The F-35 Lightning II (a.k.a. Joint Strike Fighter) has been in development and deployment for about 26 years now.
For the sake of comparison, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, one of the fighters the F-35 is slated to replace, took from 1971 to 1976 to go from conceptualization to production.
The newer fighter has been the subject of much criticism for many reasons, including extreme budget overruns, delays in production, reports that up to half the planes on any given flight line are non-functional, and that they suffer in terms of speed, range and combat ability to older designs from the US, Russia, and China.
Nevertheless, the program has been slogging forward, and since 2016, operational squadrons of the aircraft are serving the military forces in the USA and Israel, as well.
In fact, the fighter’s first known combat operations were those carried out by the Israeli Air Force in a May 10, 2018 airstrike against Iranian elite forces operating in the Golan Heights region of southern Syria. To date, over 305 have been completely built.
By many accounts, the plane is actually being described as superb, “a dream to fly”, and many of the earlier problems with production are solved and so output rate of the aircraft is on the upswing. Forbes reports that the aircraft is looking like a success. It comes in three “flavors”, each tailored for the military branches (Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps) it will serve. It is also available to the allied nations of the United States, and it is of interest to many of them.
Nevertheless, Forbes’ writer Loren Thompson reports that the plane may well be a victim of its own design process, at least where the Air Force is concerned. If true, this is a problem (emphasis added):
Nobody needs the F-35 more than the Air Force, which today is operating the oldest combat fleet in its history. Most of the fighters in that fleet were designed long before words like “stealthy” or “digital” became commonplace in military parlance. With U.S. strategy shifting to an emphasis on great-power competition, the ability of these legacy aircraft to survive in airspace near Russia and China is increasingly being questioned. You needn’t take my word for that since I have business ties of one sort or another to several companies working on the program; just check out the various forecasts available at www.af.mil.
The F-35 is the only fighter currently in production that can cope with the emerging warfighting environment. It is invisible to radar. It collects and shares information across vast expanses of the electromagnetic spectrum. It generates ten times as much radiated power for jamming or deceiving enemies as legacy aircraft. And after the most complex flight test program in history, the Air Force knows that all of its key features actually work. So the service is planning to buy F-35s at the rate of about one per week for many years to come.
Evidence is beginning to accumulate that the Air Force is not as focused on seeing the F-35 succeed as previously thought. For example, it is not ramping up production of its version at the rate that would deliver the greatest economies, and it is warning that if costs to keep the plane flying are not reduced, it may have to shrink its buy by hundreds of planes. The rationales for these moves are shaky at best, based on muddled thinking and outdated information that ignores key features of the F-35 bargain proposition.
For example, the notion that F-35 is expensive to operate ignores the fact that it will become much less expensive as it matures; ignores the fact that the latest F-35s are already the highest performing aircraft in the Air Force inventory; ignores the fact that the plane is delivering far better reliability than specified by requirements documents; and ignores the fact that its productivity on combat missions will exceed the performance of legacy aircraft by hundreds of percent.
That doesn’t mean that operating costs can’t be reduced faster and deeper than planned, but it does raise the question of why the Air Force is not thinking in more rigorous terms about the plane described in its annual acquisition report as “the centerpiece of our future fighter precision attack capability.” I suspect I know the answer to that question, because I saw a similar breakdown of analysis occur in the Army during the last decade. To put it simply, the Air Force has become too enamored with big ideas about the future to think clearly about the present.
The biggest idea captivating Air Force leaders is that “near peer” adversaries, meaning Russia and China, are catching up with U.S. warfighting technology and may soon surpass it. The service stated in its Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan that “the Air Force’s projected force structure in 2030 is not capable of fighting and winning” against the “array of potential adversary capabilities” it will likely face. You might infer therefrom that the service needs to buy stealthy, networked F-35s faster, but its flight plan highlights other items.
For instance it wants a “penetrating counterair” capability — maybe a plane, maybe a family of systems — that can operate within Russian and Chinese air space circa 2030. That would enable it to protect the Air Force’s next-generation bomber in attacks on the most densely-defended targets, or conduct search-and-destroy missions against time-sensitive targets. Obviously, this would require greater endurance than traditional fighters. It also wants unmanned strike and reconnaissance aircraft that can survive in contested airspace, perhaps directed by pilots in penetrating planes.
In addition, it wants all of its warfighting assets linked by a robust network so that each operator can benefit from the reconnaissance and kill capabilities of all the others, and any attrition of assets can be covered via redundancy in the system. And these assets would not be confined to air-breathing platforms — the network would stretch across multiple warfighting “domains,” including space and the electromagnetic spectrum. Electronic and cyber warfare would be ubiquitous in the high-end battlespace it envisions.
Meanwhile, at the low end of counter-terror and counter-insurgency operations, the service wants to acquire planes less costly than the F-35, perhaps turboprops rather than jets, that can deal with enemies who lack their own air forces or air defenses. So F-35 potentially ends up in a squeeze play between the lower-cost systems envisioned for addressing irregular threats and the higher-capability systems needed to address future near-peer competitors. Add in all the other stuff needed for space resilience, mobility, training and so on, and the F-35 program of record starts to look shaky.
Mr. Thompson’s analysis, therefore notes that the F-35 may well be an extremely fine aircraft, and he even notes the program as a success in spite of its own cumbersome nature. But here he expresses the greatest criticism to be towards the thinkers of America’s airborne fighting forces spending too much time in dreamland, and not enough time rooted in practicality:
There’s nothing wrong with planning for the future. It’s an essential facet of military preparedness. But the Air Force needs to be realistic about how frequently past forecasts have proven wrong, and how tight budget resources will likely be in the next decade. There probably will never be a penetrating counterair system due to changing technological, geopolitical and fiscal circumstances. There may not even be a next-generation bomber. The one option the service can count on is that there definitely will be an F-35.
The question is whether the Air Force will make the most of that option, and in the process enable its sister services and America’s allies to do likewise.