A Marine Corps Perspective on the F-35: Getting on With It

At a roundtable on the F-35 and allies held at the Heritage Foundation on June 7, 2012, Colonel Kevin J. Killea
provided a Marine Corps perspective on the program.

Currently, he is the head of Aviation Weapons Requirements branch for headquarters United States Marine Corps.  He’s a graduate of both the Naval Command and Staff College, and the industrial college of Armed Forces at National Defense University.

The presentation to the Heritage Foundation was taken from the audio tape made of the session and shaped from a transcription of that audio tape.

Presentation:

For the United States Marine Corps, let me just lay down where the F35-B program is for us today.  Our program, our program of record is 420 aircraft; we’ve got 11 delivered right now, five of those are test aircraft, six of them are operational aircraft that reside right now in a fleet replacement squadron, which is where we train new pilots at Eglin Air Force base in Florida.

The first production F-35B Lightning II joint strike fighter flies toward its new home at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., escorted by Marine Corps F-18 Hornets. Credit Eglin AFB, 1/11/11

And those airplanes are flying; they are flying and training people down at Eglin.

We’re doing maturity flights right now, and training is right around the corner.

For the Marine Corps, the F35B is critical because it’s replacing the F18 Hornet and AV8B Harrier for us, and we are also retiring the EA6B Prowler at the same time.

In other words, we’re losing our complete tactical air fleet between now and 2020 and replacing it with the F35B.

The F35B is a critical component for the Marine/Air/Ground taskforce.  As you may or may not know, the Marine/Air/Ground taskforce is comprised of air, ground and command elements and logistic elements.  We are autonomous.  We deploy independently and we have to operate that way.

And the reason that the F35B is so important is because it gives us the flexibility to be expeditionary.  We are expeditionary by nature.  And without an expeditionary tact air platform like the F35B, we can’t have that combined arms team.

Expeditionary means more than flexibility.  It’s flexibility in basing that allows you to disperse your operations, thereby being more survivable.  And the F35-B brings to the table the ability to operate from austere sites and short runways.  Or even runways that we can create with internal resources.

There are ten times as many 3,000-foot runways in the world as there are 8,000-foot runways.  And if you think about that and the ability to operate from the sea as well, you can see the flexibility in the expeditionary nature that the F35-B will help us bring to the fight.

What are the advantages that the F-35B brings to the fight?

It combines the expeditionary attack and basing flexibility of the Harrier with the performance of a multirole fighter like the F18.

And it is far superior to both of those aircraft.  Those aircraft are fourth generation aircraft, as opposed to the fifth generation F35-B.  The very low observable technology of the F-35B allows us to achieve that tactical advantage, and it will allow us to preserve that tactical advantage as we go into the 2020s.

As a side note, you know, this is an 8,000-hour platform aircraft, compared to 6,000-

hour aircraft that we’ve developed in the past.  This is not a 30-year tactical air program, this is a 50-year tactical aircraft program.  And it’s leaps and bounds beyond anything that we’ve ever done before.

And it’s fifth generation for a reason because that’s what the threat is.

Situational awareness on the battlefield, especially the battlefield in the future is critical to us as a joint force with the other services to enable us to execute in that fight properly.

The technology of a fifth generation fighter, like the F35-B is not simply platoform specific or internal to itself.  It’s amongst the folks that are in that fight, whether they’re on the ground or in the air.

And the ability to transmit—to communicate seamlessly amongst platforms — is going to be the advantage that you will need in a fifth generation environment.

And that’s what makes the F35-B such a great advantage over the legacy platforms that we fly today.

This fusion and distribution of time-critical information cannot be done by fourth generation fighters.

Even highly modified fourth generation fighters that you’ve put a lot of money into to try and emulate that fifth generation capability to distribute information would come up short.  And in a fifth generation environment, the fourth generation platform is going to need to be augmented by a fifth generation capability.  Clear and simple.

You’re not going to be in that environment by yourself if you’re a fourth generation fighter.

What we might call Fifth generation threat proliferation is accelerating.  Globalization, Moore’s Law non-state actor access to technology.  This will make fourth generation aircraft obsolete, in my opinion, in the next ten years.

Let me finish with some concerns that I have, and they’re external to the program.  I’ll talk about internal concerns, too.

My biggest concern is that folks don’t get this, about fifth generation threat or don’t get the reality of that threat.

I know right away when I start a debate with somebody on this topic whether they get it or not. And honestly, if they don’t know, then it’s not even worth having the debate.  It’s scary.

Because of this, one of my concerns is that constrained resources will drive our requirements, rather than our requirements being directed towards what the mission is going to be and what that threat is going to be up against us.

This threat isn’t on paper, it’s fielded and it’s evolving.  And it’s getting better and better as we try to progress our technology to defeat it and to deny it.

It’s a dangerous mindset permeated by some folks when they don’t get this, the mindset that better is the enemy of good enough.

If you don’t leave here today with one thing that I said, leave with this: better is not the enemy of good enough.  Better is better.

And it is absolutely required as go forward into the 2020s.  It’s an absolute requirement.

The last concern I’ll talk to you about is continued cuts or slides to this program.  I believe that from the recent movement of the aircraft outside the fiscal year defense plan or outside the five-year time plan—budget plan that we put in recently

I don’t think that we can wait any longer to field this aircraft, especially the Marine Corps, but all services.

