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Not Just For Carriers - How the U.S. Military Found Other Uses for the F-35B and Seeks to Market it as a Land Based Platform

February 06th - 2018

The F-35B is a variant of the United States' fifth generation Joint Strike Fighter designed to suit the needs of the Marine Corps - namely to be capable of short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) to operate from extremely short runways. With the Marines deploying large numbers of Wasp and America Class amphibious assault carriers, from which conventional carrier based fixed wing aircraft such as the F-35C and F-18 cannot operate, a STOVL capable fighter is essential. The F-35B has since marketed to both Britain and Italy, both of which operate carriers similar to those of the Marine Corps which cannot operate conventional fixed wing platforms.

STOVL capabilities come at a price, and though the ability to operate from short runways is invaluable it leaves the F-35B the least combat capable of all the Joint Strike Fighter variants. Thrust vectoring systems which facilitate vertical landingstake a great deal of internal space, leaving the fighter with a lower fuel storage capacity and a significantly reduced range. The fighter is also less maneuverable, with small wings and a reduced g force endurance. STOVL also means that the fighter's maximum external payload is significantly lower than that of other F-35 variants, while also necessitating far more costly and time consuming maintenance.

The F-35B would appear undesirable relative to its more capable counterpart the F-35A, the variant designed for the U.S. Air Force, for any military which does not require the B variant specifically to operate from short runway carriers. The U.S. military has however begun marketing the carrier as a potential land based platform to fulfill certain niche capabilities. While there is high demand for the F-35A internationally, and the Navy's orders for the F-35C are also extremely large - enough for the decks of ten supercarriers - the U.S. needs more orders for the F-35B to reduce unitary production costs. Both Japan and Israel have thus been offered the F-35B as a potential land based platform. The fighter's ability to operate from small carrier decks also allows it "to operate from austere bases and a range of air-capable ships near front-line combat zones. It can also take off and land conventionally from longer runways on major bases." In Israel's case this could be invaluable to allow the fighter to operate from smaller facilities across the country - including several short runway facilities near the front lines where the stealth fighter can provide a more rapid response. With all airfields potential targets for enemy missile attacks, and with its adversary the Hezbollah militia fielding tens of thousands of modern and high payload ballistic missiles which could leave runways in disrepair across Israeli territory, spreading fighters out over a larger number of airfields and fielding a fighter making use of makeshift runways could prove invaluable. With the F-35 spending well over 95% of the time grounded due to its extensive maintenance needs, keeping it out of harms way and away and avoiding concentrating the fighters at large airfields could prove critical.

In Japan's case a STOVL capable next generation carrier could prove invaluable to safeguard the country's far off island territories. There is only one runway beyond the southern island of Okinawa that is long enough for conventional aircraft, which due to a 1971 accord signed by the Japanese government cannot be used for military aircraft. The F-35B however could operate from much shorter runways. This would expand Japan's power projection by facilitating fighter deployments to small islands beyond Okinawa. The Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands, disputed by China and Japan could potentially house the F-35B should Japan attempt to more assertively press its claim - though this would inevitably lead to considerable backlash from China. Japan's Navy could benefit significantly from the power projection capabilities afforded by F-35B fighters operating from its Izumo Class carriers. Should the F-35B be inducted into the Air Force, it would familiarize the Japanese military with operating the platform and could be key to facilitating later induction into the Navy.

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