WASHINGTON, May 25, 2010 — The Navy needs the F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter’s fifth-generation capabilities, the service’s acting director of air warfare said yesterday.
Navy Rear Adm. Michael C. Manazir spoke to reporters because he wanted to “completely dispel the rumor that the Navy is soft on F-35C.”
The F-35C is the aircraft-carrier version of the joint strike fighter. The F-35A model is for the Air Force, and the F-35B will be a vertical take-off and landing model for the Marines.
The FA-18E and FA-18F Super Hornets are great airplanes, Manazir said, but they do not have the capabilities that the F-35C’s will bring to the Navy. Delays in the joint strike fighter program and the cost increases associated with them caused some supposition that the Navy would turn to the FA-18s, he added.
The Navy has had the F-35C on its horizon for more than a decade, the admiral said. In that time, the FA-18’s capabilities have grown, with the latest aircraft – the E, F and G models – reaching the fourth-generation airframe’s limits. “We need to move into the F-35C to realize our vision of tactical air coming off of carriers,” he said.
The joint strike fighter brings stealth capabilities, advanced sensor and data fusion, and a systems approach to warfighting, Manazir said. “We’re completely committed to the F-35C,” he added, noting that staying with the Super Hornet would put the United States at a disadvantage against a near-peer competitor.
Still, the admiral said, the Super Hornet program is not ending, just yet. The Navy wants to buy 124 of the aircraft through fiscal 2013 to bring its number of Super Hornets to 515. Beginning in fiscal 2016, he said, aircraft carriers will deploy with a mix of Super Hornets and F-35C’s. The Navy needs 44 strike fighters per flight deck, he added.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates ordered a restructuring of the joint strike fighter program last year. That effort allowed the Navy to move an additional aircraft into flight tests, and to buy a software line “that gives us additional integration capability and added risk reduction in software, which is always the toughest thing to do in a new program,” Manazir said. Operational testing will move to April 2016, and this will fulfill all prerequisites for initial operational capability, he told reporters.
The first deployment of the new aircraft will be December 2016, with the second deployment in February 2017.
The Navy faces a shortfall of fighter aircraft, the admiral noted. “Without mitigations, … [the shortfall] is about 177 total Department of the Navy airplanes,” he said. “That peaks in 2017.”
Mitigation efforts bring that number down to about 100, he said. That could drop further, he added, if the demands on the fleet lessen – a conclusion the admiral said he is not going to make, given the uncertain times. “We are focused on addressing that shortfall,” he said.
The Navy does not have a shortfall in strike aircraft today, Manazir said, but the expected wear-out date for its inventory begins in fiscal 2012.
The 1,180 strike aircraft now in the Navy’s inventory fall within the scope of the service’s maintenance capabilities, while providing the planes needed for a rotational force, the admiral said.
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