Tags: F-35, John C. Stennis, Joint Strike Fighter, Top Gun, VMFA-121
Here I was, a lawyer from New York City in the middle of the Arizona desert, and surrounded by about $1 billion worth of the most sophisticated and expensive weaponry ever devised – the Joint Strike Fighter. And this was just part of a four-day visit this past November to the Marine Air Station in Yuma, Arizona, the Naval Air Station in San Diego, and an overnight embark on the USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) as she was steaming somewhere in the Pacific. During my time with the Marine Corps and Navy I was provided unfettered access to learn how these two key Sea Services are preparing to fight the wars of the future.
My first stop was the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121) Green Knights briefing room at the Marine Air Station in Yuma where the Air Officer for the First Marine Expeditionary Force explained his mission: “We deliver death and destruction from the sky.” But the means of delivering “death and destruction” is undergoing a major transition, and it’s not cheap.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is still in testing, is scheduled to replace the Hornet and the Harrier. The cost is staggering – around $100 million apiece – and Lieutenant General Jon Davis, Deputy Commandant for Aviation, reported to Congress last March that the military has acquired 124 of them. General Davis added that they are waging a “war on cost,” hoping to decrease the price to $80 or $85 million per aircraft.
Notwithstanding these eye-popping numbers, the Marines in Yuma love the F-35. As my group and I were given an up-close and personal tour of the fighter we were told that it is “a cut above” anything the enemy can field. According to one fighter pilot, “it provides first look, first shoot, first kill capability,” and its advanced radar allows it to see the enemy well before it is seen.
Marine Colonel Christopher McPhillips added that “if you’re not in a stealthy airplane you’re not competitive. They’ll see you coming and shoot you down,” and stealth is key according to the Marines in Yuma: “We treat the outer mold line as a weapons capability,” another explained.
After hearing nothing but praise for the F-35, I couldn’t help myself. “What don’t you like about it?” I asked a major who had flown the Hornet for most of his career and was now training on the F-35. “It’s like switching from an old Android phone to the new iPhone,” he said. “It’s better, but takes a little getting used to.”
The enlisted personnel tasked with maintaining this weapon system were, simply put, awesome. They were not just following steps 1 through 10 to complete a task. They were identifying the defects, writing the manual, and then working with the scientists and engineers from Lockheed Martin to fix the problems. Their technical competency was so impressive that it made me wonder – can the Marines retain these people? After all, the skills are costly to develop and challenging to replace. As one Marine colonel acknowledged, “it’s a concern.”
As I left the hangar, I was unsure whether the cost of the F-35s parked inside is worth it. ISIS and other terrorists are not challenging U.S. air supremacy. In addition, Iran has recently acquired Russian made S-300 surface-to-air missiles. Several American fighter pilots told me that the F-35 is the only plane that has a shot against the S-300, but the outcome is hardly clear, and the new S-400 variant is even more deadly. The Russians deployed it in 2010, and in November 2014 agreed to sell $3 billion worth of S-400s to the Chinese, according to press reports.
The F-35 may be a “cut above,” but the ability of competitors to field counter-measures while the Joint Strike Fighter is still in testing should give us pause. Ultimately, I was concerned that the impetus to continue investing in the F-35 is driven by momentum, the sunk cost given the billions already spent, and the understandable passion the pilots have for this new and impressive platform. But the cost/benefit analysis is shifting rapidly, especially given competing priorities in an austere budget environment.
Our next stop was the Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1 (“MAWTS-1”), the Marine equivalent to Top Gun. The last class cost more than $20 million, expended more than 455,000 pounds of ordnance, and trained about 250 pilots, according to the group’s commander. Given that the Marines at MAWTS-1 have just begun incorporating the F-35 into their training program, it’s likely that the cost will go up.
After learning about MAWTS-1, we returned to San Diego. I donned the obligatory helmet and ear protection, “skull crushers” called by some of my comrades, and hopped aboard an MV-22 Osprey. The Osprey is another part of Marine aviation’s ongoing transition – it will replace the CH-46E Sea Knight and CH-53D Super Stallion helicopters.
Lieutenant General Davis also told Congress that the Osprey’s “vertical flight capabilities, coupled with the speed, range” and “endurance … are enabling effective execution of missions that were previously unachievable.” He left out one key thing: it’s uncomfortable. This was no civilian helicopter or airplane or whatever you want to call it. Inside this hulking bird I couldn’t hear a thing, and I couldn’t wait to remove the helmet that was mercilessly pushing my ears closer together. Skull crusher, indeed.
Unlike me, the Osprey’s crew chief was having a great time – he left the rear bay door open, laid flat on the bird’s belly, and peered out the back with his feet dangling in the air as we zoomed over the ground 9,000 feet below. After we landed I asked him what he was doing. “Well I was hooked in and I like to look underneath the Osprey to see if everything’s ok and it’s fun.”
My next stop: the John C. Stennis, a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered super-carrier. But she wasn’t dockside – we had to take a ride aboard the propeller-driven C-2A Greyhound, or COD (carrier on-board delivery aircraft), to reach her four-and-a-half acres of sovereign U.S. territory steaming in international waters. In backwards-facing seats, the Greyhound screeched to a halt, going from 150 mph to zero in the course of a few seconds. The C-2A’s tailhook caught the steam-powered arresting wire, saving us from boltering off the angle deck amidships to come around for a second attempt.
