Related File Video Above: Warrior Maven Video Interview: War in the F-35 - A Pilot's View
In what could be described as a milestone event in the evolution of maritime warfare and power projection, the first of its kind carrier-launched stealth 5th-generation F-35C deployed for the first time in 2021.
Carrier launched stealth power has now set sail and taken to the skies, a development likely to change the threat equation for US carriers by greatly multiplying the kinds of dilemmas the US Navy could present to its adversaries.
F-35C Deployed From USS Carl Vinson
The aircraft, which has of course been in development for many years now, has been operational for a bit, yet the jet has now been “deployed” for the first time by flying from the deck of the USS Carl Vinson.
While there are many respects in which this changes things for US Navy concepts of operation and tactics, one immediate reality is simply that it gives maritime power projection a new ability to hold major power rivals at risk from the ocean.
An upgraded F/A-18 would likely have trouble countering advanced Russian or Chinese air defense systems or challenging an enemy’s 5th-generation fighters, an F-35 would be in a position to potentially reshape this dynamic.
Using speed and stealth, an F-35Cs might be able to elude advanced surface to air missiles and succeed in destroying them from the air, opening up an air corridor through which 4th generation aircraft could attack. As part of this, an F-35C might be positioned to challenge or even destroy rival 5th-generation assets such as a Chinese J-20 or Russian Su-57.
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With a broad wingspan, reinforced landing gear, ruggedized structures and durable coatings, the Navy's F-35C is engineered for harsh shipboard conditions. Its avionics equip the pilot with real-time, spherical access to battlespace information. Being engineered for a carrier, the F-35C's 51-foot wingspan is larger than the Air Force's F-35A and Marine Corps' F-35B short take-off-and-landing variants.
It can fire two AIM-120 air-to-air missiles and two 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions. The F-35C can reach speeds up to Mach 1.6 and travel more than 1,200 nautical miles, according to Navy information. Several tests and assessments have also ensured pilots could properly use night-combat enabled Helmet Mounted Displays designed to provide more fidelity in “low-light” conditions such as those with little or no moonlight, Pentagon developers have told The National Interest.
The F-35C is also engineered with the technical infrastructure such that it can accommodate new weapons and software upgrades as they emerge, a scenario which ensures the aircraft’s ability to adapt to changing threats.
The Navy plans to acquire 273 F-35Cs. One interesting question is, is that enough? If the Navy operates as many as 11 aircraft carriers, each capable of operating a high number of F-35Cs, does this project the kind of “mass” air power which could be needed in a great power engagement. This might be especially significant in areas such as the Pacific where forward-basing land-launched 5th-generation aircraft might prove more difficult.
Related Video Above: F-35 maker Lockheed Martin has been engineering F-35s to carry more weapons.
Carriers would want to operate a large fleet structure of sea-launched 5th-generation aircraft to sustain an advantage over Chinese 5th-generation assets. This might be one reason why Japan has recently made a large, multi-billion dollar F-35 buy. Alongside this development, perhaps there might be an interesting argument for why the Navy might want to acquire F-35s.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven -the Center for Military Modernization. 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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.