Could the Marines Get F-35Cs?

Given all the bad news coming out about the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter program in recent weeks, I asked Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz if he is concerned that any cuts to the Marines troubled F-35B program could hurt the Air Force:

“If we don’t produce the same amount of airplanes, clearly there’s cost impacts” said Schwartz. “The F-35 is important to lots of folks [three U.S. armed services and eight international partners] and my expectation is that both government and industry will get after making this right.”

In the wake of Britain’s move to swap its F-35Bs for F-35C carrier variants and the recent suggestion by the presidentially-mandated deficit reduction panel that the U.S. should cut the F-35B, one has think that the Pentagon is at least considering swapping the B-model JSF and replacing it with the C.

This move would keep overall F-35 purchase numbers high and would redirect resources away from the troubled B and into the A and C-programs. The Marines would lose the ability to fly from smaller ships and austere ground sites, but with the C they would maintain a modern ship-borne fighter fleet. The Pentagon is likely asking how often the Marines’ fleet of AV-8B Harrier jump jets’s ability to fly from amphibious assault ships or random forward locations has been key to an operation?  In theory it gives the Marines a critical edge — but in practice . . . maybe not.

Check out this article from Armed Forces Journal weighing the merits of forward basing STOVL jets. It makes an interesting point about the cost of keeping a plane like the F-35B close to the front lines:

Forward basing is more than a logistical quagmire. As the price continues to climb and the number scheduled for purchase continues to descend, these aircraft will become national assets that are closely guarded, and the U.S. does not typically stage national assets within range of the enemy’s indirect fires.

In 2005, a rocket attack destroyed one British Harrier and damaged another while they sat on the ramp in Kandahar, Afghanistan. It seems unrealistic to expect $120-million, fifth-generation STOVL fighters like the F-35B to operate out of forward bases or austere locations. They may retain the capability to do so, but at the expense of range, useful load and a higher purchase price.

If the Marines lose the F-35B, they could try to rely on older F/A-18 Hornets and Harriers, but how useful will these legacy jets be in the coming decades against anything but insurgents? Another option is to buy new F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, a jet the Navy already plans to use in tandem with the F-35. This might make sense. The Super Hornet would give the Marines low-cost, quality fast jet air support that’s better equipped to deal with 21st Century air defenses than older F/A-18s.

However, either of these moves would reduce purchases of F-35s by the hundreds. This would increase the overall cost of the airplane — something no one wants to see given the government’s troubled fiscal climate.

Buying C-model jets would give the Marines modern, carrier-borne tacair jets with considerably more range and payload than the B and would help keep the cost of the overall F-35 program stable compared to rising fixed costs caused by dropping hundreds of jets. (There would still some financial waves via sunk costs from pulling out of the B). The amphibious service would lose its ability to operate from certain ships or bases, but it would retain a stealthy fighter capable of being deployed on ships that’s cheaper (on a per-unit basis) than the F-35B.

I’m not saying this is the best route or even what will happen. But like I said earlier, F-35 Program Manager Vice Adm. David Venlet and his team have got to be at least weighing these factors as they plot the future of the F-35 program. 

— John Reed

  • Charley

    Or they could buy F/A-18E/F’s equipped with DTS. Why do you need stealth for CAS?

  • Oblat

    “If we don’t produce the same amount of airplanes, clearly there’s cost impacts”

    Sure does, less aircraft cost less.

    • Michael

      Less absolute cost, higher per unit cost.

      I’m an accountant…and you’re welcome.

    • danf

      The billions spent so far are R&D costs. Whatever that amount is, is spread over the entire production run. Thus there is flyaway cost which is one number and there is program cost which is fly away cost plus each produced aircrafts share of R&D. Thus as you reduce the size of the buy, the cost per aircraft increases. In the twisted logic of government accounting, this unit cost increase then justifies the next program reduction…the R&D cost is sunk cost. Those dollars will never be recovered even if the entire program is cancelled.

    • Pat

      Sorry, but cutting aircraft cost more in the long run. Congress has a history of cutting buys which jacks up the price whic results in cancelling the program.

