Saturday, January 21, 2012

Getting Serious About STOVL

Thom Shanker from the NYT reports this morning about Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's decision to take the F-35B Lightning II off of probation. The B variant is a short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) jet capable of taking off from short landing strips or the deck of an amphibious ship (as opposed to a catapult-assisted launch and an arrested landing on a full-sized carrier). The Marine Corps' story is that STOVL is needed for (a) use in amphibious scenarios and (b) expeditionary scenarios where landing sites are limited. Shanker alludes to this in discussing "the importance to the Marine Corps of coming up with a replacement for its Harrier jump-jet, which has proved its value in countering insurgencies and terrorists in rugged, remote areas."

But has the Harrier really proven its unique value in countering insurgencies, etc?  The Harrier has surely been a large part of Marine aviation since 9/11, but its STOVL characteristics were rarely, if ever, critical to the conduct of operations.  If anything, the capability was a liability when it came to the requirement for long on-station times, multiple ordnance options, and tedious scanning of compounds and cities with targeting pods in support of troops on the ground.  Marines often refer to the plane by saying "one man, one bomb, one hour."  It is not that the Harrier has been incapable or has failed in its support of Marines on the ground.  However, the STOVL capability forces a tradeoff in terms on-station time and weapons carriage.  The F/A-18, especially in the two-seat D version, is far more capable of staying on station longer, conducting better scans using targeting pods, and carrying more weapons to give the ground units more options in these fights where one might need to level a building or might need to take out a small group of insurgents not far from a civilian-inhabited compound.  

While Harriers have conducted some forward rearming and refueling at shorter strips, these were more driven by the Harrier's limitations and the desire to validate its expeditionary capability than a value added to the fight.  That is, while a Harrier was rearming and refueling, a Hornet would be overhead, sensor still on target, refueling from a KC-130, more weapons still on the wing.  

So, when the program hits a rough spot again, which history suggests is very possible, and when the budget adjusters come knocking, the Marine Corps needs to be honest about how much STOVL capability it really needs to maintain its close air support capability aboard amphibious shipping, how soon unmanned aerial systems can fill that gap, and what the best option is for the rest of our close air support needs.


  1. Mr. Munson has obviously not researched the 'from the Sea' spirit of the Marine Corps mission. I suggest he actually get out in the 'real world' and try to land his F-18D on an LHA... OR better, be with the BLT ashore in the fight when their may be NOTHING around but an AV-8B+ or Lighting IIB for support. Who are these guys writing these 'reports'?!

  2. Anonymous,

    I think you should consider the greater value we've gained from armed UAVs like the Reaper. In OEF, it can be on station for hours with a larger payload than a Harrier. "From the Sea" spirit shouldn't necessitate using an inferior sytem that is more expensive to operate. Rather, we need to develop a UAV that is capable of providing CAS and launching/recovering from a MEU. Obviously, we won't have airbases like KAF or Bastion to operate from or the skyhooks the ScanEagle requires. OEF has shown the limitations of manned FW CAS.

  3. Anon,
    I have been out in the real world. I have floated with a MEU. I have been with that MEU ashore in Afghanistan. I have also been ashore with the MEF(FWD) in Afghanistan. I am not saying that STOVL should go away altogether, just that the Corps needs to consider the real tradeoffs that STOVL presents and to consider just how much STOVL capability we really need. More importantly, if the F-35 program runs into trouble again or if the budget cuts go even deeper, we need to be honest about what we really need and consider other ways of getting it, to include UAS and to include the realization that in high-end conflict we will be working with carrier-based naval aviation and land-based Air Force assets. We need a capability that works off of amphib ships, yes, but we can be more creative in our solutions if push comes to shove.

    So, since you are so critical of my experience in the real world, what is yours?

  4. I actually worked with these jets for 5 years in with VMA 311 and VMA 214, and I will have to say that I do think the Harrier is very limited. As said in the report, there are better options for having bombs on station longer. The harrier has a very limited fuel capacity and bomb capacity. I dont think the v/stol technology is very effective.... I think its a waste of money compared to other aircraft such as UAV's

  5. Tomcat

    Where is the USMC Hornet Community throwing laundry on the F-35B before this insanely complex, costly and under performing variant costs a bunch of grunts their lives. STOVL is at best a solution to get a few Harrier replacements on the LPH/LHA decks. Who in the world thinks that building an aircraft that carries its own catapult and arresting gear around for its entire life is a good idea? At least 3000 lbs of lead ballast would not break and cost millions per jet.

    USMC needs to reverse its quantities and buy about 80 Bs max for the amphibs, and the balance as Cs. It will save money, possibly the entire F-35 program and definitely the lives of a lot of Marines.

    Unfortunately the Corps General Officers have lost their sense of perspective and seem to regard STOVL as some kind of religious duty rather than the expensive niche capability that it is.

  6. Pardon the noob comment, but what can SVTOL provide that a helicopter can't?