F-35B STOVL Fighter Jet: Air Superiority Over South China Sea

Cmdr. Nathan Gray RN, Makes the first ever F-35B Lightning II jet take off from HMS Queen Elizabeth. Royal Navy Photo

F-35B is a stealthy aircraft carrying long-range sensors and ability to internally carry Raytheon’s AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missile make it the world’s most effective air supremacy fighter, after the F-22. The Joint Strike Missile (JSM), and Lockheed’s Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) provide the F-35B with advanced long-range sea and land strike capabilities.

The B variant’s STOVL capability could also complicate the adversary’s targeting calculus given that he must factor in the likelihood of F-35Bs operating from ad-hoc runways.

F-35B

The F-35B is the Short Take-Off, Vertical Landing (STOVL) variant of the fifth-generation Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). As the acronym implies, the B model is distinct from the F-35A and C variants in that it employs a lift fan and thrust-vectoring engine to take off in short distances and land vertically. This unique attribute allows the fighter to operate from short runways, small, simple aircraft carriers and amphibious warfare ships.

In January 2019, the United States approved the sale of up to 12 Lockheed-Martin F-35B Lightning II fighter jets and related equipment and services to Singapore in a $2.75 billion deal. The F-35B, with its game-changing ability to network with other SAF assets, would have an pivotal role to play in all of these

Pairing this generational leap in capability with STOVL flexibility triples the number of allied warships that can operate fifth-generation fighters. These additional platform could ensure naval dominance over China.

The AN/APG 81 is the most advanced radar ever fitted onto a fighter aircraft. Its electronically scanned array allows the system to be used for multiple purposes, adding sea search to traditional air search capabilities. Continual software upgrades will only increase that powerful radar’s abilities. Finally, by operating at high altitudes, the F-35 sensors can see over the horizon, giving the aircraft a much longer detection range than surface ships. This level of lethality is simply unprecedented in a STOVL package.

America’s ten nuclear powered Nimitz-class carriers operate the catapult and arresting wire variant of the aircraft, the F-35C. These carriers offer unrivaled naval power. In terms of speed, range, survivability, capacity for aircraft, sortie generation, and a host of other criteria, the Nimitz is beyond the challenge of any sea-based threats.

The U.S. Navy also operates nine non-nuclear-powered amphibious assault ships that are capable of launching and recovering STOVL fighters. Though they are only half the size of the nuclear-powered carriers, and not dedicated exclusively to air operations, they are a significant force multiplier for U.S. naval aviation. Once the F-35B achieved Initial Operational Capability in 2015, the U.S. Navy found that its fifth-generation-capable carrier fleet essentially doubled, from 10 to 19, by adding this group of smaller warships to the mix.

Furthermore, the F-35B enables US Marine Corps, Royal Navy, Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, Italian Navy, RoK Navy, Singaporean Air Force and Spanish Navy’s warships to operate fifth-generation fighters.

Unlike U.S. big deck carriers, they have no catapults. Without lift fans, their fourth-generation J-15 fighters do not have true short takeoff capability. Therefore, Chinese carrier-based fighters take off by struggling up a ramp in full afterburner. This causes dramatic payload and range penalties, giving it a significantly shorter operational distance than the combat radius for the F-35B.

The F-35B STOVL operation is made possible through the Rolls-Royce patented shaft-driven LiftFan propulsion system and an engine that can swivel 90 degrees when in short takeoff/vertical landing mode. Because of the LiftFan, the STOVL variant has a smaller internal weapon bay and less internal fuel capacity than the F-35A. It uses the probe-and-drogue method of aerial refueling.

Unlike the unlimited range of the U.S. nuclear-powered carriers, or the excellent power and efficiency of all modern allied STOVL amphibious assault ship’s gas and diesel propulsion systems, the Chinese carriers employ complex, cumbersome and inefficient oil-fired boilers. This seriously limits the range and makes maintaining and crewing the ships incommensurately expensive.

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This combination produces an underpowered, over-priced aircraft carrier. The Chinese carriers are unable to challenge the allied fifth-generation fleet. This leaves Chinese surface vessels confronting allied carrier-based aircraft. The advantages of aircraft range, speed, and sensor altitude make such potential contests one-sided.

Persian Gulf energy, African resources, and European and U.S. export markets are essential for Chinese economic prosperity. Without energy from the Persian Gulf, in particular, the Chinese economy would collapse in weeks. In order for it to secure shipping access in wartime, China’s navy would need to dominate both the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. The difficulties of this task are many, and it would essentially be made impossible by even a fraction of the aforementioned allied amphibious assault ships operating from bases encircling Eurasia.

Five European warships rotating on station in the Indian Ocean, in coordination with naval support bases at Diego Garcia and the Persian Gulf, would be an almost insurmountable challenge to a fledgling Chinese blue water force. Should the Europeans be unwilling or unavailable, one Nimitz-class carrier strike group could also do the job. Meanwhile, four allied East Asian F-35B warships could seal off approaches to the East China Sea, by far China’s most important sea line of communication. Finally, two Australian warships could present a serious blocking movement on the Strait of Malacca. All of these decisive naval actions could be accomplished without even entering the disputed South China Sea, or coming within range of China’s impressive land-based tactical aircraft.

The modern propulsion systems on the allied STOVL amphibious warships enable longer deployments with less maintenance and overhaul time in between cruises. Chinese carriers, powered by oil-fired boilers, have about 30–40 percent of the endurance of the allied platforms. This naval asymmetry gives the United States and her allies veto power over Chinese economic survival for many years.

Even if only one-fifth of this twenty-ship international STOVL fleet were available at any given time, it would be sufficient to completely tie up China’s navy, disrupt its vital shipping lanes from the Pacific Ocean to the Red Sea, and cripple its economy. 

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