Navy’s F-35 doesn’t have range for real stealth strikes, House report says

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Enlarge / Lt Cmdr Chris Tabert, Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23, pilots Navy F-35C test aircraft CF-02 on Flt 595 for an external GBU-31 flutter and Flying Qualities test flight from Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, April 10, 2018. Congress is concerned that the F-35 doesn’t have the range to attack “contested” targets without putting carriers in danger. The House Armed Services Committee has sent its report on the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to the floor. And buried in that report are words of caution about the F-35C, the Navy’s version of the F-35 Lightning II, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter—and the Navy’s whole carrier air capability in general. The reason for that concern is that the F-35C doesn’t have the range to conduct long-range strikes without in-flight refueling—and the Navy’s tanker planes are not exactly “stealth.” The F-35C suffers somewhat from the length of its development cycle. Competition for the Joint Strike Fighter program began in 1993—25 years ago—when the military threats facing the United States were significantly different. In 1993, there was no concern about Chinese “carrier killer” anti-ship ballistic missiles, for example; but in 2010, China introduced the Dongfeng (or Dong-Feng) 21D, an anti-ship ballistic missile with a range of 900 miles and a circular error probability of 20 meters. That’s accurate enough, with satellite tracking and terminal guidance, to hit an aircraft carrier far offshore. The F-35C’s advertised range is 1,200 nautical miles (roughly 2,200 kilometers), roughly 10 percent longer than that of the F/A-18. But for most strikes, that would require the carriers launching F-35C sorties to be much closer to the coast than falls within the comfort zone. And with advanced air and coastal defense systems—including, for example, the sorts that are popping up on island…
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