta-wing design aircraft with the wingspan of an F-14 Tomcat, the A-12 would have had a range of 800 nautical miles and an internal weapons bay capable of carrying 5,000 pounds of ordnance. It was to be the Navy’s answer to the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter.
But the would-have-been $4.38 billion program failed so hard that, in 1991, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney cancelled it—the biggest program cancellation ever up until that point—and the government sued McDonnell Douglas for breach of contract. Eventually, Boeing (which acquired McDonnell Douglas) had to pay the government $2.8 billion—the $1.35 billion that McDonnell Douglas was initially awarded, plus the interest that accrued while the companies fought the suit over the next 18 years.
A stealthy tanker, of sorts, is in the works—what started as an effort to build an unmanned carrier-launched strike aircraft took a U-turn and became the Carrier-Based Aerial-Refueling System (CBARS) program, also known as the MQ-25 Stingray. Boeing, Lockheed, General Atomics, and Northrop Grumman are all in the hunt with proposed designs. If and when the winning design for an unmanned, stealthy tanker flies—likely after 2020—they could double the range of the F-35C.
Regardless, the House Armed Services Committee has decided to give the Navy a bit of a shove toward figuring out how to best develop a “carrier-based long-range strike capability.” The NDAA report states that the committee “directs the Secretary of the Navy to provide a briefing to the Senate Committee on Armed Services and the House Committee on Armed Services by January 25, 2019, on options to expand the strike range of a carrier air wing in a contested environment, including manned and unmanned capabilities, and Department of the Navy capabilities it plans to pursue in the Next Generation Air Dominance capability.”