Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Value of STOVL combat ops questioned before JSF program started

I have posted about the over-hype of STOVL tac-air before.

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.


Distiller said...

Support requirements make austere fast-jet ops an illusion.

And what's the point of a (E)STOVL/VTOL fastmover when there is no equivalent cargo aircraft? (Which nobody tried to achieve since the German Do31 - VJ101 - VAK191 complex). And in places with a railroad or a road big enough to support a fleet of trucks there's no need for exotic fastmovers (let alone the survivability issues of a ground-bound supply tail).

However, there is a certain value in ESTOL fast-jet ship operations for minor powers. Question is of course - what's it good for? As the document shows sortie rates are really really low usually. And operating it from a fastmover-helicopter-LCAC combo carrier doesn't help either, as that really wastes whatever potential there might exist in the ESTOL/VTOL fastmover - see the move to the America class light carriers.

I dare say that something like the KBP Hermes missile system paired with loitering ISR UAV is a much more potent fire support complex than half a handful of F-35B.

Re USMC artillery: You are aware how awfully long it takes them them from the amphibs starting landing operations to having a fire ready battery on the beach?

I also don't agree on the latest H-1 iteration. The Corps should have switched to UH-60 and AH-64 a long time ago. To be precise: The Army should also have started flying off amphibs a long time ago (not just as a one-off as done during one or the other operation).

Ceterum autem censeo, that the Marines should get out of fast jet aviation.

S O said...

"The Harrier was never really used in any operationally relevant situation that demanded STOVL. "

You may want to specify this as "Harrier II", because of the Falklands.

arkhangelsk said...

Less than a perfectly convincing essay.

Gulf War is the biggest operation America had participated in, but ultimately it did not really provide the challenge that fighting a peer competitor will.

For example, the F-16s which achieved a high sortie rate by finding a runway 60nm from the front. If this was Central Europe and a runway was only 60nm from the front it'll probably have been evacuated rather than exploited.

Let there be no doubt that if you can place conventional aircraft 60NM from the front and V/STOL aircraft 60NM from the front, well darn it the CTOL aircraft has an edge. But one should also compare how often the CTOL aircraft can be placed 60nm from the front (in this case, only one fighter unit was so lucky to grab such a nice base) vs potential of deploying V/STOL aircraft at a similar distance (an option not really exercised this time).

S O said...

archangelsk, I agree in principle BUT the Israelis have had no such depth and did still bet on CTOL air power. Back in '67 the landing, taxiing, refuel & rearm, taxiing and take-off cycle of Mirage IIICs was down to 10 minutes IIRC.

Furthermore, some Cold War air bases in Germany were within 80 nm of the Warsaw Pact's borders.

Anonymous said...

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.

don't forget the falklands

Eric Palmer said...

I haven't. Harriers went up against an air force with no AWACS and other support except a few C-130 tankers. Think if the UK wasn't trying to save a buck and had a few conventional carriers with F-4 Phantoms, Buccaneers and fixed-wing AWACS. They could have cut off the problem at its source ranging up and down the Argentine coast and a lot less British forces would have died. Harriers...Falklands.... not the way to do it.