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F-35B Liftoff

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One of the most promising elements of the F-35 (Joint Strike Fighter) is the capability that one variant will have for V/STOL, or vertical/short take off and landing. The gap in capability between conventional carrier aircraft and land based fighters closed a long time ago. However, fixed wing aircraft (aircraft that take off from runway of normal length, or that need to use catapults in order to lift off from aircraft carriers) still have a substantial advantage over even the most advanced V/STOL craft. They’re faster, they use less fuel, and they can carry heavier payloads. The F-35B variant is supposed to have V/STOL capability, and when (if?) it enters production it will immediately become the most effective V/STOL fighter in the world. The F-35B still gives up a lot in exchange for this capability, as the fuel requirements of a short launch are very high, and some payload will be lost, but the gap is nevertheless narrowing.

The Royal Navy and the USMC are the biggest backers of the F-35B. The Marine Corps has operated the Harrier for quite a while, and wants to keep its vertical capability. The Royal Navy wants to use the F-35B on its new CVF, the next generation of British aircraft carrier. The implications of the F-35B, however, extend beyond British and American use. Right now, only the United States and France are capable of extended carrier operations with modern, fixed wing aircraft. Russia has a large carrier (Admiral Kuznetsov) that operates Su-33 fixed wing aircraft, but pilot and crew training are so spotty that it’s unlikely Kuznetsov could carry out operations in war conditions. Brazil operates Sao Paulo (the old French Foch), but only flies A-4 Skyhawks, a very old attack aircraft (John McCain was shot down in one). The F-35B and its foreign contemporaries have the potential to give states that can’t operate carriers big enough to carry fixed wing aircraft (Italy, India, Spain, Thailand, and potentially a few others) the options of flying a modern, advanced, capable fighter aircraft. It’s a development that has the potential to level the playing field a bit in naval aviation, both by itself and as part of a general trend towards the narrowing of the gap between fixed wing and V/STOL aircraft.

Of course, the F-35B may never be built in large numbers. The Royal Navy CVF program is in question, and the CVF frame is large enough to accomodate normal fixed wing aircraft. Indeed, France is investigating constructing a CVF to its own specifications that would operate such aircraft. Still, it’s a program that merits some attention.

Cross-posted to Tapped.

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