ABOARD THE USS KEARSARGE - When U.S. naval strike jets hit targets in Libya in the predawn hours of March 20, they weren't flying from aircraft carriers.
Instead, the U.S. Marine Corps' short-takeoff, vertical-landing AV-8B Harrier IIs did the job from this amphibious assault ship. And that, said the senior Marine commander aboard, shows why his service needs the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, the STOVL plane whose developmental problems have landed it under a two-year "probationary period" and made it a favored target of some budget-cutters.
"It would be lovely to have an aircraft carrier here, but there are not enough to go round," said Col. Mark Desens, the commander of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which operates the AV-8Bs aboard the Kearsarge. "What we do have is the opportunity to do a lot of things with this vessel, and we are accomplishing a tremendous return on investment with these six STOVL jets."
As the Libyan operation was coming together in the days leading up to the attack, the Wasp-class vessel was the only U.S. Navy vessel with a substantial flight deck near the Mediterranean Sea. Smaller than a full-sized Nimitz or Ford-class aircraft carrier equipped with catapult launchers, the Wasp-class ships can host STOVL aircraft alongside a host of helicopters.
By the time air strikes began, the six Harriers were just a small part of the 200-plus coalition aircraft assembled for the operation. But because the Kearsarge was far closer to Libya than the French and Italian air bases used by jets from other allied countries, the Harriers could fly not one but two sorties per night.
Analysts and sources said their performance has been a godsend for partisans of the F-35B. As the cost of the Joint Strike Fighter program ballooned, the knives came out for the STOVL version. Last fall, the United Kingdom abandoned its plans to buy the F-35B, leaving Italy and the U.S. Marine Corps as the only remaining buyers. Italy is nervous about the aircraft's fate since its new aircraft carrier, the Cavour, is built to host STOVL aircraft only.
For the Marine Corps, losing the strike jet would require a wholesale rethinking of their approach to combat. It would neuter the planned amphibious assault ship America, which is being built without a well deck, almost purely as a STOVL platform. It might even prevent the Marines from carrying out forced-entry amphibious landings, their raison d'etre recently blessed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Will the STOVL jets' role in Operation Odyssey Dawn boost the case for the F-35B? "I would think so. We were here and we were ready to go," Desens said.
Big Improvement Desens and others noted that the F-35B would be a vast improvement over the Harrier. Not only does it carry more weapons and fuel, its sensors allow it to target enemy air defenses and vacuum up intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data and feed it back to the fleet.
"When you look at the capabilities of the F-35B and how much it expands the tool box, that aircraft is going to push us way out in front of any future potential threats out there," the colonel said.
The plane is such a leap forward that it brings the capabilities of amphibious assault ships closer to those of aircraft carriers, said Daniel Gouré, an analyst at the Lexington Institute, Arlington, Va. "In a sense, you're doubling the number of aircraft-capable ships in the U.S. Navy with the F-35B, because there are more than a dozen amphibs," Gouré said.
That means more sovereign flight decks that can launch military operations without potentially difficult negotiations over basing.
"A vessel is sovereign. With an AV-8B or an F-35B, you get an immediate ability to start impacting a wide range of things," Desens said. "As you look down the road, the need for a STOVL jet sells itself, because you are not going to get more aircraft carriers. An F-35B costs a lot less than a carrier."Desens noted that a STOVL jet can also move ashore with troops as they push farther away from the beachhead, landing and flying from far smaller patches of ground than regular fixed-wing planes.
"You have tremendous operational flexibility if you are going to do a projected land war, like Iraq and Afghanistan, where those jets were sea-based and then we put them ashore as we moved north, meaning we could turn around a lot more sorties," Desens said. "Put that together and why wouldn't you want a STOVL?" 4 A.M. Launch On the first night of Odyssey Dawn, four of the Kearsarge's six Harriers took to the skies at 4 a.m. to join other U.S. and allied aircraft halting government forcesadvancing on rebel-held Benghazi.
"We had been planning with intelligence before the Benghazi sortie, and we had a picture of the [government] positions on the highway" leading to the eastern Libyan city, said one Marine pilot, Capt. Michael Wyrsch, who was flying his first operational mission.
Covering the 150 miles to Benghazi in about 15 minutes, the pilots saw explosions from attacks on the loyalist military vehicles that were launched by U.S. Air Force F-15s and F-16s already on the scene.
The Harriers engaged the middle section of a convoy of about 50 vehicles, including Russian-built T-72 tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery pieces, which were spread along several kilometers of the highway.
Dropping six GPU-12 laser-guided bombs, the Harriers destroyed four tanks, one refueling truck and an infantry fighting vehicle.
"We had indications of anti-aircraft radar activity, but were not fired on," Wyrsch said.
At 10 p.m. on March 20, four Harriers took off for a second sortie to locate and attack the remnants of the same convoy, which had been reinforced by new vehicles outside the city of Ajdabiya. Using night-vision goggles, the pilots dropped 12 GPU-12s, destroying mobile artillery and rocket launchers.
"The best use of these aircraft is against tactical equipment, frequently tanks and heavy army equipment," said Rear Adm. Peg Klein, the commander of the expeditionary naval force.
Harrier raids were suspended on the third night of operations, when two Ospreys were scrambled to pick up the pilot of an F-15E who had ejected near Benghazi after his fighter jet apparently suffered a mechanical failure.
Two Harriers from the Kearsarge arrived on the scene before the Ospreys and flew low over a "suspect" group of armored vehicles. They dropped two GPU-12s on the vehicles, and according to a military source, fired their cannons as well.
Media reports claimed that between five and 10 local citizens were injured by gunfire in the area around the time of the rescue. The Marines declined to comment on the reports of woundings, saying an investigation was underway.
The Ospreys came in at 250 mph and under 1,000 feet of altitude, following laser designation provided by an accompanying Harrier that had a GPS reference.
"We were looking at a needle and avoiding populated areas," one pilot said.
They landed and retrieved the F-15 pilot.
A second F-15 crew member whose GPS device was not transmitting was met by locals sympathetic to the rebels and later handed over to the U.S. military.
Speaking of the Osprey, Desens was unfazed by doubts over the effect of JSF jet blast on flight decks.
"Take the V-22, where we had a concrete issue with the exhaust close to the deck. We used hotplates, but you don't see that now because we have found techniques to create deflection. I don't know if we would do that with the F-35, but I am sure we would find a solution because when you have a capability that is worth that much, you will figure out a way to solve that problem," he said.
Bottom line, Desens said: The benefits of the F-35B will far outweigh any difficulties.
Dave Majumdar contributed to this report.