Did CNO just take a big swipe at F-35?

Adm Greenert appears to wonder aloud why his service is still a member of Club F-35.

The F-35 Lightning II has no shortage of critics among defense observers, congressional skeptics and other Beltway denizens, and now it has a new one: The boss of one of the services that will fly it.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert takes more than a few cuts at his Navy’s future F-35C in the July issue of the Naval Institute’s magazine Proceedings, further cementing the perception that if this Jenga tower were to fall, it might be because the Navy — never enthusiastic about the game — pulled out its bricks.

To be clear, the words “F-35,” “Joint Strike Fighter” or “Lightning II” do not appear in Greenert’s piece. But he has an entire section under the heading “The Limits of Stealth.” The Navy has never had a classically stealthy aircraft, and it won’t until it fields the C, but Greenert appears to argue that won’t matter:

The rapid expansion of computing power also ushers in new sensors and methods that will make stealth and its advantages increasingly difficult to maintain above and below the water. First, though, military sensors will start to circumvent stealth of surface ships and aircraft through two main mechanisms:

• Operating at lower electromagnetic frequencies than stealth technologies are designed to negate, and

• Detecting the stealth platform from angles or aspects at which the platform has a higher signature.

U.S. forces can take advantage of those developments by employing long-range sensor, weapon, and unmanned-vehicle payloads instead of using only stealth platforms and shorter-range systems to reach targets.

Stealth ships and aircraft are designed to have a small radar or infrared electromagnetic signature at specific frequencies. The frequency ranges at which stealth is designed to be most effective are those most commonly used by active radar or passive infrared detection systems. At lower frequencies detections do not normally provide the resolution or precision necessary for accurate targeting. Using more powerful information-processing, however, military forces will be able to develop target-quality data from these lower-frequency passive infrared signals or active-radar returns.

The aspects at which stealth platforms are designed to have their smallest signature are those from which detection is most likely. For example, an aircraft or ship is designed to have a small signature or radar return when it is approaching a threat sensor—or has a “nose-on” aspect. Improved computer processing will produce new techniques that can detect stealth platforms at target aspects from which they have higher radar returns. Multiple active radars, for instance, can combine their returns through a battle-management computer so radar detections from a stealth platform’s less-stealthy side, underside, or rear aspect can be shared and correlated to allow the stealth platform to be detected and attacked. Similarly, passive radar receivers can capture the electromagnetic energy that comes from transmitters of opportunity—such as cell-phone or TV towers—and bounces off a stealth platform at a variety of angles. With better processing in the future, those weak, fragmented signals can be combined to create actionable target information.

Those developments do not herald the end of stealth, but they do show the limits of stealth design in getting platforms close enough to use short-range weapons. Maintaining stealth in the face of new and diverse counterdetection methods would require significantly higher fiscal investments in our next generation of platforms. It is time to consider shifting our focus from platforms that rely solely on stealth to also include concepts for operating farther from adversaries using standoff weapons and unmanned systems—or employing electronic-warfare payloads to confuse or jam threat sensors rather than trying to hide from them.

Outrageous! Translation: We cannot afford to keep up our side of the arms race between “stealth” and detection — we are going to lose. So rather than trying to persist with stealthy platforms, we need new longer-range standoff weapons and new kinds of electronic attack. 

Greenert has cracked wise in his public speeches about how enthusiastic he is about F-35 simulators, given the numbers of dollars it will take to operate. That seems to be at the root of his objections — that the pornographic costs to buy and fly the F-35 as envisioned would be better spent elsewhere and deliver better ultimate effects.

Earlier in the piece, Greenert wrote this:

The ability of a few very-precise standoff weapons to be more efficient and effective than a larger number of less-precise weapons leads to a surprising result. In modern warfare, precision standoff weapons such as Tomahawk or the joint standoff weapon are now more cost-effective in many situations than short-range gravity bombs such as the joint direct attack munition (JDAM). A Tomahawk missile, for example, costs about $1.2 million, while a JDAM is about $30,000. To strike a single target, however, the total training, maintenance, and operations cost to get a manned aircraft close enough to deliver the JDAM is several times higher than the cost of launching a Tomahawk at the same target from a destroyer, submarine or aircraft operating several hundred miles away. That is one of the trends leading us to focus more effort on improving and evolving our standoff sensor and munition payloads.

A Block IV Tactical Tomahawk and its follow-ons, Greenert and others might argue, is just as good as a manned strike aircraft given that commanders can alter their courses in mid-flight. (Navy and Air Force leaders never tire of boasting about how an F-22 Raptor has shown it could re-target a Tomahawk launched from an attack submarine.) So even though the cruise missile by itself is more expensive, the total cost of a sortie is much lower than buying a dumb ‘ol airplane, training a pilot, training a crew, paying for maintenance, and on down the line.

Greenert’s piece removes all doubt about the Navy’s continued institutional resistance to F-35 — or at best, it now makes its official support very confusing. Why should it continue to take part in a program it considers obsolete before it has flown in combat, and more wasteful than other weapons? The short answer is that it must: It signed on the dotted line saying it would, but even that agreement, for 260 F-35Cs, made the Navy the smallest American customer of F-35s, with fewer planned than even the Marine Corps.

Moreover, the Navy also has shown it was willing to publicly undercut the F-35 anytime it pleased, with more orders for F/A-18E and F Super Hornets; its decision to begin studying a new “sixth-generation” F/A-XX it probably can’t afford; and its now-infamous leaked slide deck positing very, very high costs for the new jet. Greenert’s Proceedings article is only the latest example of that trend.

To be sure, no one appreciates more than Greenert the intense sensitivities over F-35 going as planned: As you’ve read here so many times, all it would take is one customer pulling out to increase the unit costs, which would drive others out, which would quickly devolve into a death spiral. That’s probably why he did not name the jet in his Proceedings piece, and he might also argue that he actually made a case for the F-35C in there: He concedes the jet’s stealth is helpful at a distance; it’s only when a pilot actually gets near or over a target to pickle a traditional bomb that the whole system breaks down. That’s why the Navy needs longer-range weapons and needs to rethink how it prosecutes targets. Hence Air-Sea Battle.

Still, an aircraft-launched standoff weapon with enough range and precision might mean you don’t even need a stealthy jet to carry it. The Navy’s existing Super Hornets (or Super-Duper Hornets) could get close to the dangerous boundaries of an “advanced adversary,” release their new super-missiles and then bingo back to the ship. Why bother with an expensive, advanced, stealthy aircraft whose “stealth” might not even work?

Because, the Air Force and the Marines and the F-35’s international customers all would argue, the world’s good guys need to take advantage of the commonality they’ll get from all operating the same advanced aircraft. Plus you could argue that Greenert is giving way too much credit to the bad guys’ air defense innovations and severely undercutting the performance of his own airplane. Plus you could argue that Greenert is putting way too much faith in long-range guided weapons and way too little in manned aircraft: What if his spooky new submarine-based suppression of enemy air defenses doesn’t work? What if tomorrow’s Super-Tomahawks can’t get a satellite signal to find their targets? You need a highly trained naval aviator in the cockpit of an airplane willing to ride the highway to the danger zone.

Greenert would doubtless agree — that’s why he doesn’t call for killing F-35 or scrapping the Navy’s fleet of aircraft carriers. The point, he argues, is that the Navy must think as much about payloads as it does about the ships and aircraft that carry them. But platforms are still a pretty big deal to everyone else, especially when one of them is the biggest defense program in the history of the world. So even though the Navy remains technically onboard with F-35, Greenert has let it be known that even he seems to wonder why.