As a military aircraft engineer, I’ve been associated with STOVL aircraft operations for around 30 years, and have worked on the F-35 program. So I’ve followed the current discussions around potential use of F-35B from the Canberra-class LHDs with interest.
In my view, it’s remarkable how much the debate focuses on the problems that the aircraft would face in operating from those ships rather than the potential benefits to be gained. Assertions abound about the ‘limited’ nature of F-35B operations from an LHD, and the ‘severe challenges’ involved in generating a militarily ‘decisive impact’ from ‘small’ platforms. And yet for 30 years or more the UK and US (using AV-8Bs and Sea Harriers) have delivered
significant operational effect from similar platforms. Clearly, STOVL at sea can work. So I’d like to offer a few observations that might assist and inform the debate.
This is the second part of a single post about the F-35 as actor-network. The first part is here.
This word is meant to convey the F-35’s identity as a proper multirole fighter, a machine rigged to conduct both air superiority and strike missions, the latter defined as tactical attacks on a ground or naval target with a particular focus on “initial blow” or “first day of attack” operations. All three variants of the F-35 fighter family hold this capability: the conventional A version designed for use by the U.S. Air Force and allied air forces; the Short Take-Off, Vertical Landing (STOVL) or B variant for the U.S. Marines Corps as well as the UK’s Royal Navy, as well as the conventional carrier-based edition for the U.S. Navy, the F-35C.
Airstrike, or strike for short, shapes, and is shaped by, the evolving structure of international politics in important ways. Pax Americana, defined in terms of successive hegemonic or hierarchical international and regional orders centered on Washington, D.C., can be regarded as an assemblage made possible by the so-called global strike, among other smaller assemblages. Since the middle years of the twentieth century warplanes have transformed themselves into multirole, fighter-bomber machines capable of ever-greater lethality and survivability. What makes U.S. strike aircraft especially formidable is the surrounding stuff—assets like ballistic and cruise missiles plus countless “force enablers” such as ground bases, aircraft carrier groups, logistics depots, a large tanker force and aerial refueling know-how, interlinked information and communication systems, the ability to generate and sustain the use-of-airspace deals on relatively short notice and so on.