Certainly much could be written about the merits of the first-of-its kind F-35B Vertical Take off and Landing aircraft now arming U.S. Navy amphibious assault ships on deployment throughout the world, yet one key fact might seem to eclipse all of the others. … China does not have an equivalent.
F-35B, F-35C, J-31 & Vertical Take-Off
Although China is known to be rapidly developing a carrier-launched variant of its 5th-Generation J-31 aircraft to perhaps rival the F-35B and F-35C when it comes to maritime warfare power projection, there does not appear to be any kind of “vertical take-off” capability resident or emerging within the Chinese military.
This is quite significant, as a vertical take off and “hover” ability brings and entirely new dimension to maritime warfare for a variety of reasons.
Initially and quite simply, it allows a smaller ship such as an amphib to operate with the kind of 5th generation fixed-wing fighter jet support typically thought of as only being possible with aircraft carriers. This means that an amphibious assault operation can now operate with its own organic 5th generation air support.
Should amphibious assault vehicles, ship-to-shore transport landing craft, Osprey helicopters and attack drone vessels all launch from an amphibious ready group, the force would not need to rely upon fighter-jet support from aircraft carriers within striking range.
The USS America, the first in class of the Navy’s now emerging America-class amphibs, has traveled long distances of key deployments carrying as many as 13 F-35Bs on board. The America class amphibs, especially the first two, have been specifically modified and engineered to house and operate F-35Bs.
An ability to “hover” like the F-35B can also bring previously unanticipated advantages to an amphibious assault, given the aircraft’s “drone-like” ability to conduct Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions. Its 360-degree cameras, long-range, targeting technology and on-board computing enable the aircraft to gather and disseminate video feeds of relevance from great distances.
This, combined with an ability to hover above the surface in support of an approaching amphibious operation, might enable an attacking force with new levels of forward visual “scouting,” threats assessments or close air support capability. Of course the hover ability, assisted by advanced automation and software, is what enables an F-35B to perform a vertical landing on an amphib without needing a runway.
The F-35B achieves its hover through the construction of a “lift fan” technology built into the center fuselage just behind the pilot to generate massive downward vertical thrust. Horsepower is sent to the LiftFan from the main engine through a “spiral belevel gear system,” Rollys Royce information states.
The LiftFan looks like a square door on top of the fuselage behind the pilot intended to generate the downward airflow needed to enable vertical landing.
The LiftFan feeds air into the engine much like any aircraft engine would in some respects. Air ducts on either side of the nose “suck” in air to the engine, the air is then compressed before being ignited with gas -- generating what looks like a controlled explosion of fire coming out of the back. The force generated through this process, enables the speed, maneuverability and acceleration of the aircraft.
Mechanical information provided by F-35B engine maker Rolls Royce states “To achieve STOVL, the lift fan component of the LiftSystem operates perpendicular to the flow of air over the aircraft." The LiftFan can operate in crosswinds up to 288mph, Rolls Royce data explains.
Given all this, even if China were to operate with an aircraft carrier launched 5th-generation fighter, which appears to be the case, the country would be likely to operate at a significant deficit when it comes to countering amphibious assault or conducting attack operations requiring smaller ships.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.