Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Where are the Sheffields of yesteryear?

At TAPPED, Robert Farley discusses the development of the F-35 fighter, a variant of which (the F-35B) will have V/STOL capability, giving navies which maintain small carriers much improved airpower over what they can now fly. Farley says:
The F-35B and its foreign contemporaries have the potential to give states that can't operate carriers big enough to carry fixed wing aircraft (Italy, India, Spain, Thailand, and potentially a few others) the options of flying a modern, advanced, capable fighter aircraft. It's a development that has the potential to level the playing field a bit in naval aviation, both by itself and as part of a general trend towards the narrowing of the gap between fixed wing and V/STOL aircraft.
Is this really a significant change?

Is there any significant competition on this potentially level playing field (the navies flying fixed-wing aircraft and the navies flying V/STOL aircraft)? I should think not. No navy can compete with the U.S. Navy, and none of these other countries are likely to find themselves in combat operations against the French or Russians.

The important playing field here for these countries is that between land-based aircraft with air-to-surface anti-ship missiles and the carrier-based aircraft used to try to maintain air supremacy. The British experience in the Falklands was that even a few Argentine aircraft -- not obsolete, but hardly state of the art -- could inflict devastating losses. (My favorite detail about the sinking of the Sheffield is that, according to Wikipedia, after the ship was struck, her crew, waiting to be rescued, sang "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from Monty Python's Life of Brian.) With the Exocet's range, aircraft flying from the Hermes could not protect the Sheffield, although in some sense the Sheffield protected the Hermes. For most navies, the lesson was clear: A few Super-Etendards and Exocets are an awful lot cheaper than the Hermes or the Sheffield.

Does the F-35B change this calculus (or, to keep the metaphor, level this playing field)? I don't know, but I tend to doubt it. Fixed-wing aircraft and anti-ship missiles have been improving, too, and they're still going to be a lot cheaper than ships. And it's tough to fly enough V/STOL aircraft from a small carrier to maintain air surpremacy.

But I'd be curious to hear Robert Farley's thoughts on this.

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