    • Craig

      Yeah sorry but less aircraft definitely affects costs by making it rise if you dont believe me look at the almost 2 billion dollar an aircraft B-2!!!!

  • Oblat

    The defense industry uses constant profit budgeting. The objective is not capability it is maintaining the profit no matter what is delivered. That’s why they can claim that buying less aircraft costs more. It has to to maintain the profits.

    The only solution is to terminate programs. Nibbling away at them makes no difference.

  • Brian

    The only reason for the Marines to buy the F35 is the B version, its the only one that has a unique capability, the ability to forward base. HTe F-35C’s will already be on the carriers, so there is no reason for the marines to put more C’s there when they can rely on the Navy on it for tactical air support.

    When you get down it, what they are trying to do is take away the aviation wing away from the marines. Gates is probably thinking, why do we need another service with an air wing when they can just get air support for the navy and the air force?

  • phillip simpson

    This is one of the best ideas, but USMC will not take it. They have sold their soul’s to the devil for VSTOL. Very few of the reasons for VSTOL actually hold up well to additional scrutiny.

    1. Austure short fields….. Problem you have to get the people and supplies to that austure field which is a logistical nightmare. So instead of trucking (or flying a large aircraft) into a larger established field you now need to take tactical lift to move stuff so the VSTOL can be armed. It does not matter if your 10minutes from the front line if you have nothing to shoot or drop on the bad guy

    2. Amphibs……. Putting only 6 onboard a LHA/LHD class does not give you a robust air force that can actually do anything more than piss off the country you attack. Any nation large enough or modern enough to have radar guided SAMS or and IADs…. you will need more than 6 planes…. you will need tanking… you will need AWACs…. and you dont have that onboard a LHA…. but you do on a CVN

    3. Going to a pure airfleet for TACAIR. The Marines want to replace everything (Harrier, Prowler..F-18A-D) with a Common platform guess what the Navy is doing… ah yes a F-18E/F/G… outside of the VSTOL… it can do the job

  • blight

    Tilt rotor CAS is looking better and better every day. That or spin off VTOL JSF into a seperate program and let the Marines fund it (along with EFV, V-22 etc), and continue with F-35A & C.

    Logistically one would retask engineers and prioritize the rest of the JSF program first, and try and fix F-35B later on. Maybe we should’ve given Boeing the JSF contract and Lockheed the VTOL…

  • Belesari

    I used to believe we needed the F-35 and that it would be worth it but, Not so much anymore.

    ALL current navy fighter/bombers have far to short of legs to provide sufficent aircover for the fleet. The vaunted stealth systems have proven susceptable to even the poorer militaries.
    While i agree to stealth in some aplication like the heavy bombers and such to dedicate and count on it entirely to the exclusio of everything else in our fighter and strikefighters is stupidity.

    As for a VTOL aircraft for the marines? Well i think they need one. Does it need all the wizbang crap and stealth? No.

    Hell make a Navalized version of the A-10….there’s ya a attack bird.

  • SMSgt Mac

    RE: “The Pentagon is likely asking how often the Marines’ fleet of AV-8B Harrier jump jets’s ability to fly from amphibious assault ships or random forward locations has been key to an operation?”

    A complete swing and a miss. Try: “The Marines are likely telling the Pentagon how often the Marines’ STOVL fleet of F-35B’s will be able to fly from amphibious assault ships or random forward locations, and how separating Marine Air from the big deck carrier bottleneck will enhance their abillity to project MAGTF power more quickly and to more places at the same time.” There, all fixed: a more nuanced POV that has the added advantage of being true.

    And BTW: I’m starting to wonder, is there an Aerospace ‘JournoList’ we need to know about? Just Askin’!

