By John Stufflebeem
In the White House complex today there are eight-hundred pound bronze lanterns in the four corners of the ornate Indian Treaty Room of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the offices of the White House staff. Inscribed on the "War and Peace" lantern is the Latin adage "Si vis pacem, para bellum"—or, "If you wish for peace, prepare for war"—admonishing the then-Secretary of the Navy and all subsequent presidents of their responsibilities in this historical imperative. Preparing for the future including deterring and, when necessary, fighting and winning inevitable war is a core responsibility of our National Command Authorities as executed through our nation's military services.
At the highest level, the Commander in Chief must have at his, or her, disposal decisive military power to implement foreign policy that ensures our national interests remain secure. Naval officers, sailors, and aviators of the U.S. Navy are tasked to deploy that power that comes with extremely difficult duties. We can all be proud of the uniformity of purpose with which they tackle these demands in executing their missions. As a country and service—and as commanding officers—we must make sure that the men and women who serve have adequate tools they need to complete their missions and get home safely.
For much of the 20th century, the United States naval strategy has revolved around projecting U.S. power through the forward presence of our Naval Fleet and specifically aircraft carriers. U.S. carrier dominance is largely responsible for our control of the seas and hence creating and maintaining our geopolitical leadership. But this position cannot be taken for granted, by lawmakers or naval officers. As the next generation Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier comes online mid-decade, we must be conscious of the fact that an aircraft carrier, however advanced, is only as potent as its weapon system.
A modern U.S. nuclear powered aircraft carrier (CVN) with a life expectancy of at least fifty years is only as good as the power it projects whether in combat or deterrence through its weapon system—the carrier Airwing and the men, women and aircraft that make it up. However, the Airwing of the future is under attack witness - the current call in some quarters to scrap the F-35C Lightning II Carrier Variant (CV). This type of clarion call is traditional following periods of war such as World War I and II, Korea, Vietnam and again as we are witnessing today. But it also follows a flawed and shortsighted strategy to achieve short-term economic gains or cater to parochial interests that, based on history, will have to be made up later at higher costs and possibly lives while depriving our Navy men and women of the best military technology available.
As China and Russia continue to evolve their next generation capable aircraft, we need to evolve our carrier-based aircraft. The F-35C is the only realistic choice to populate the decks of our carriers to maintain control of the seas, the commons, and the global hot spots as well as establish a realistic deterrence of our potential adversaries. It is not going too far to say that the bulk of the U.S. Navy’s future strategic and operational plans would fall apart without full deployment of the F-35C.
While the world is becoming more interdependent or globalized, potential adversaries are developing their capabilities to deny access to all others for their hegemonic agendas. Having the capability to assure access helps the globalized world advance and ensure peace. Our nation has the technological edge, the economic means, and the leadership will to develop and deploy this 5th generation fighter for years to come for just this rationale—but it is threatened from within much to the hope of our competitors.
The F-35C is envisioned by Navy leaders to complement the other aircraft in the Airwing, to include the F/A-18 E/F. But many fail to realize that the F-35C, with its data exchange and interoperability capabilities, will make the entire Carrier Strike Group (CSG) more capable, effective and lethal. Using similar methods in exercises like Red Flag, the F-22 Raptor made both air and ground units more effective by providing enhanced situational awareness of the battlespace; so will the F-35 provide better maritime awareness to the CSG including both Airwing assets as well as surface forces. The F-35C will make the CSG a better, more capable fighting centerpiece of American military power and force for good around the globe.
For those who ignore the rising capabilities of our competitors and potential adversaries, they condemn our fighting men and women to longer, more difficult missions by being less effective and less survivable. If we deploy without 5th generation fighters on our carriers, we will simply make the CSG, CVNs and Airwings irrelevant, throwing our operational plans into chaos and putting aviators and aircraft in situations where they could be outmatched sometime in the future.
With the rise of China, a newly assertive Russia, rogue states from Iran to North Korea and unconventional battlespaces growing in prevalence, the U.S. Navy must have the capabilities to meet and match a multiplicity of diverse commitments. This can only be accomplished if our carrier fleet is equipped with a 5th generation carrier-based fighter: the F-35C.
Those Who Ignore History—Old Lessons for a New Generation
There are few historical examples as profound as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 to demonstrate how failure to grasp movements in military technologies can play a decisive role in world-historical events. While tactically successful, Japan’s naval assault was a strategically limited victory. By focusing on the destruction of what they felt was the heart of the United States’ Pacific Fleet—the eight battleships at Pearl Harbor— and luck having it, by conducting the attack while the fleet’s three aircraft carriers were absent, the Japanese made a strategic miscalculation.
Their strategic objective was simple, if difficult: cripple the U.S. Navy in the Pacific sufficiently to delay its being decisively brought to bear before the Japanese could achieve victory. To do so, they sought to disable and destroy the United States’ battleships: the most potent vessel of the immediately previous naval epoch. In making this choice, the Japanese assured that they would not achieve their overarching strategic goal.
