The Joint Strike Fighter, which is scheduled to make its maiden flight this week, is a new stealth fighter-bomber designed for three US services and eight foreign allies. But the version that the Marines (and Britain and Italy) are buying is causing friction.
By ordering a jump-jet variant, the Marines are fulfilling a 50-year-old goal of having an air fleet in no need of runways or big-deck aircraft carriers. But their version is boosting costs for the entire program and has caused the Navy, whose budget funds the Marines, to try to slow it down, defense analysts say.
The wrangle is part of a larger military debate over the value of "short takeoff vertical landing" planes, known as STOVL.
For the Marines, STOVL has been a goal for 50 years.
"All tactical aircraft should possess a short/vertical take off and landing capability as soon as it is technically feasible without sacrificing existing mission capabilities," Gen. Randolph Pate, wrote in a 1957 letter to the chief of naval operations.
The reason is Marine Corps tactics. General Pate, Marine commandant at the time, adopted the goal in part to preserve the corps' ability to conduct amphibious operations, in which marines often need the protection of heavy firepower. But because they lack artillery and operate beyond the range of US warships, they must rely on air power instead.
A Marine Corps rule of thumb is that fighter-bombers assigned to provide close air support to troops should be no more than 30 minutes away. For their own protection, aircraft carriers generally cruise too far from shore for their planes to make it to the front that quickly. That is why the service opted for the British-made Harrier jump jet in the 1960s. Able to take off vertically or in a short roll, jump jets can land in small clearings or cratered runways close to the front.
The corps plans to buy 420 of the jump jets to replace their AV-8B Harriers, EA-6B Prowler electronic-jamming planes, and F/A-18 Hornet fighters.
The fighter is not the Marines' only STOVL purchase. The corps is buying 360 V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor troop transports, which can fly like helicopters or airplanes by swiveling two huge rotors on their wingtips upward or forward. The Marines regard the Osprey as vital to their future because it can fly about twice as fast and three times as far as the CH-46 helicopters they now use to carry troops.
"To me, that is a pretty powerful capability," says Lt. Gen. John Castellaw, the corps' deputy commandant for aviation. He calculates that a group of eight Ospreys could move 180 combat troops 70 miles in 17 minutes. The same number of CH-46s would require 3-1/2 hours for the same mission, in part because they can only carry eight troops at a time, a third of the Osprey's capacity.
But critics insist that after two fatal crashes in 2000 that nearly ended the $50.5 billion program, plus a variety of mishaps, the V-22 should be scrapped. Last Thursday, a fire near an Osprey's left engine severely damaged the plane at a Marine air station in North Carolina.
The Marines counter that the machine has been redesigned and retested since the two crashes and is ready for combat. General Castellaw says the Marines will send the Osprey into harm's way next year, possibly in Iraq.
The cost of the new Joint Strike Fighter is adding to the controversy over STOVL. The Air Force is slated to buy 1,763 of the planes, which will take off and land conventionally, at a cost of some $50 million each, or $20 million less than the Marine version. The Navy is to buy 240 of them built for aircraft carrier operations, which will cost somewhere in between the other two.
"If there were no STOVL version, it would reduce the cost of the overall program, both in the research and development stages and in the production stage, potentially freeing up money for the other two versions or for other priorities," says defense analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a Virginia think tank in close touch with military leaders.
Castellaw says critics fail to understand the plane. Besides carrying two bombs and two missiles, it will also serve as an electronic eye-in-the-sky for marines on the ground, he says. "Maybe the thing's a little more expensive than an F-4 was [a Vietnam-era fighter]. Well, it should be."