The Marines’ New Harriers and The F-35B

We’ve all seen the news that emerged on Sunday saying that the Marines are close to buying 70 of Britain’s freshly retired Gr7/9 Harrier jump jets to keep the USMC Harrier fleet flying into the 2020s. This comes a few months after it was revealed that the Corps is slated to purchase about 80 F-35C carrier variant Joint Strike Fighters. This is clearly a hedge against delays with the F-35 program. The Marines have been all in on the JSF for years, saying that it was the future of Marine Corps tacair and that there is no plan B.

Well, just like the Navy has purchased additional F/A-18E/F Super Hornets to offset against delays in the F-35 program, the Marines are buying the Brits’ newly refurbished Harriers –which are a few years newer than the Corps’ AV-8Bs — to provide parts for their oldest Harriers  and replace F/A-18D Hornet strike jets that are quickly approaching the end of their service lives.

You’ve got to be asking what will this mean for the F-35B. While the Bravo has been having a fairly good year of flight testing, it’s still experienced considerable delays and cost overruns (as has the entire program). As the Defense Department prepares for hefty budget cuts, top DoD officials are saying that the Pentagon may not need to buy all three F-35 variants.

As Phil points out  at DoDBuzz, this could well be a sign that the Corps is hedging against cuts to the F-35B buy.  With the overall program delayed by at least another two years and the amphibious service’s fighters — that were supposed to be replaced by the F-35B starting in 2012 — closing in on retirement, this move replaces the oldest STOVL jets and Hornets with planes that will keep flying into the 2020s. Meanwhile, the Corps will likely be able to take delivery F-35Cs at the end of this decade to replace the Hornets that are still flying. By that time, the B will either be set to enter service or a memory.

  • tiger

    Well Somebody in the Corps is thinking out the box. Learning to adapt & overcome obstacles is The USMC way. The UK gets some cash for used birds. A win-win. However other Harrier users like Spain or Thailand now get shut out of the RAF surplus source.

  • WJS

    Perhaps more than that. How many Harriers does the UK HAVE?

    • darren moran

      70ish I’d think

      • Vpanoptes

        Seems I recall reading somewhere there were 74 (?) in storage.

        • WJS

          Well what kept them from just buying the whole lot then?

          • Buzzer

            We are buying the whole lot. It’s probably a typo in the article. I’m sad, though, that we can’t afford to put them in service, suitably modified, and instead will just be using them for parts. Still, it’s a good deal of us, and removes a political embarrassment for the MoD since retiring the Harrier was definitely a bad call, especially after having spent so much in the previous 18 months to develop and install new capabilities and signed long term maintenance contracts for which they’ll now have to pay substantial penalties.

            This was the wrong plane to retire, but I understand the ulterior political infighting motives.

  • chaos0xomega

    Good one, now if only the AF would buy more legacy fighters, we could all finally acknowledge that the F-35 is an unaffordable (and I would say unnecessarily premature) expenditure given the current fiscal straights.

    • Aygar

      All this really does is buy time F-35B teething problems. Unlike the F/A-18, the F-16, and the the production lines of the Harrier II are gone. There are no new planes to be had, and it’s unclear whether Harrier II lines could be recreated without really significant investment of capital.

      Interestingly the F-35B is the only one of the F-35 variants who’s capabilities are not duplicated in a fighter currently in production.

      • McPosterdoor

        There’s a U.S. stealth(y) ‘sensor-fused’ (whatever that means) internal weapon-bay carrier launched manned fighter currently in production? Cool! Do you have a pic (or more likely a crayon drawing)?

        • Aygar

          F/A-18, what I meant by ‘Interestingly the F-35B is the only one of the F-35 variants who’s capabilities are not duplicated in a fighter currently in production.’ The F-35C mission can be adequately handled by F/A-18 Super-hornets, The F-16 can adequately handle all rolls that would have been assigned to the F-35A.

          Name another fighter platform that can operate off of amphibious assault decks and still has an operation production line.

    • Guest

      If the Air Force decides to rely on our 30 year old legacy fighters for another 20+ years, we can forget about having the uncontested air superiority we’ve enjoyed since the end of the Cold War.

      Russia and China have already started down the path to inducting stealth fighters. India, Korea, and Japan all have plans to develop stealth fighters. Basically, the world’s major air forces are advancing forward, and we’re supposed to go backwards?

      • tiger

        They don’t grow on trees. They cost money. Money we lack right now, tech issues aside.

        • chockblock

          Dead pilots and strafed ground troops cost a lot more than any budget overruns. Something our COngress critters need to remember.

  • Morty

    The F-35’s better not get canceled because we cannot relay on F-22’s

  • Black Owl

    There’s a simple solution to this: Cancel the F-35B and by Super Hornets with upgraded Stealth characteristics.
    http://www.flightglobal.com/news/articles/testing

    • cr9527

      Exactly how does the Super Hornet replace the Harrier?

      • jumper

        He doesn’t know… that’s his canned response to any story with the term “F-35” in it.

