With Prime Minister Tony Abbott implying recently that Australia could buy the F-35B 'jump jet' version of the Joint Strike Fighter (a suggestion reinforced this week by Defence Minister David Johnston), this is a good time to ask: what relevance could the F-35B have for the Asia Pacific? Designed as a STOVL (short take off and vertical landing) aircraft that can operate from amphibious warships and small carriers, the F-35B remains the most enigmatic element of the troubled Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program.
We can disaggregate this issue into two questions. First, how will the F-35B expand the reach of US Navy capabilities in the Asia Pacific? And second, how can the F-35B improve the capabilities of partner navies in the Asia Pacific, especially the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN), the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), and the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF)?
The first question has three potential answers:
- Amphibious warships (which resemble mini-carriers) carrying F-35Bs can fill in for big carriers in less critical parts of the world. The USS Kearsarge, for example, conducted air operations off Libya (with AV-8B Harriers and MV-22 Ospreys) during the 2011 civil war, allowing the large carriers to remain in other areas. The cycle of maintenance, repair and training for carriers and their air wings means the US Navy can only deploy a few of its ten carrier battle groups at any given time. Assigning lower priority stations to amphibious ships like the USS America and USS Tripoli reduces the strain on the carrier fleet as a whole.
- Amphibious ships with F-35Bs could fill gaps in the high-intensity combat capabilities of the US Navy. The US Navy's vision of naval air employment relies on F-35s to play a very specific role at the centre of a system of F/A-18s, EA-18 Growlers, and unmanned aerial vehicles. F-35s act as network nodes that enhance the capability of the entire air wing. Accordingly, it's not quite right to think of the contribution of an F-35B squadron strictly in terms of the number of fighters it provides. Given that the future of the US Navy's F-35C remains uncertain, F-35Bs have a way to contribute to high-intensity carrier ops. However, the shorter range of the F-35B and the lower tempo of amphibious flight operations remain an obstacle for envisioning the F-35B in a high-intensity combat context.
- F-35Bs give the US Marine Corps 'skin in the game' with respect to the Pacific pivot. The Marines (along with the Army) have struggled thus far to figure out how they fit into the Obama's Administration's grand strategic shift to the Asia Pacific. This has led to a degree of inter-service conflict over how the pivot will play out. Integrating the F-35B, flown exclusively by Marines, into the pivot helps undermine any political opposition from the USMC to devoting greater resources to the Asia Pacific.
What about other navies? Will the F-35B expand the capacity of US allies to support US operations in the Western Pacific?
At least three allies — South Korea, Japan, and Australia — could use the F-35B aboard their amphibious ships. Granted, none of the South Korean Dokdos, Japanese Izumos, or the Australian Canberras are ideal as platforms for the F-35B, but any could provide support in a pinch.
Conceivably, the Royal Navy could deploy one of its new large carriers to the Pacific as well, although the Royal Navy is no longer regarded as a serious player in Asia. Queen Elizabeth or Prince of Wales would present an entirely different level of capability than the small amphibious ships operated by Pacific navies, or even than the US Navy's bigger amphibious ships.
The obstacles to operating the F-35B from a small amphibious ship such as the Canberra class are substantial. The F-35B is less capable than the land-based version Australia has ordered, the F-35A, meaning small military forces such as the Australian Defence Force would need to commit immense resources to what amounts to a niche capability. Although the flat-decked amphibious ships of the ROKN, JMSDF and RAN could operate the F-35B, they can't do so very efficiently, and only at the cost of effectiveness in other operations. It's difficult to imagine F-35Bs launched from ROKS Dokdo or HMAS Canberra having a decisive impact on any imaginable conflict in the Asia Pacific.
And so until Korea, Japan, or Australia decide to commit to a dedicated carrier similar in size and capability to those of the Royal Navy (or at the very least to the Italian Cavour), the biggest impact of the F-35B in the Asia Pacific will be on US capability. If any of those three do decide to make the leap, however, the F-35B can provide a better bridge to naval aviation effectiveness than its STOVL predecessor, the Harrier.
Photo by Flickr user Marines