Yesterday, I discovered a Command Staff study by a Marine Major on the topic of STOVL tac-air that was done back in April of 2001. This study is a stark warning along with some important history of doubt about going forward with the STOVL requirement for the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). The author applied excellent logic to the perceived need of STOVL fast tac-air by its fan-base. It is a must read and needs to be entered into the record for any discussion about the history of USMC Harrier ops, the JSF STOVL requirement, and bad decision making on a large scale.
For your convenience, the study is below.
The study warns us that any STOVL requirement for the JSF (now the F-35) had to address doubt about the over-hyped and under-performing Harrier jump-jet used by the United States Marine Corps. In spite of the marketing effort, the Harrier has never given the U.S. DOD a combat capability that was of any significant worth.
“[T]he only two-lane road that the vast majority of USMC Harrier pilots have ever flown off of or landed on is Lyman Road in Camp Lejeune, N.C. In my own personal experience involving 1,300 hours of Harrier flight time which includes two deployments to the Mediterranean, a Western Pacific deployment, and Desert Shield/Desert Storm, I have never landed on a road or austere VSTOL pad except at Camp Lejeune…. Except to prove the concept, USMC AV-8Bs do not operate off of grass strips either. If STOVL jets will take-off with full internal fuel and any significant payload, then a lot more than just a pad is needed.”
The Harrier is harder to maintain. Compared to conventional strike aircraft it has lower mission readiness rates. Pilots often received less training in the aircraft over time compared to their Hornet comrades because of lack of flyable jets.
The Harrier has worse sortie rates per day in combat. The Harrier was never really used in any operationally relevant situation that demanded STOVL. When such claims of Harrier value were presented, it turns out that conventional fixed wing strike aircraft were right there doing more.
The AV8-B program was created as a means to generate more combat power for the Marine Air Ground Team, but in wartime, it under-performed the sortie rate of its contemporaries. During Desert Storm, the Harrier posted an average of 38.8 total sorties per aircraft, compared to 46.4 for Hornets, 50.5 for the F-15, 53.7 for the F-16, and 59.4 for the A-10. The Harrier Review Panel has determined that, “despite a substantial level of effort on the part of the Marine Corps, the aircraft still lacks an appropriate synergy of attributes that would make it truly relevant in today’s operational environment.” Many options exist within the capabilities of America’s conventional aviation inventory that can deliver a higher sortie rate and more total ordnance than the Harrier.
With the engineering limitations of STOVL design, many believe that the Marine JSF will also under-perform its conventional peers.
While the F-35B STOVL is supposed to improve on things like ease of flying, it is unlikely that the overly-optimistic need for STOVL will prove its worth. While the F-35 was supposed to have high commonality over the 3 variants, STOVL still makes the B model complex, hard to maintain and expensive to procure and operate.
And, as we know now, the JSF STOVL requirement has seriously tainted the A and C model jets.
Just as bad, the United States Marine Corps reputation for spending money wisely is on the line. Well, they had a good reputation of being frugal; over 20 years ago. Some of the faith-based USMC-must-have-F-35B STOVL evangelicals actually think that if this aircraft doesn't come in for the big win, USMC tac-air is finished.
I disagree. The value of the USMC tac-air is not based on having a heavy, underwhelming, expensive strike jet.
USMC tac-air is about fire-support for the guys the ground. For COIN ops, the USMC has excellent support in the form of the Yankee and Zulu helicopters. Credit has to be given to the USMC for fielding these aircraft.
The USMC has precision artillery. This has a faster response time than aircraft. There are also more options to increase this capability.
The USMC can top this off by showing grand intelligence and stepping away from the F-35B. In-turn they can look even more intelligent and order a few squadrons of Block II two-seat F/A-18F Super Hornets.
But what about the flat-top amphibs? Well, what about them? The USMC has stated already that they will fly Harriers out to 2030. The Harrier doesn't offer enough value but they are doing it. The USMC is going to lose flat-top amphibs simply because the DOD is running out of money. The few that we end up with in the 2020s and beyond should make good helicopter carriers.
The USMC will go through some serious transitions over the next several years due to lack of money. I think Marine aviators are important. One of the reasons is that they have to go through a platoon leader course first. Given the mission of the USMC, this is very solid thinking.
I hope to see more solid thinking as the USMC rationalises its tac-air needs. The Harrier is a very poor capability. The F-35 promises to be worse. Various studies before and during the planning states of the JSF program show that we were warned about the lack of STOVL-jet value. No-one of importance listened.