    • tiger

      The B model does a job the Hornets do not do. Stealth does not let it land on a LHA or a Small Carrier like those used by Spain or Italy.

      • blight

        Then again, is either nation in fiscal shape to buy -B’s?

        • Black Owl

          Have any of you read J.A. Stout’s book? He’s a marine F/A-18A pilot that fought in the Gulf War. The Harrier is essentially a useless aircraft. Everything it does can be compensated for by conventional war planes. It is more practical to put all of our money towards full bread airfields and full bread aircraft carriers, not go halfway and make these STOVL fighters or these short airfields (Which the F/A-18 has been proven to be able to operate on as well.)

          The STOVL capability has not made any difference in any fight we have been in. Even in the projected fights we could be in the STOVL capability has no usable utility.

          When people conceived the Harrier we though of it jumping out of the woods camouflaged to attack and slow down the Soviet armored fist that would have been rolling over Europe, then it would fly back to rear where an airfield awaited it for support. Even in that capacity it doesn’t deliver enough damage to be effective and the cost of moving maintenance personnel, fuel, and aircraft parts was not only useless but also left a big footprint and was a logistics nightmare. After slowing down the Soviet armored fist all of it personnel, parts, and fuel at it’s original station camouflaged in the woods would end up in the hands of the Red Army.

          The STOVL fighter IN ITSELF is a useless machine. We don’t need it and that money could be better spent on full bread aircraft carriers, airstrips, and fixed wing aircraft. The AV-8B Harrier and the F-35B are merely continuations of a useless idea.

          • tiger

            Foolish narrow thinking…..
            1. We have been lucky in having friendly nations to stage from.
            2. We only have 11 CVN’s. That may not last for budget reasons. They have other missions to do other than CAS.
            3. How long till your engineers make or repair a airfield?
            4. Mr. Stout is wrong is his tactical thinking. They allow you not to be on some mapped out fixed target. Nor is the Hornet the best thing in the sky either.

          • Black Owl

            1. Losing the Harrier wouldn’t change that.
            2. That’s why we add to the number of planes. The same amount will be doing the other missions. The surplus will be doing CAS.
            3. The F/A-18 is capable of operating on unprepared runways too. Besides that, show me an instance where the STOVL factor made a difference. Are there any real world situations that have happened?
            4. Again the Hornet family can operate on short unprepared airstrips too. Show me an example in the real world where the harrier has made this difference. The Hornet may not be the best, but it’s a heck of a lot better than the Harrier and better than what most of the world can put up in the air as well.

  • elizzar

    sigh … i wish we’d kept them and at least one of the invincibles, especially as it now means we are pretty much screwed if the f35 falls through … can’t believe the shit our government is pulling at the moment military-wise, whilst increasing (amongst others) our overseas aid budget (including charity payments to india, china and pakistan this fiscal year).
    can i come live over with you guys? :-)

  • Mike

    I thought of the F-35B as an extravagance until I realized it turned all the helicopter carriers into mini aircraft carriers. That makes them huge force multipliers.

  • BILL

    The bad part is the Air Force announced last week that they have to spend @1.2 billion to extend the life of F15s and F16s and now the Marines have to buy used Harriers from England because of the delays on the F35,where does it end because of the delays on the JSF?

    • tiger

      No, the bad part is that back in DC there is no Budget deal. They will not get one by X Mas and real cuts come to the DOD budgets.

      • blight

        The big spenders in government are SS, Medicare and DoD in that order. Though I’ve heard the spin about how SS money is defined, but I’ll leave it in there anyways.

        You can’t touch the first two because guess who votes? As for the third…

        • Guest

          Honestly, I think the supermegaultracommittee will follow the pattern pretty much all political deals in recent years have set: Everyone will panic as the deadline closes in with no agreement in sight, but at the last possible minute they will hash out a (usually half hearted) deal that likely puts off a major decision yet again.

  • Max

    How can the F-18 be coming to the end of its service life? It’s only about 20-odd years old. Can’t they refurbish them with new avionics, radar and such, and give them another 20 years? What war are we fighting that we always need the latest and greatest gold-plated weapon system that costs ever more and more billions? I like the latest and greatest, but give me a break; we need to live within our means. After all, we’ve got a huge defense budget cut (probably) coming in a matter of months from the budget deal.

    • Nadnerbus

      It’s all about flight hours with aircraft. That, and how hard you have been flying them. Metal fatigue is a fact, and short of very expensive SLEP programs, there is not much you can do about it. And the older the bird, the more maintenance hours and parts they suck up. Think about trying to keep a 20 year old truck running on a daily basis, Vs a brand new one.

      At least that is how I always thought of it.

      • Jason

        Not a 20 year old truck… A 20 year old corvette that you drive like a madman everyday. Pedal to the metal and heavy braking every time someone drives it.

    • tiger

      Try flying them everyday for 10 years with combat loads? The Airframe has a design life. Hard use, uses that up.