  • Tony C

    The F-35 debate is reminicent of the F-111 debate in the 1960’s. No one plane has ever been able to meet all of the conflicting requirements. The one plane fits all mentality from the McNamara era lead to the F-4 Phantom being used by all the services. The F-4 was not an optimal solution for CAS, so the A1-D Skyraider was the CAS. The AV-8B can perform CAS and the F-35B can perform CAS. The F-35C may be another F-4 Phantom debacle in the making for the Marine CAS. The marines in Viet Nam were not hitting the beach, but needed CAS as close as possible. Given the fiscal environment and technical difficulties, the F-35C would be better than nothing. Don’t be suprised if the AH-1Z becomes the CAS and the F-35C the CAP. Two platforms to perform one mission.

  • Dennis

    For me it seems there between a rock and a hard place. You have problems with the B version. The LHA’s and LHD’s cant hold enough of them ot make them a small carrir like the CVE in WW2. You cant have them on the CVN’s because the carriers cannot hang around in a small area supporting marines. We learnt that lession at Guadalcanal, when we lost one carrier and almost another to submarine. To me it is more of an option that the marines hand over the duty to the Army after the beach head is secure and then the Army stablishes a airbase as quickly as possible and then the Airforce is flown in to operate from the base.

    • Ian James

      That is actually all we Marines are supposed to do….secure an area and then hand it over to the Army for the occupation but it seems that all the generals have forgotten about that.

  • William C.

    Kill the F-35B and you might as well restart with a clean sheet of paper in my opinion. The F-35 has been a troubled program, yet it has made progress and the F-35B is the last, best hope for a new STOVL fighter anytime soon.

    • @Earlydawn

      I’ve never understood your stance on this issue. The F-35 program was built around achieving economy of scale - developing one fusion of systems that can be adapted for three different purposes, without the cost of three different programs. The DoD could axe the B, and the Air Force and Navy would be all the better for it. Why throw out two decades of program because of the cancellation of the smallest component?

      Besides, there’s really no market for the B anymore.

  • John Moore

    I say keep the B and the Cfor carriers but ditch the regular landing craft and go with more f-22’s

    • ThunderFromDownUnder

      You do realize the F-35A is the international fighter? You know, the one all the USAs allies will be flying, if you ditch the A the foreign buys of the 35 go away, forcing the price up for ALL the other 35s the USA would buy!

  • gunfighter8

    Any combi airplane is not really great at any task-adequate yes-great.. no.. The A10 is a killer cas bird, The F16A was a great superiority weapon.. I see th F22 with a 146M price tag?? Still no look shoot??? When you hang all the krap on any bird it degrades the envelope. How about a cheap cas turbo (endurance) bird with lots of armor.. A superiority bird like the F16A, The chinese are building 3-5000 per type, How exactly do you cope with 150 Air to ship attacks at once?? Or maybe 300?? Will 1 get thru?? of 3 exocets 2 got thru in the Falklands. We had the best mig killer in theatre, best kill ratio bar none, and were replaced by F4 trucks that we could kill quick…..BUT we were gunfighter trained, and the whiz kids wanted a multi role (F4) dog. The F83 tested at 2.4 in 1960! ” When you’re out of F-8’s you’re out of fighters”..

  • pedestrian

    If F-35B are going to be gone, then just build more F-22A and build the naval variant F-22N.

  • El Gato

    Apparently many of you failed to note the design change to the new America class LHA’s.
    First off, there IS NO WELL DECK, THEREFORE THERE IS MORE ROOM TO CARRY MORE AIRCRAFT. There is double the amount of hangar space, and could handle up to two squadrons of B models without helos on them. It is a force multiplier, combining the B’s with the new LHA’s.
    Secondly, give up the A-10 CAS for carriers. It’s a pipe dream, not designed for such operations. The first time it caught a wire even with a beefed up tail, I could see both engines shearing off from the sudden stop. Look at the design differences between the A and C.
    f-35’s. Way different landing gear set up structurally. You need beef on them legs to launch and land on Carriers. Not to mention the nose landing gear on an A-10 is off center to start with. To add all the reinforcement to the A-10 to make it carrier ready would unmake it for what it is and what makes it good.
    I look for the Marine Corps to do a split buy, replacing the Harriers with the B models and the F/18s with the C model. Makes more sense in the long run

  • @Earlydawn

    I very rarely call BS on DefenseTech’s wording or reporting, but c’mon. the F/A-18 Super Hornet is only useful against “insurgents”? Give me a break. It is a perfectly viable 4.5+ generation aircraft that still carries weight against competitors. Give it a block upgrade for better sensors and fire control, and you still have an aircraft that can beat 99% of the platforms that the U.S. is remotely likely to fight this century.

