73 years ago, 16 U.S. Army B-25 bombers took off from the USS Hornet (CV-8), flew 700 nautical miles, and bombed Tokyo. Image source: U.S. Navy.

73 years ago, 16 U.S. Army B-25 Mitchell bombers took off from the USS Hornet (CV-8) to conduct the famous "Doolittle Raid" on Japan. Flying 700 miles to strike Tokyo, the twin-engine, prop-driven bombers then proceeded to land in nearby China and Russia.

Today, American carrier aircraft struggle to fly even 500 miles without refueling. Naval air forces are understrength to the tune of 140 aircraft -- the equivalent of almost two full carrier air wings -- and the Navy is struggling to afford the F-35 stealth fighters Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) proffers to make up the difference.

This, in a nutshell, is the situation U.S. Navy Captain Jerry Hendrix (retired) outlines in his latest paper, "The Rise and Fall of Carrier Aviation," published through the Center for a New American Security. After learning at great cost the need to equip aircraft carriers with long-range aircraft to attack targets before the carriers come within range of enemy firepower, the U.S. Navy has, through a series of miscalculations, stripped itself of the ability to project air power at great distances. Today, to hit a target, American aircraft carriers must first run a gauntlet of anti-access/area denial (A2AD) defenses, sailing perhaps hundreds of miles (at 30 mph) under an umbrella of anti-ship missile fire before they can launch a single strike.

Worse, "upgrading" carriers with new F-35 stealth fighters from Lockheed Martin fails to fix this problem of the Navy's "retreat from range." In fact, it may make the problem worse.

By 1956, Douglas A-3 Skywarriors were flying combat missions in excess of 1,000 nautical miles on a single tank of gas. Image source: U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation.

Lessons in history
Capt. Hendrix describes WWII as a "crucible" for the Navy. Post-Midway, America lost nine aircraft carriers, and thousands of lives, supporting amphibious landings while under attack from kamikaze aircraft. To avoid that risk in the future, the Navy developed new aircraft such as the A-3 Skywarrior (pictured above), capable of launching from a safe (for the carrier) distance, flying as far as 1,200 nautical miles on a single tank of gas, attacking a target, and returning to base.

Later carrier air forces featured shorter-range F-14 Tomcat fighter jets and A-6 Intruder bombers, and lately, Boeing's (NYSE:BA) F/A-18s, a fighter-bomber with less than half the A-3's range. Next up will probably be Lockheed Martin's F-35C carrier-variant stealth fighter jet.

Capt. Hendrix -- a former naval aviator himself -- argues that "if the Joint Strike Fighter truly was going to replace the capabilities of the F-14 Tomcat and the A-6 Intruder, then range should have been a critical factor in its design." Instead, the F-35C was designed to have a combat range of 730 nautical miles, and recent tests suggest it will average closer to just 550 miles, only 50 better than the F/A-18.

Lockheed Martin's F-35 Stealth Fighter is a beautiful aircraft. But there's a reason the U.S. Navy is "just not into it." Image source: Lockheed Martin.

Lessons in math
Now, BGA-Aeroweb prices the latest model F/A-18 at about $65 million. In contrast, the F-35 costs anywhere from $116 million (Lockheed Martin's estimate) to $170 million (BGA-Aeroweb) to $337 million (say its critics). And not everyone agrees that paying $105 million for an extra 50 miles of range is the best way to spend the military's money.

Thus, after 40 pages of explaining how Navy air wings have been clipped, Capt. Hendrix lays out three potential solutions to the problems of decreasing range -- and increasing cost.

Option 1: Stay the course
"Continuing [the Navy's] established procurement plan," Option 1 would have the Navy outfit each aircraft carrier with two F/A-18 squadrons of a dozen aircraft each, two F-35 squadrons of 10 aircraft each, six unarmed "UCLASS" spy drones, and about a dozen supporting aircraft (tankers, sub-hunters, and airborne early-warning craft, for example). So, 62 aircraft in all.

Numbers-wise, though, this would be about 25% understrength relative to what a modern supercarrier is designed to carry. And the average range of this force, without refueling, would be a mere 500 miles. To conduct operations against any modern nation state, the carrier force would have to travel hundreds of miles beneath an umbrella of hostile anti-ship missiles before it could launch its planes.

Option 2: Truncate the F-35
To increase the number of aircraft on its carriers while cutting costs, the Navy could reduce the number of F-35C stealth fighters purchased, buying F/A-18s instead. Option 2 would yield three squadrons of 12 F/A-18s per carrier, supported by one squadron of 10 F-35s. Flying in stealth mode, with minimal armament, the F-35s would serve as spotter planes, and the F/A-18s as "missile trucks" firing at targets the F-35s find.

Money saved under this option could be reinvested in developing an armed "UCAV" -- an unmanned combat aerial vehicle, or long-range strike drone -- for the Navy. Equipped with six such UCAVs and other supporting aircraft, the carrier air wing would grow to 64 planes, boast improved average range, and cost less than the F-35C-centric Option 1.

Option 3: Kill the F-35
Hendrix's most radical proposal is for the Navy to skip the F-35 entirely. For every F-35 foregone, the Navy saves enough money to buy two F/A-18s -- with money left over. This leftover money can be used to buy a squadron of 12 UCAVs, and four drone tankers to refuel them, for every aircraft carrier in the fleet. Carriers could also be downsized from 100,000 tons to perhaps 70,000, saving even more money that can be reinvested in developing even more advanced drones and piloted fifth-generation fighters.

Option three calls for equipping each carrier with four squadrons of F/A-18s (48 fighters), zero F-35s, one UCAV squadron (12 strike drones and four tankers), and four UCLASS surveillance drones. Add a mix of piloted helicopters, E-2D Hawkeyes, and EA-18G Growlers and -- presto-chango -- the Navy returns to its historical average of 84 aircraft per carrier.

What it means to investors
Which of these three options the Navy will ultimately follow remains to be seen. The cynic in me is obviously inclined to "Option 1," whereas recent comments from U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jon Greenert and, more recently, his director of air warfare, Rear Admiral Michael Manazir, suggest that Options 2 and 3 are not out of the question.

Earlier this year, Adm. Greenert publicly questioned the value of "stealth" aircraft such as Lockheed's F-35. He pointedly dismissed claims that the plane is "invisible" to radar and suggested the Navy might be better off forgoing the new aircraft and proceeding with plans to develop a new "sixth-generation" fighter jet instead. Earlier this month, Adm. Manazir told Congress that the Navy needs more F/A-18s to plug a gap in its air forces.

Viewed in conjunction with Capt. Hendrix's potent analysis of the challenge facing the Navy, both of these statements suggest Boeing's F/A-18 fighter jet program might not be coming to an end next year, as many analysts have suggested it will. To the contrary, all three scenarios envisioned by Capt. Hendrix appear to call for additional years (if not decades) of F/A-18 production -- and billions of dollars more revenue for Boeing than analysts have baked into their earnings forecasts.

Meanwhile, in two scenarios, demand for Lockheed Martin's F-35 could plummet. If the Navy needs to add "range" to its air forces of the future, there may be no place for the F-35 in that future. And in the worst-case scenario, immediate curtailment of F-35 purchases could cost Lockheed as much as 250 planes, times $170 million per plane, equals $42.5 billion in lost revenue.

Such a doomsday scenario is not a certainty yet -- but it is a risk investors need to be aware of.

Lockheed Martin's F-35 costs a lot, and it doesn't fly very far. Is it time to put Boeing's F/A-18 back on deck? Image source: U.S. Navy.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.