      • drball

        The sevice life of the Hornet’s was to be about 3000 hours with the center barrel replacement program another 3000+ was added it just will not make any sense to increase the overal life…As for replacing the Hornet the Corps should be made to buy the F/A-18E/F and EA-18G and just buy the F-35B to replace the Harrier…..

        • BILL

          Don’t forget the extra strain on the planes from catapult launches and arresting wire landings–that has to put a lot of stress on the airframes.

          • Max

            So, buy some new ones with new avionics, engines, etc. Don’t need the F35

          • tiger

            We have a little thing called a $17 trillion dollar debt……. We have to pay for things other than jets.

  • Lance

    Like I said at DOD Buzz I think the Harriers will fly for a long time even past the 2025 date. Same for the F-15 I think with economic and political problems older jets will fly for a few more decades to come. Upgraded they will preform just as good as any Chinese or Russian plane around.

  • Guest

    BTW, most of the other places reporting the recent Harrier purchase don’t seem to be portraying it as a huge threat to the F-35 in any way. I think this is all being overblown, as JSF stories always are.

  • Roland

    I still prefer F-35 and F-22 for defense . Just ask the manufacturer to check their delivery schedules.

  • Tee

    And the Death Spiral begins for the F-35. Air Force Upgrading F-15’s & F-16’s, the Marines purchasing British Harriers. The Pentagon can read the writing on the wall.
    No Deal by the Super Committee, equals No Money, equals NO JSF.

  • Kski

    Well the corps on the right track. Buy or fund a program for (in this case old British Harriers) or a Super Harrier. An buy F, E/A-18E,F,Gs to replace the older Cs an Ds.

    • blight

      If the Harrier line is dead, then we’re spending money to reopen an old line that may no longer be in line with what we need tomorrow.

      Flushing out older Hornets for newer ones might be a short term choice, but it cannibalizes the JSF buy. R&D cost will spiral upward. We may not have an option though if the cost becomes ridiculously unsustainable.

      Why is it that the DoD is so hit-and-miss when it comes to some programs coming in on time and on budget (or slightly above budget, or under budget) versus others? Like the Virginia SSN build, for instance?

      • Aygar

        A-10 was also delivered under budget and on time.

        • MIke

          yea how many years ago? haha. great aircraft btw.

      • Chaostician

        “Why is it that the DoD is so hit-and-miss when it comes to some programs coming in on time and on budget (or slightly above budget, or under budget) versus others?”. ANSWER: Too many unrealistic, unachievable concepts to begin with, coupled with worse execution. Committing to immature technology resulting in immeasurable risk. Inability to specify & maintain requirements discipline. Inability to lead & manage contractors and satisfy stakeholders that they “have their act together”, resulting in punishing actions from OSD, GAO, and Congress, creating further havoc and death spiral programs.

  • Sanem

    the USAF and Marines have been screaming that there’s no alternative to the F-35 for years (while the Navy just bought more F-18’s and is spending a lot of money on the X-47B). using older aircraft instead proves that there is

    as for future Russian and Chinese stealth fighters, modern radars and sensors are always getting better at detecting enemies. the F-35 can detect the F-22, the USAF says F-15’s with AESA can detect the J-20, and the T-50 has L-band radars, making the F-35 stealth pretty much useless

  • Morty

    If They do Fall through It will be at least five years until another aircraft can be crated possibly more. then how can we keep up with china.

  • Elijah

    The Marines and the Navy have two diffrent functions. What is good for one may be useless to the other. We should leave it up to the best minds for the final decisions.

  • Mike

    Just another example of legacy aircraft doing what the F-35 should be doing. Seriously if the aircraft comes operational a decade late, how can one defend that? That mean’s it’s already old technology coming into service.. by the time we get enough in numbers a sixth generation fighter will already be in development. Hopefully not by Lockheed.

    The F-35 is loosing it’s purpose.. there’s no point to continue on with unproven and soon to be obsolete technology.

  • RCDC

    If were going to do this we shouldn’t have retired those jets we already retired in the past. Just imagine how mush we could have saved.

  • Mike

    In order to bolster our asian allies military capabilities to off set a rising Chinese navy capability. The US should provide eight Harrier Jump Jets to Thailand to bring their Aircraft Carrier up to full capability.

  • Jetstream

    There is no cold war anymore, no real major threat, we have enough Toys (Fighter Jets) to keep most pilots happy. It’s just them Generals wanting new toys to play with, but when the money is almost gone, you be happy with what toys you have. Besides I can remember how long we got along with the old and dependable F4 Phantom during the cold war when I was in the Corps in the 80’s. We done so much, for so long for so little, that we were qailified to do the impossible with nothing…Semper FI

  • johnvarry

    The problem is not so much the need to buy new useless toys as the need to replace ones close to wearing out and being grounded.

    If the USMC had access to new build AV-8B’s that were cost effective Im sure they would buy them. F-35B haters aside the F-35B offers a significant upgrade over the AV-8B Harrier II. The F-35 may not offer significant advances over a F-16 or a F/A-18 but next to a Harrier you are talking a major capability advance.