  • blight

    Harrier replacement is probably the most urgent; though the volume of that build is small in comparison to the numbers of F-16s et al that need replacement.

  • blight

    If we accept that a gator force afloat was never going to have enough airpower to affect the fight, then we may as well turn them into helicopter carriers; operating in conjunction with Navy carriers.

    That or if the Marines want to try JATO with a JSF-C, but I don’t know if it’d make a difference in enabling takeoff.

  • Jonathan

    Does anyone know what happened with the plan to buy the COIN aircraft? Not sure if COIN is the right term.

    The Army or Marines were planning to buy propeller driven light bombers/ground attack/recon planes like the ones we had in WWII and vietnam.

    I thought that was a really cool idea and was wondering what they came up with or if they ever went forward with it.

  • Justin H

    The Marines dont always get what they want, so dont give them the F-35B. Give them Boeing’s Gen 4.75 Hornet (Silent Hornet). Would it be possible to give the Marines 1 or 2 carriers that either recently retired or are going to be rertired soon? Just overhual/refurbish them.

  • @MrKopfschuss

    I love the Marines, but I think they’ll be okay with their F-18’s for the time being.

    Of course they’ll have to upgrade in the future, but not for another 10-20 years.

  • @MrKopfschuss

    Ha, the world’s elite expeditionary force, able to be anywhere in the world in 6 hours and destroy it overnight. Efficient, swift, accurate, and incredibly lethal. Sounds like something we should scrap.

    I don’t why I’m feeding a troll, but I hope its rat poison.

  • Brian Black

    If the future marine corps won’t be able to operate STOVL aircraft from assault ships, then is there any reason for the corps to have any fixed wing ship born aircraft at all?

    Once you lose the unique STOVL capability and rely on the presence of a navy carrier to support marine ops, isn’t it time to rationalize carrier aviation within the one service?

    If the marines should operate any fixed wing aircraft, surely they should get A10 and leave the big sky to the air force and navy.

  • Oblat

    Only in the imaginary world of Marine PR.

    When the bases in Afghanistan needed to be destroyed the marines strung into action and drew up long lists of why they couldn’t go for 6 months.

  • Blight

    In WW2 the Marines relied on CAS from Navy carriers. Guess it’s time to go back. They can go back to helicopter carriers or some sort of ski jump system to get planes on the air.

    How much runway does it take to launch a Hornet? On second thought, extending the flight deck probably isn’t possible or safe..

  • jhstoneca

    Marine pilots, flying F35C and/or F/A18 providing CAS from Navy carriers seems to make the most sense. Leave CAP and Intercept to the Navy.

    Forward deployment is a job for helos, not jets, otherwise resurect the Sky Raider.

  • Blight

    Or jet powered seaplanes, which were tested decades ago. What runway…?

  • Pat

    The Marines can whip anybody and especially Army pukes. Marines can be on the scene rapidly while the army takes weeks to get any forces in place. They can drop the 82nd in short time but with no heavy armor or artillery.

    • Joe Schmoe

      Yes, yes.

      In which imaginary world?

      Name me one instance in recent years that this theoretical advantage matters, or where it might theoretically matter in the future.

  • crackedlenses

    So now we’re out of room on the ships? They could have just said that early on and saved all the arguing……

    sarcasm/ off

  • LTCMike69

    The days of Marine fixed wing aircraft for any role except CAS are over. In any conceivable operation the Marines might conduct they will have Navy aircraft employed for counter-air and strike missions before the first troops land. No more Cactus Air Force (born of necessity) of Guadalcanal. No more fighter jock aces (Joe Foss). Air interception and deep strikes are for the Navy and Air Force.

