Just a few days ago I wrote that, should Italy be forced to choose a single F-35 variant because of budget costraints (as happened in the UK), the hypothesis of selecting the F-35Bs for both the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force, ItAF) and the Marina Militare (Italian Navy, ItNy) should be seriously taken into consideration (for more details read here: “F-35, STOVL, Joint Force: will Italy follow the British path?“). However, on Nov. 11, 2010, an interesting article available on DefPro titled “Deficit Commission: Cancel Marine Corps Version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and Several Other Weapons” explained that a bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform had just issued a series of draft proposals to cut government spending; among which, one of the most interesting is to cancel the Marine Corps version of the F-35. This option would not only cancel the Marine Corps version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter “because of its technical problems, cost overruns, schedule delays, and the adoption by the services of joint combat support in current wartime operations” but would leave Italy, that saw the F-35 as the ideal Harrier replacement, without aircraft for its Cavour aircraft carrier. Should the F-35B be canceled, the Italian partecipation in the JSF programme would be at risk since the carrier was tailored to this aircraft and could not be converted to accomodate the F-35C carrier version. The only alternative to the F-35B would be to extend the service life of the AV-8B, more or less the same option available for the USMC. However, I think that the STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) version of the 5th generation aircraft will not be scratched for many reasons:
1) the F-35B is going to replace not only the USMC Harriers but also the F/A-18 to cover the full spectrum of modern warfare scenarios with its own resources: not only CAS (Close Air Support) but also air superiority and strike missions. The Marine Corps needs a fixed wing aircraft operating from a LHA (Landing Helicopter Assault) or LHD (Landing Helicopter Dock) to support a MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) in regional crisis and a STOVL is the only viable option.
2) the entire America class amphibious assault ships were designed to accomodate, operate and support the F-35B and, to increase the number of accommodated aircraft, it will not feature the well decks that are used to house landing craft on the Tarawa and Wasp class amphibious assault ships.
Fortunately, to reassure the Italian Navy (the Italian Air Force and, especially, USMC….), on Jun. 19, 2010, Lockheed was awarded 3.5 billion USD contract modification from the U.S. Department of Defense to manufacture 31 F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters in the fourth lot of low-rate initial production (LRIP). “The contract also funds manufacturing-support equipment, flight test instrumentation and ancillary mission equipment. Including the long-lead funding previously received, the total contract value for LRIP 4 is $3.9 billion. Under the contract, Lockheed Martin will produce 10 F-35A conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) variants for the U.S. Air Force, 16 F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing variants for the U.S. Marine Corps, four F-35C carrier variants for the U.S. Navy and one F-35B for the United Kingdom. Additionally, the Netherlands has the option to procure one F-35A”.
Even if the British F-35Bs funded in LRIP 3 and 4 when the MoD was expecting to order the B model will be most probably sold to the USMC, the contract awarded by the US DoD gives those air forces interested in the STOVL version of the JSF (Italian Navy, Italian Air Force, Israeli Air Force and possibly the Spanish Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force) a reason to be highly optimistic about the future of the F-35B.
The Italian Armed Forces celebrated the 92nd Anniversary since the end of WWI and the Armed Forces Day with the traditional exhibition in the Circus Maximus (Circo Massimo) in Rome with weapons systems and equipment belonging to the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force), Marina Militare (Italian Navy) and Guardia Costiera (Coast Guard), Esercito Italiano (Italian Army), Guardia di Finanza (Custom Police) and Carabinieri (Military Police). Here are the pictures I and Giovanni Maduli took on Nov. 7, at the exhibition.