The Japanese, like those promoting the continued use of older technologies in our current carrier fleet, did not recognize that important changes had occurred in naval technology. Like many at the time, the Imperial Japanese Navy’s leadership was passionately devoted to Alfred Thayer Mahan and The Influence of Seapower Upon History, 1660 – 1783. With its focus on decisive battles between fleets of heavily armed and armored battleships, Mahan’s signature treatise proved to be a poor strategic guide for the Japanese to pursue in the 20th Century.
Aircraft technology came of age in the 20th Century. Carrier-based aircraft were poised to transform naval strategy from a focus on heavily armed battleships to more lightly armed, but more versatile, aircraft carriers: a new generation of naval technology. Because carrier-based aircraft can strike the enemy hundreds of miles from their carrier base—and with lower probability of warning—aircraft carriers would become the most potent vessels of the War in the Pacific. The three aircraft carriers that survived the Pearl Harbor attack would become the critical element of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and would play perhaps the most prominent role in Imperial Japan’s ultimate defeat.
The Japanese were not wrong to focus on battleships—they simply failed to appreciate the importance of the aircraft carrier in a war they started that would eventually be conducted against them across the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean. For hundreds of years, the battleship and its predecessor vessels played a central role for the navies of nations and empires, with the late-nineteenth century British Royal Navy as exemplar of this model. At the same time, the Japanese valued carriers, but saw their role as limited to just the kind of surprise attack they undertook at Pearl Harbor. Eventually, the Imperial Japanese Navy would come to embrace the power of the aircraft carrier, as demonstrated by their carrier-focused strategy at the Battle of Midway. But not before it was too late.
Of course, history abounds with other such examples. The French were decimated by the English longbow in the 100 Years War, especially at Agincourt, and the stirrup followed in a long line of equine military advancements—the chariot, the saddle—that gave armies massive advantages over their foes in their day. None of these equestrian advancements were of much use when traditional horse cavalry came up against mechanized cavalry during World War I. Less than three decades later, far superior German tanks made quick work of the more numerous, but not nearly as technologically advanced, French tanks. The U.S. faced a similar situation in the air during the Korean War—when the North Koreans introduced the MiG-15, it easily overpowered U.S. propeller planes, forcing us to develop and deploy our own jet, the F-80. Clinging to past technology simply because it is fully matured is a guaranteed path to operational irrelevance just as preparing to fight the last war is folly to prevail in future ones. We should not and cannot repeat these kinds of mistakes today. In an increasingly complicated and interconnected world, the consequences of doing so could be disastrous.
The F-35C and the Future of Naval Aviation
The three variants of the F-35—Conventional Take Off & Landing (CTOL), Short Take Off/Vertical Landing (STOVL), and Carrier Variant (CV)—will provide the US Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy and our allied partners the broadest spectrum of warfighting capabilities, addressing both land-based and maritime applications. The F-35 delivers the latest multi-role fighter technology bringing unprecedented levels of low observability, net-centric capability and integrated sensor fusion combined with enhanced sustainment logistics to both US and allied warfighters. F-35 will represent a generational advance to the US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps replacing 25-30 year old F-16, F-18, A-10, F-117, and AV-8 fighter aircraft currently flying at significantly higher than forecast utilization rates due to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Internationally, F-35 will constitute the backbone of NATO, ASEAN, and several non-aligned coalition armed forces for the next 35-40 years.
The inherent capabilities and open architecture system of the F-35 will allow it to expand beyond the traditional roles of carrier fighter aircraft. Older generation fighters are essentially consumers of information from intelligence assets whereas the F-35 will be a critical provider of information in the network centric environment. It will be able to go where other aircraft cannot, and due to its inherent joint and coalition interoperability, the F-35 will be an invaluable Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) platform. F-35 pilots operating together will have shared/common situational awareness, vastly improving interoperability between our US services as well as with our international partners.
These capabilities will allow the CSG to maintain the freedom to operate in blue water and systematically approach the littorals while countering threat anti-access capabilities in 2020 and beyond. It greatly enhances CSG situational awareness by conducting stand-in ISR and will provides robust stand-in electronic attack.
In order to take full advantage these new capabilities, the DoN needs to remain on course with an investment strategy that integrates the F-35 into the fleet in sufficient numbers as quickly as possible. Other fleet assets such as the E-2D, Aegis, Super Hornet and BAMS should be carefully integrated with the F-35 up front.
As historian and statesman, Winston Churchill, advised us then and now—"those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it." In the not too distant future, the U. S. Navy will face significant challenges by China and other emerging regional powers. The CSG will be forced to operate further away from operational objectives due to robust threat anti-access and area denial capabilities. Sufficient numbers of the F-35 with its 5th generation capabilities should be integrated into the carrier air wings as quickly as possible. The F-35 will provide a significant contribution to restoring the CSG’s ability to operate effectively in the presents of advance threats. The CSG will remain at the forefront of protecting U.S. interests in contested regions and preserving the access to the littorals and global maritime commons. This will ensure that the relevancy of the carrier will be preserved and maintained for decades to come.
John Stufflebeem is a retired Navy fighter pilot who commanded at every tactical and operational level in combat including U.S. 6th Fleet. He is now an independent consultant in crisis communications in Alexandria, Virginia.