And any push of procurement out to the right for us will put a significant burden on our legacy fleet, the Harriers and Hornets that we are trying to replace.  And will require the country to invest an enormous amount of resources to keep those older aircraft going even further into the future.

That’s a huge concern.

So, it wouldn’t be fair to not talk about any internal concerns I have with the program.  It’s a new program.  This is technology that is above and beyond anything that we’ve ever fielded.

New fighter programs, they have their technical challenges.  I can go through a list of them with you and tell you what’s been addressed and how they’ve been fixed.  I can tell you that the technical problems, the challenges that the program has gotten to-date, they don’t keep me up at night.

Late to need delivery of capability keeps me up at night.

We are working very hard with our industry partners, and with the government partners, and with my international partners at the joint program office.  We are working hard to make sure that we define that capability as we incrementally inject it into the program and into the capability blocks as they come into the aircraft as they’re delivered over time.

And if that slides—that threat I talked to you about—looms more and more in our face and that’s not good.

Lastly, but certainly not least, program cost.  Yes.  We need to control that.  We’re responsible about that.  We understand it.  And we don’t think that there’s a blank check out there that’s going to deliver these airplanes.  Lockheed Martin knows it, their myriad of subs know it, and every service partner and international partner knows it.

And I can tell you that if 80 percent of my day is on joint strike fighter, 70 percent of that is talking to Lockheed Martin about how we’re delivering aircraft and how we’re keeping that unit recurrent flyway cost under control.

Highlights from Q and A:

Question from the Norwegian Counselor at the Norwegian Embassy:

For Norway, the acquisition of the F35 is a huge investment.  But it’s a price we’re willing to pay because it’s an investment in our future security for decades to come.  And the Norwegian Government has decided that we need the best airplane to meet our unique Norwegian security challenges.

And the F35, as far as we have been able to ascertain is the only aircraft that can do that.  And that is why we are so committed to the F35.

So, my question is how important is the F35 for the U.S. to meet future American security challenges?

Answer: I think my comments were pretty clear about how important I think the F35B is specifically for the Marine Corps.  But being part of a joint program, I can tell you that that same intensity for the fourth generation capability that is coming out in this aircraft is shared by not only the United States Navy and the Air Force, but by the current eight partners nations that sit around the table.

Just a note on that, the economies of scale that we get by combining the resources of the United States with those eight partners is unbelievable.  I’m currently working on a follow-on development for future block up grade, the iPad that never gets finished.  It’s a billion dollar block of capability that we’re working on for the future.

The Marine Corps share that is 18 percent.  I’m going to get a billion dollar capable block aircraft.  Those kind of capabilities are capabilities I couldn’t buy that department of the Navy by myself.  The Air Force couldn’t buy it by itself.  Norway, Denmark couldn’t buy it by itself.

So, that’s just huge.  And demonstrates how important this program is to have the international partners that we have, and the potential for the foreign military sales of the other nations that are looking at the program.

Question: How good is this aircraft going to be at its close air support role?

Answer: All of the variants are going to share the same mission systems.  The difference between the airplanes is purely how each service wants to operate them.  Whether that’s off of a conventional land basing, sea basing with small decks for the Marine Corps and austere sites, which drives the B or carrier aviation for the Navy.

But the systems themselves are going to enhance the way that we do close air support because of the situational awareness that we’re getting from among other things the distributed aperture system on the airplane.

The ability to detect and identify is better.  And identification is the key there.  And the ability to seamlessly talk—not just with a single forward air controller that’s on the ground, but to share the information with the blue force network, if you will, that’s on the ground is huge. To say that the time to respond would be shortened, would be an understatement.

It will be a leap ahead based on the ability to integrate the digital integration of those forces.

Question from Journalist: When do you think that IOC for the aircraft will happen?

Answer: IOC comes with some basic requirements.  And I can go through the definition of what the Marine Corps has decided what IOC is.  How many airplanes mission systems that are up and running, et cetera.  So in a sense, IOC is event-driven for us.

But what I can tell you is that in the fall of this year, we’re standing up our first operational squadron.  Not the training squadron that’s in Eglin, but in the fall of this year, VMFA-121 in Yuma, Arizona is going to start receiving airplanes and they’re going to start flying training missions.

Not training new pilots, but flying training missions.

We look with the development of a block—block2b, as the core operational software.  When that hits the street that’s a critical part of our IOC, and that point, all the other pieces will be in place.

And the Marine Corps will IOC by deploying a squadron first.

And then, six months later, we’re going to have the first F35Bs on the Marine Amphibious unit deployment on small deck ships.

Wrap Up Comment:

I would ask you to understand the requirement.  We’re not just buying a new airplane.  When I say understand the requirement that implies understanding the threat.

And where we are today and what we have to go forward and face that threat, ask yourself if you want to maintain the upper hand.  I know I do because the folks that I’m going to deploy out there are going to have to be dealing with that threat.

And also, understand that this program is alive.  It is absolutely energized.  I implore you to get yourself down to Eglin and see it.  See it in action.

And understand that on both sides, on the industry side and the government side, there’s an incredible amount of effort going on to keep this program stable in the best way that we can.

And the times that we’re in right now with the resources that we have, it’s imperative that we maintain the strength of the international partnership that we have.

This partnership allows us to leverage off each other to make this aircraft even more capable than we know it can be today.

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