On Oct. 19, 2010, British Prime Minister David Cameron unveiled the key changes to the Britain military that will be introduced as part of the Strategic Defence and Security Review. Among them:
– decommissioning of the the Invincible-class aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal;
– cancellation of the Nimrod MRA.4 programme;
– early retirement of the Harrier fleet in order to retain a reduced number of Tornado GR.4s;
– early retirement of the Sentinel R.1 which entered in service in Dec. 2008;
– early retirement of the Hercules fleet by 2022 (tactical airlift duties will be undertaken by A400Ms and A330s);
– 12 new Chinooks;
– Tristar and VC-10 (this latter used only for air-to-air refueling until retirement) withdrawal by 2013
One of the most interesting ones is the reduced planned buy of F-35s that will not be the F-35B STOVL (Short Take-Off Vertical Landing) ones but will be the carrier variant F-35Cs. The abandonment of the F-35B is tied to the decision to convert one of the two future British aircraft carriers in a “cat and trap” supercarrier, hence able to launch the planes by means of a catapult and to recover them by means of an arresting gear system.
This move will enable the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy to operate solely the F-35C naval model of the Joint Strike Fighter, with benefits in terms of interoperability, training, cost reduction etc. With an ever shrinking budget, the moment in which Italy will be compelled to lauch its own Defence review, to ensure the survival of the Services at the minimum level and the sustainability of the out-of-area operations, is not far.
In the meanwhile, what we can try to understand is: will the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force, ItAF) and Marina Militare (Italian Navy, ItNy) be, sooner or later, “invited” to choose a single version? According to the current plans, the ItAF is interested in both the conventional F-35A and the F-35B STOVL variant while, the ItNy can only use the STOVL version to operate it from its current and future aircraft carriers.
The most obvious consideration that could be made is that the only variant that could satisfy the requirements of both Services is the F-35B. Compared to the A, the STOVL version has, on the “pro” side:
– a higher flexibility, being able to operate on small landing strips (this is the reason why the ItAF wants this version too) and from ships.
on the “con” side:
– less space for fuel, hence, a lower maximum range
– an external (=in pod) rather than internal gun
– a reduced flight envelope (+7 G instead of +9 G)
– it is more expensive and burns more fuel.
The rest is identical or much similar.
So, as the F-35 will replace the Tornado and AMX fleets (this latter being a priority in the near term) I think that the idea of a single type procurement based on the STOVL can’t be completely dismissed: modern scenarios, like the Afghan one, where tactical aircraft are used for Urban/CAS support or recce, are perfectly suitable for a STOVL aircraft (even if Convetional Take Off and Landing – CTOL planes, in most case, suit as fine). Furthermore, I don’t think that, in a future dominated by stealthy UAVs and UCAVs, there will be any evident advantage in flying an F-35A instead of an F-35B to war. For sure, in a future warfare regime in which targets are dispersed, hidden, mobile and well defended, operational endurance can be a key performance indicator to measure strike platforms, but not on a tactical base. We are not comparing a STOVL plane to an extended-range bomber, capable of operating from its homebase….
If a proper analysis capable of evaluating the benefits of using a single type of aircraft againsts the costs of buying and operating the more expensive one would suggest the purchase of the STOVL variant, I think I would not be concerned. STOVL aircraft are the perfect platform for the Forward Operating Bases of any expeditionary operation. By being deployed near to the battlefield, the STOVL aircraft are ideal for on-call tasks: even if they have a higher hourly cost, they need less fuel, since they don’t need to remain airborne in CAP, and they don’t burn too much gas for transit from departure aerodrome to the operative area, etc.
That said, I don’t know if Italy is ready for a single type of aircraft for both ItAF and ItNy capable of operating from the Cavour aircraft carrier as a single unit, something that would logically lead to the creation of a joint force similar to the British Joint Force Harrier and the subsequent proposal of reabsorbing into the Air Force, an option that the Navy might not accept…..
As happend in 2008 and 2009, Circus Maximus (Circo Massimo) in Rome will host an exhibition with equipment belonging to the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force), Marina Militare (Italian Navy) and Guardia Costiera (Coast Guard), Esercito Italiano (Italian Army), Guardia di Finanza (Custom Police) and Carabinieri (Military Police) as part of the celebrations for the traditional Italian Armed Forces Day (Nov. 4th). On Oct. 28, the first helicopters landed in the Circus Maximus and Giovanni Maduli was there to take the following pictures of the arrivals.
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