    Perhaps the A-29B Super Tucano can do the CAS job if it can operate from dirt airstrips, not require a huge logistics support effort, get the weapons on target, and survive. You do not need a $125 million stealth airplane for CAS! Get an armored Skyraider or a P-47.

    One can easily argue the reduction of the USMC to three active and one reserve brigades. Does anyone seriously contemplate a successful seaborne assault against a sophisticated, well trained enemy who is equipped with modern aircraft, missiles, and smart bombs? Remember, the Navy has no heavy cannons for shore bombardment and history shows even that does not work completely against a well dug in enemy. Against a less capable enemy a brigade or certainly a division could make and hold the lodgement until the Army arrives.

  • Infidel4LIFE

    times a wastin’ drop the B and go w/ the C. MAGTF will still be using Harriers. Should have sold the Raptor to the Japanese, to keep the line rolling and add more to our fleet. 187? That is low.

  • Justin H

    Speaking of COIN aircraft, why not arm some T-38s or F-5s. Or buy some TA-50 light attack aircraft? They are all cheaper than F-16s and F-18s, and they are still supersonic incase they need to get to a target quickly.

    • Justin H

      Another CAS/COIN option could be the BAE Hawk. Anyway here is a pic of the TA-50…

  • Jon

    I’m just happy I’m goin back to the army, don’t have to worry to much bout the leathernecks ambition to do “everything.” I do agree that they need to weigh the cost and practicality benefits of the billion $$$ uber plane, but at least I know I’ll be getting a new and improved m4 rifle, maybe a new one soon, and as long as someone up above is providing me accurate and effective cas I don’t care if its a red baron bi plane, f35, or will smith in a UFO

  • RetiredSailor1

    Just scrap the piece of crap and buy our jets from someone else.

  • Jeff M

    The way I see it this isn’t a question of the bottom line, this is a strategic decision that our beloved commander in chief must decide.

    You can go the big and expensive direction which is many F-35C on nuclear powered nimitz class aircraft carriers, and project a wider radius over 1 location, or you can go small and nimble with diesel powered ships and fewer aircraft with shorter range, and 3 or 4 different locations.

    The thing that I think shifts this picture to the small/nimble force is that our missiles are the most advanced in the world, you don’t need to fly farther for deep strikes and all that, I think the job of the 21st century will be patrolling coastal territories and islands and things.

    When you look at the big, strategic picture, cutting 10 billion here and losing the VTOL fighter jets is a major loss of capabilities. These nimitz class carriers cost a billion dollars a year just to operate. We’ll see more 21st century engagements I think where you just need “a presence” in some region, you don’t need the flotilla that comes with the nimitz in every case. You need a ship with 100 marines, the means to deliver them (helos) and air defenses (jets). Remember the F-35C is ONLY used on the nimitz class carriers. The F-35B is far more versatile.

    I would scrap the F-35C entirely and buy super hornets, and keep the F-35B, if the choice were mine. The F-35C actually seems like the odd duck, to me.

  • Justin H

    Do any other country’s Marines have attack aircraft or fighter/bombers?

  • arias

    Here is a suggestion, shut the **** up about the f-22. Its a dead program.

  • Justin H

    The current defense budget is already $47Billion less than what the Joint Chiefs had asked for.

  • PrahaPartizan

    Lockheed-Martin was selected to build the JSF program solely because of their claimed ability to produce the F35B. Knock out that version and the Department of Defense suddenly finds that it should have gone with the Boeing version. Boeing isn’t going to forget that and I don’t suspect they will be very forgiving either. Frankly, at this point Boeing should and likely will press the Defense Department to just dump the entire JSF program and shift over to UCAVs, which offer much greater growth potential over the long run. The fly boys might not like it, but they’ve had their chance and stumbled badly in the process.

  • Tim

    As a lower cost alternative to above mentioned aircraft, what about an upgraded and weaponized version of the T-45 Goshawk? It’s already in the Naval inventory, has descent range and payload and can take off from carriers. I also presume it would be simpler to maintain in the field.

