Commander-in-Chief to be Trump is back at it again. He has taken plunge into the Pentagon procurement wars and the heads of Boeing and Lockheed—along with generals and admirals in tow—have visited his Florida estate to kiss the ring and pitch their wares. Now he's tweeted that he is having Boeing price out a “comparable” F/A-18 Super Hornet to the F-35 because of the latter’s cost and developmental overruns.
The only problem is that there is no Super Hornet comparable to the F-35, and there never will be. First off, there is a short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the F-35, something the Super Hornet family cannot offer. Additionally, Boeing has quietly played with the idea of a very stealthy Hornet adaptation, most likely an unmanned one, but it didn’t seem to go anywhere. Even if the F-35 program were cancelled—which has become nearly unthinkable—major force structure investments in other platforms would be necessary to have the proper capabilities mix. Otherwise there will be a massive capabilities gap left behind by the already 20+ year old Joint Strike Fighter program
For instance, if the F-35 were no more, the USAF would have to put the F-22 back into production, purchase more F-16s and possibly F-15s. Heavier investments in advanced Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs) and long-range strike, namely the B-21 Raider, would also need to go along with it. This is precisely the force structure I have pushed for many years.
Likewise for the Navy (which is the service that Trump might be talking about exclusively here) more Super Hornets and Growlers would be a relevant choice, but they would need to be paired with substantial investment into fast-tracking navalized UCAVs into the inventory and larger purchases of standoff munitions—something I have proposed for many years.
The Marine Corps is a different animal altogether. Their rapidly aging legacy Hornet fleet could be, and should have been, replaced with Super Hornets. Instead they opted to hold out for an all F-35 force made up mainly of B models and a smaller number of C models. Cancel the F-35 and the aged AV-8B Harrier would continue to serve indefinitely as the only short-takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) tactical jet alternative to the F-35B.
The Marines AV-8Bs can continue to fly for a couple more decades with the help of the UK’s GR7/9 Harrier fleet, bought for parts by the USMC for pennies on the dollar. Still, axing the F-35B and keeping the A and C model would be foolish. The A and C models pay for the F-35B’s STOVL capabilities in a compromised design (you can read all about this odd situation here). By eliminating the type and keeping the others, the US armed forces will never benefit from this design sacrifice. In fact, the F-35B is the most relevant of all F-35 variants, at least to the US.
It is tough to tell from a tweet what exactly Trump is talking about here, and maybe it's just a bargaining ploy. But if the President-elect has been informed that the Super Hornet alone, even in its most advanced conceptual configuration, is capable of replacing the F-35, he is sorely and alarmingly wrong. The situation is far more complex than that, but with the right overall high-low capability mix strategy, a more flexible, affordable and capable air combat capability can be had without the F-35, or at least with far fewer of them than the 2500 or so that the US currently plans on buying.
Contact the author Tyler@thedrive.com