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Rating the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and Why a 6th Generation Fighter Might Not Happen

F-35 JSF
A Luke Air Force Base F-35A Lightning II stands by to take off at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., April 15, 2015.

I have long been interested in the comings and goings of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, stealth technology in general and what the future holds for fighter aircraft in general, especially a 6th generation fighter.

With these thoughts in mind, I passed several questions to Loren Thompson, Chief Operating Officer of the non-profit Lexington Institute, on these issues and more. Here is how he responded:

Overall, how would grade the F-35 program overall? Are the challenges, setbacks, and financial hurdles the program has faced, overall, meet your expectations?

The F-35 program has performed exceptionally well. All three variants have met their performance goals, including for stealth. The cost has declined with each successive production lot at a faster pace than the Pentagon predicted, and there was not a single serious mishap in the plane’s 9,000-flight testing program.

The key challenge now is to get the cost of operation down, as measured by cost per flight hour. I believe the objective for the most common Air Force variant is $25,000 per flight hour.

The F-35 and also the F-22 will soon have company in the sky from Russia and China thanks to the Su-57 and J-20 fighter programs. In your opinion, how do those platforms stack up to the F-35?

I am not conversant with the Russian and Chinese fighters. However, I am skeptical they can match the performance of F-22 or F-35, particularly in the areas of reconnaissance and low observability. The F-35’s ability to collect and respond to tactical intelligence is unprecedented. Unfortunately, the details are largely classified.

In the future, the U.S. military will need to plan for a 6th generation fighter. What are the most important new pieces of technology or capabilities that need to go into such a plane?

I do not believe there will be a sixth-generation fighter in the sense of a large joint program. The more likely trend is towards experimentation that lasts for decades since budgets are plateauing and the full potential of the F-35 has not yet been realized.

The most important features of future tactical aircraft that I see coming are (1) operational autonomy in the sense of being unmanned, (2) network-enabled cooperation of scattered assets, (3) increased range/endurance, and (4) high survivability against adversary forces due increasingly to active measures like cognitive electronic warfare rather than passive measures like stealth.

Written By

Harry J. Kazianis (@Grecianformula) serves as President and CEO of Rogue States Project, a bipartisan national security think tank. He has held senior positions at the Center for the National Interest, the Heritage Foundation, the Potomac Foundation, and many other think tanks and academic institutions focused on defense issues. He served on the Russia task force for U.S. Presidental Candidate Senator Ted Cruz, and in a similar task force in the John Hay Initiative. His ideas have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, CNN, CNBC, and many other outlets across the political spectrum. He holds a graduate degree focusing on International Relations from Harvard University and is the author of the book The Tao of A2/AD, a study of Chinese military modernization.

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