  • Devilpup

    Here is a thought, why not strip the stealth crap out of the F-35? for what the Marines are using it for, stealth really isnt necessary and its driving up the costs. but the ability to launch anywhere, at anytime due to VTOL is a skill worth having.
    also, switching to the C wouldnt work as well as people think. the A and B models have a smaller wing area than the C does, and switching to the Charlie is STILL going to take up more space. shut the hell up, give the Marines a destealthed F-35, and lets get on with it!

  • DualityOfMan

    The whole program was a stupid idea in the first place. You’d think we would have learned this lesson with McNamara’s F-111 - jack of all trades aircraft end up being a waste, because they’re good in one role, generally bad in the others, and end up being more expensive than necessary.

    Why does the USMC need a supersonic multirole stealth fighter that can take off vertically? Why can’t air-to-air combat and longer-range strike be left to the Navy and Air Force? If that were the case, the Marines could have a VTOL or STOL aircraft better suited to the CAS role than the F-35B, while the Navy and Air Force would have a lighter, cheaper, more maneuverable, less-compromised aircraft.

  • Justin H

    I wish the bomber generals were back in charge of the AF.

  • Justin H

    Marine’s KC-130J ‘Harvest Hawk’ sort-of gunship…

  • blight

    Off topic, I wonder if the South Koreans will add to JSF for their Dokdo? Or, if they build their own and get it running, might the Marines consider purchasing?


    Many of your assumptions are based on a complete lack of knowledge of MAGTF. The Air Ground Task Force includes a Combat Element, Logistics Element, and Aviation Element. The smallest MAGTF out there is a MEU. When you all are talking about just give them more 18’s you are completely ignoring that the USMC does not roll around the world with Nimitz Class Carriers sitting in their back pocket. If tomorrow a MEU was sent in to some remote country, it would be days, weeks, months before the Army, Airforce, Navy could show up in substantial force. Reference Bosina, the Marines were on the ground and in the air in 24 hours, the Army took approximately 6 weeks to show up. Thats the difference in the forces. We like to make bold statments about America’s ability to project around the world, dont forget this is dude to the MEU’s ability to show up at anyones door step overnight. The selling point of the MAGTF is that all the elements are under 1 MAGTF commander. This creates a synergy and to an extent gives some assurance that when you call for air support etc, it will be there. I feel the F35 is way overpriced and for what we need. But its easy to sit back behind the computer and look at numbers and warplanes and not think about what we are actually able to employ in a fight. Ultimately this all boils down to the capabilities of the Naval ships that we operate off of and currently they dont have catapults or arresting gear and with that said fixed with no vstol aircraft are not even a possibility.

    2nd Lt. Loyd, USMC

  • Trixbat

    Someone should build a VSTOL equivalent to the A-10…

  • Lassiterbob

    It would be different if you knew what you were talking about DIP S—

  • Theo

    A MAGTF which the the Marine Air Ground Task Force is essential to the Marine doctrine of utilizing a quick and efficient combined arms role (air support, ground units,armor, and recon) to respond quickly to a security situation that poses significant threats to U.S. interest and safety. These forces are not always quickly, nor efficiently deployed from carriers, but instead from quicker and faster destroyers or littoral combat ships. The advantage gained from continued interest in the F35-B over the carrier F-35C alternative would be exemplified by the ability to take-off and land vertically. Therefore, there would maintain the essential ability for marine units to use assault support aircraft to QUICKLY concentrate superior ground forces towards a breakthrough and a surprise advantage over the enemy (crucial in all facets of warfare conventional or counterinsurgency). As the Marine Corps acting as a quick and ready response force to any threat facing our nation, it seems incredibly crucial to realize the utility of an F-35B variant. Not only is the F-35B variant potentially essential to the role of Marine aviation and as a facet to our nation’s 911 ready force, but it is also important to note the inefficiency faced when coordinating cohesion between military departments (Operation Eagle Claw, Iran, 1980). Having the ability for aviation units to quickly support the critical role and needs of our Marines on the ground should be enough reason to advocate a further consideration for the F-35B variant.