The U.S. Navy has reduced its planned buys of the Lockheed Martin F-35C Joint Strike Fighter by almost one-third over the fiscal 2016-2020 Future Years Defense Program (FYDP), while committing almost $800 million to new standoff weapon developments and canceling the only missile program that was primarily dedicated to the F-35C. All the new developments are part of the fiscal 2016 presidential budget proposal and constitute the first move by a U.S. service to slow down its JSF procurements.

This year’s budget buys four F-35Cs, including two added late in 2014 by the lame-duck Congress. The Navy now plans to buy another four aircraft each in FY2016 and 2017. The rate ramps up slowly in the final three years of the FYDP, peaking at 12 aircraft in FY2020 and buying 38 F-35Cs in the plan period. The FYDP includes 83 F-35Bs for the Marine Corps, unchanged from earlier years.

Under 2015 plans the Navy would have bought 54 F-35Cs in the FY16-20, with F-35C production reaching 20 per year in 2020. 19. The JSF Program Office states that “the Navy’s commitment to the program remains strong” and that it expects the Navy’s cutbacks to be offset by international JSF procurements.”

The Navy says that the reduction is budget-driven. In fiscal 2020, each of the 12 F-35Cs has a gross weapon system unit cost of $144 million (44% more than the Air Force’s F-35A) and a flyaway cost of $131 million. The weapon system unit cost of the F-35B averages $147 million at its full 20/year production rate. In total, 2020 the Navy expects to spend $4.7 billion for 32 F-35s in 2020. In 2013, the service spent $3.7 billion for 49 new fighters, comprising 37 F/A-18E/Fs and 12 EA-18Gs.

The fiscal 2016 budget request would cancel the Raytheon AIM-9X Block III, an increased-range version of the air-to-air missile with a more powerful motor. In April 2014, AIM-9X program manager Capt. John Martins said that the Block III was primarily intended for the F-35C because it would permit the fighter to carry six beyond-visual range missiles: four AIM-120s internally and two Block IIIs on outer wing pylons. The Block III would have entered service by 2024. One element of the canceled project, a new warhead meeting insensitive munition standards, will continue into the AIM-9X program.

Two new initiatives cover standoff weapons launched outside the range of surface-to-air threats. The new-start Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile – Extended Range (AARGM-ER) gets $267 million in development funding across the 2016-20 FYDP and will mate the existing guidance system and warhead of the AGM-88E AARGM with a new motor. Two motor options were studied: dual-pulse for a 20-50% range improvement, or solid integrated rocket-ramjet for doubled range. Budget documents indicate that the Navy has chosen the rocket.

A new “precision strike weapons development program” funding line, budgeted at $510 million in the FYDP, primarily supports the new Next Generation Strike Capability effort, which combines two previous programs: Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare (OASuW) Increment II, a follow-on to Lockheed Martin’s Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (Lrasm) that would be capable of air and sea launch, and Next Generation Land Attack Weapon, a replacement for the Raytheon Tomahawk. NGSC could be either a common weapon or a family of weapons, but the goal is to use technologies “across multiple mission areas” to reduce cost. Near-term strike capability is to be provided by Lrasm and modernized Tomahawks – compensating for the wind-down of new Tomahawk production.

The Navy’s budget priorities reflect the views of Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert. In June 2012, shortly after he was appointed as CNO, Greenert published an article in the Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine that downplayed the importance of advanced platforms, including stealth aircraft, in favor of “payloads” including standoff weapons. Speaking to a Navy technology conference in Washington on Feb. 4, Greenert reemphasized these points, saying that any future fighter will likely "not be so super-fast because you can't outrun missiles, and not so super-stealthy because you can't be invisible. Stealth may be overrated," he said. "If you move fast through the air...that puts out heat and you are going to be detected."

Also, demonstrations carried out by the Navy and Boeing in 2013 and 2014 have been aimed at using the EA-18G Growler’s ALQ-218(V)2 electronic surveillance measures system to detect and track moving or relocatables emitting targets at long range, with enough accuracy to launch a weapon at them. Both AARGM-ER and Lrasm already use advanced radio-frequency (RF) guidance and would be compatible with that approach, and Raytheon has demonstrated an RF-based passive seeker, with a millimeter-wave active terminal mode, as a Tomahawk upgrade.  

—Bill Sweetman,