Naval Air: November 3, 1999

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The US Navy has agreed to hand over F-18D two-seat fighters to the Marines to keep their deep-strike squadrons up to strength. This will start in 2009, when the Navy will be awash in the F-18F two-seat Super Hornet.--Stephen V Cole

Are the Marines being foolish in their insistence on a vertical-take-off-and-landing (VTOL) version of the Joint Strike Fighter? Perhaps so. A VTOL design is more expensive and more complex than a standard jet fighter, harder to maintain, and less capable in range and payload (since the lift fan takes up space the conventional version uses for a fuel tank; and any VTOL aircraft burns gas like a bonfire in its few seconds of vertical operations). What do the Marines get for this extra expense? They get a plane that they can base on amphibious carriers to small for conventional jets, and a plane that could in theory be based on a relatively small unimproved landing pad close to the front lines. In both cases, the benefits are dubious. Conventional planes have so much greater range that they can easily find a base close enough to equal the VTOL's performance. Operations from remote unimproved landing pads is difficult and of doubtful value, since those "remote" bases must be provided with everything that a full air base or carrier has (except that long slab of concrete). While the Marines have lavished love and praise on their Harriers, they used their unique abilities only once (during a few hours of Desert Storm) where their impact on the battle was negligible and critics charged that they were exercising this capability only to say they had done so. Even so, the Marines insist that the ability to keep the planes close to the fighting decreases their reaction time, even if the planes carry fewer weapons and are harder to maintain. Planes on austere forward "pads" often react more slowly because they have fewer support facilities to keep them ready to react. Planes on the amphibious carriers offshore have plenty of facilities, but are "in the way" of helicopter operations and the Marines and Navy plan on moving those amphibious carriers farther offshore once the V-22 becomes available.--Stephen V Cole

 


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