Gravity, a force that I have given little thought to over the years as I traveled from home to office to court house during my normal daily routine in Manhattan, suddenly reminded me of its brutality as it slammed me deep into a seat that was padded with a Spartan-like cushion that did little to absorb the shock. The pressure was so great that I started laughing uncontrollably – either because I was having a great time or because the pressure pushed the air out of my lungs. Or maybe it was both.
We were quickly hurried off the COD, onto the carrier’s flight deck, and inside for a welcome briefing in the Captain’s lavishly decorated inport cabin. As I thought about this new and strange environment that I had literally just dropped upon from out of the sky, it occurred to me that this idea – an airport at sea – must have been dubbed by early detractors as utterly preposterous, foolish, and pointlessly dangerous, and yet it has become a key component of America’s ability to project power across the globe and deter many would-be adversaries, “ready on arrival” wherever it is deployed, as the Navy is proud to point out.
Each officer I encountered gave me a different perspective of the biggest challenges they face. For Rear Admiral Mark Leavitt, Commander of the Naval Air Force Reserve, who I met in San Diego before leaving for the John C. Stennis: planning without a budget. For Rear Admiral Ronald A. Boxall, in charge of the armada of ships and planes surrounding us in the Pacific (Carrier Strike Group 3): integrating all the forces at his command. For Captain Michael Wettlaufer, the commanding officer of the John C. Stennis: safety. For his executive officer Captain Kavon “Hak” Hakimzadeh – who fled Iran as an 11-year old boy in the wake of the 1979 revolution – and who was akin to a chief operating officer: getting sailors “not to use their mobile devices because we’ve got a limited bandwidth and a war-time mission.”
The South China Sea dispute was also on their radar, and Admiral Boxall acknowledged the challenges: the Chinese have “a very capable force,” and “we’d likely be operating in close proximity” in the event of a confrontation. Admiral Boxall’s team was preparing for deployment, maybe to the South China Sea maybe somewhere else, but the routine was intense: training, testing systems, and then training more and testing more, and then again and again, and over and over, training and testing. During our first day, the John C. Stennis launched 85 sorties.
After dinner with some of the officers, Admiral Boxall took us up to the “porch,” an outdoor area on the island structure of the ship where we had an unobstructed view of the flight deck from on high. The sky was cloudless, the light virtually non-existent (after all, we were on a warship that doesn’t want to give away her position), and the stars were some of the most brilliant I have ever seen. This incredible natural scene was interspersed with screaming jets landing and launching in rapid succession on a runway that bobbed, weaved and rolled with as much predictability as an ocean swell, and the burning jet fuel made my eyes tear. The bright glow of after-burners was one of the few sources of light that illuminated this dark dance of ship, jets, and sailors at sea.
One fighter jet on final approach caught the first arresting wire running across the flight deck, a successful landing to be sure, but a bit too close to the fantail at the stern of the ship all the same, and thus not perfect. Admiral Boxall noted that all aircraft recoveries are scrutinized in post-flight briefings, and that friendly ribbing among the aviators about technique would likely continue into the evening.
It did. As I joined the pilots in the wardroom for late-night omelets they mercilessly (but hilariously) commented on the performance of those that fell short of perfection. The desire to be the best, and belittle anything less, was pure Top Gun, but sensible in light of the incredibly dangerous nature of their day-to-day routine.
We were given a whirlwind tour of the ship: the air traffic control center, flight deck, flight deck control, forecastle, combat directions center, bridge, Admiral’s operations center, medical office, and more. At one point I asked the weapons officer to direct me to the biggest bomb on the ship (at least the biggest one they would tell me about) – the GBU-24, a 2,000-pound bunker-busting laser-guided behemoth that can penetrate 16 to 24 feet of solid concrete.
As my group was preparing to leave, a pre-production crew from the new film Top Gun 2 was arriving for the private tour of the ship I had just completed. They began blasting “The Danger Zone,” the theme song from the 1986 hit movie Top Gun starring Tom Cruise, on the speakers, and the crew was excited. Some of the sailors mistakenly thought I was part of the Top Gun 2 team, and I did nothing to disabuse them of that notion – being connected to Top Gun on an aircraft carrier has perks that a lawyer from midtown Manhattan can only dream of.
We launched off the ship in what is called a “catshot,” and with the seats still facing backwards, the five Gs were so powerful that my entire body lifted off the seat as we rocketed off the runway. The only thing stopping me from smashing into the back of the plane was the four-point harness holding me firmly in place.
After spending four days with the Marine Corps and Navy, from sailors to admirals, it was time for me to take a jetBlue ride back to New York City. But what was my take-away from this trip, the upshot, the purpose of it all? I was returning to the city that is home to Wall Street and the much-maligned “one percent,” but there is another “one percent” – those who have chosen to put on the uniform. Fewer and fewer Americans have a military experience that allows them to connect, empathize with, and understand the challenges faced by our armed forces. We still all have our opinions – too much defense spending or too little; yes to this fight or no to that one; the military should behave this way or that way – but the more disconnected civilians become from service-members, the greater we will lose context in the course of discussing these critical issues. We may need to have some hard discussions about costs and benefits, risks and opportunities, policies and procedures, but context is key, and I got some of it over four days.
My ultimate take-away, however, was simple: America is fortunate to have patriotic men and women committed to serve and defend our country