Here's a piece by a Marine aviator questioning the value and purpose of the Marine Corps love and commitment to the STOVL fighter-attack airplane, the Harrier and now the costly and complex F-35B.
Other analysts and experts have said it before, probably some Marines too, but in his blog "Boats Against the Current," Peter J. Munson, an active duty officer and KC-130 commander, lays out much of the case against the F-35B. Marine generals love to argue it gives them the capability to go fight close to the front lines, without air bases, but never bother to add how many truckloads of fuel and supplies and men and defense weaponry will have to be hauled over land to that forward base, and at what cost and vulnerability to enemy attack.
The Harrier has surely been a large part of Marine aviation since 9/11, but its STOVL characteristics were rarely, if ever, critical to the conduct of operations. If anything, the capability was a liability when it came to the requirement for long on-station times, multiple ordnance options, and tedious scanning of compounds and cities with targeting pods in support of troops on the ground.
While Harriers have conducted some forward rearming and refueling at shorter strips, these were more driven by the Harrier's limitations and the desire to validate its expeditionary capability than a value added to the fight. That is, while a Harrier was rearming and refueling, a Hornet would be overhead, sensor still on target, refueling from a KC-130, more weapons still on the wing.
One can't help but suspect that when former Defense Secretary Bob Gates put the F-35B on probation last January that he had some of these same arguments in mind but didn't want to fight a war with the Marines in his final months in office. Secretary Panetta last week swooped in and freed the "B," winning friends in USMC HQ and Lockheed Martin, among othe places.
The extraordinary complexity and demands of the F-35B have undoubtedly hampered the whole F-35 problem, creating technical problems and sucking up limited (in Pentagon terms) development dollars and engineering resources. The need to redesign the whole aircraft (all three models) to take out weight was largely an effort to salvage any combat payload for the B-model. Now, with the airframes of early planes showing cracks and wear and tear early in their lives one has to wonder how much of those and future problems will be due to weight reduction for the F-35B.