The F-35B is (finally) "Combat Prooven", but is it efficient?

That's it ! Three years after officially reaching the first level of its operational capacity, the F35-B, the short and vertical takeoff and landing version of the Lockheed aircraft, carried out its first war mission on September 27, carrying out a bombing precision in Afghanistan for the benefit of ground troops.

Beyond the slogans on the banners and leaflets of air shows, and the endless debates between pro and anti, this step was impatiently awaited by the entire ecosystem revolving around the device. So, certainly, the mission carried out was within the reach of any coalition aircraft, in particular the F16, F18, AV8B and A10 which the F35 must replace. But it must be remembered that the RafaleAs Typhoon, also carried out their first combat missions in the Afghan skies, without great risk for the aircraft or its crew.

But we cannot summarize this mission with this comparison alone. Indeed, the F35Bs which carried out this attack had taken off from the USS Essex, a WASP class assault ship of the US Marine Corps, cruising in the northern Indian Ocean, and had to cross the Pakistani sky to reach Afghanistan, a flight of 800 km, and probably 1 or 2 resupplies there. 

For the Marines Corps, this is a very significant extension of its action capacity vis-à-vis the AV8B Harrier II, allowing the 7 Marine Expedionnary Units to have an action capacity and a reinforced autonomy in its mission conduct. This allows the Marine Corps command to decide on its missions independently, without having to adapt to the imperatives of the US Navy which today still embarks numerous squadrons of Marine Corps F18s on its aircraft carriers.  

So, would the F35B be a perfect device?

To answer this question, let us return to the main constraint applied to the US Marine Corps, the ban on having its own catapult aircraft carriers. In the United States, as sometimes in Europe, the Armies are very careful to strictly respect their respective perimeters. There is no question for the US Army of having a fleet of ground attack aircraft like the A10, even if the US Air Force wants to part with the aircraft. Likewise, aircraft carriers are the sole prerogative of the US Navy. And it doesn't matter whether the Marine Corps would greatly benefit from light catapult aircraft carriers to protect and support its expeditionary forces. It is in this context that the F35B, like the Harrier before it, arrived in the United States. Their ability to be deployed from an assault ship makes them essential to the Marines, with many advantages over the ADAC/V logic as it was imagined in the 60s, to have combat aviation available when the landing grounds will have all been put out of service by the adversary. Let us note in passing that this consideration is coming back into favor in the General Staff, and that two air forces, and not the least since they are those of Israel and Taiwan, are considering acquiring the F35B in this perspective.

In fact, this unique feature of the Harrier, and today of the F35B, has only been used in combat once, during the deployment of Marine Corps Harriers on an impassable runway in southern Saudi Arabia. during Operation Desert Storm. 

Regardless, it was first and foremost this constraint regarding aircraft carriers that led the Marine Corps to purchase the Harrier, develop the Harrier II, and request the F35B. 

We can therefore say that it is a very efficient device, and even beyond expectations, taking into account the political absurdity which gave birth to it.

Concerning the European navies who preferred to choose the solution of springboard aircraft carriers equipped with F35Bs, like the British or the Italians, the logic loses a lot of its meaning, in the absence of this main constraint. The range and in-flight refueling capabilities of modern aircraft have made the ADAC/V logic lose a lot of interest, except for countries without recoil capabilities, such as Taiwan and Israel. Conversely, the constraints linked to this type of aircraft, especially when they are on-board, remain the same: limited range and carrying capacity, absence of a support fleet, higher prices. 

In the case of Italy, like South Korea or Japan, which want to make limited use of devices from assault ships with low manufacturing costs, such as the Italian Trieste which will cost less than €1 billion , the choice of the F35B may prove to be a coherent calculation.

On the other hand, in the case of the United Kingdom, which will have built two aircraft carriers of 60.000 tonnes each, and having cost more than €3 billion each, the reasoning is very questionable. For a comparable investment, especially by partnering with France as was discussed, the United Kingdom could have had two catapult aircraft carriers, capable of implementing aircraft like the F18 Super Hornet or the Rafale, and why not F35C, as well as a set of support aircraft, ranging from the E2-C/D Hawkeye to the MQ25 Stingray refueling drone, and thus have a capacity for action infinitely greater than that retained.

By choosing this configuration, the British have therefore voluntarily placed themselves in a constrained environment from which the Marine Corps would dream of escaping, and have no other choice but to remain clinging to the choice of the F35B, and to its exceptional performances... given its constraints.

To extend the subject, article in French (4 min)

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