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F-35: The Story of How the Joint Strike Fighter Will Dominate the Future

F-35
U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Lightning ll aircraft with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121 prepare for takeoff from Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, April 8, 2021. VMFA-121 is the first forward deployed Marine F-35B squadron, capable of providing close air support and conducting strike missions in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Jackson Ricker)

Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter appears not merely to have endured; it seems to be prevailing.

Beset by technological and procurement difficulties for much of its history, the F-35 “Panther” is seeing serious procurement success. Some 730 F-35s have entered service with 14 military services across 10 countries, with 5 more countries awaiting delivery. Two high-profile customers have decided to acquire the F-35 over the last year. The first was Switzerland, which agreed to purchase 36 F-35s in order to replace a fleet of antiquated F-5s and middle-aged F/A-18s.  Switzerland had previously come to terms with Saab to purchase Gripen fighters, but a 2014 referendum on the deal failed to gain a majority. The second customer was Finland, which agreed to purchase 64 F-35s to replace its existing inventory of F/A-18s.  We have an unusual amount of detail regarding Finland’s decision to acquire the Panther, which rested on combat capability, battlespace management, and survivability.

As Jonathan Caverly has quipped, the F-35 is America’s Belt and Road, a massive financial, technical, and military project that has now embraced dozens of countries. In a sense, the F-35 is an AUKUS, just on a truly multinational scale. The aircraft seems to be perpetually in crisis (video of an F-35B falling off a Royal Navy aircraft carrier made the rounds last month), but perpetually moving forward. In nearly every open fighter competition, the F-35 has prevailed.  On its face this is hardly surprising; the F-35 is a much more modern platform than its primary competitors in the West, the Dassault Rafale, F-15 Eagle, Eurofighter Typhoon, Saab Gripen, and F/A-18 Hornet.  The youngest of those fighters entered service more than a decade before the F-35; the oldest some four decades. Moreover, while a variety of updates have created a “Generation 4.5,” none of the competitor aircraft have the stealth or integrated sensor capabilities of the F-35.

The fact that the United States has adopted and continues to acquire the F-35 undoubtedly has a positive impact on its popularity. The F-35 is operated by three different US services, suggesting that its presence will endure for some time and thus that upgrades, replacements, and new weapons systems will long be available to customers who want them. The inclusion of Switzerland and Finland is particularly notable given that they are not bound to Washington by any treaty obligations. Of course, both countries had previously operated US-built aircraft, but they have not historically kept Washington at some political distance. That both have now agreed to effectively become dependent on the US aerospace industry says much about both the aircraft itself and the direction of the geostrategic winds.

The F-35 may continue to see success in the future. Spain’s attitude towards the F-35 remains confused and uncertain, with denials of interest followed rapidly by denials of the denial of interest. Poland’s decision to acquire the F-35 may spark addition interest in Central and Eastern European countries. Recall also that the United States will refuse to sell the F-35 to countries that do not abide by certain obligations with respect to foreign arms sales.  The US removed Turkey from the F-35 project at some economic and reputational cost because Ankara insisted on acquiring the S-400 air defense system from Russia.  India’s decision to acquire the S-400 will probably also exclude it from consideration as an F-35 export target. Concerns over espionage may quash the UAE’s acquisition of F-35s, and in general, the prospects for sales in the Middle East beyond Israel don’t seem particularly bright.

F-35B

BF4 Flight 545 CDR Nath Gray test aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth. The F-35 Pax River Integrated Test Force is testing aboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth for phase two of the First of Class Flight Trials (Fixed Wing) from British Queen Elizabeth Class carriers; phase two test include external stores, minimum performance short-takeoffs, shipborne rolling vertical landing and night operations. A third phase followed by operational testing is scheduled for 2019. Together, the test will help the UK Ministry of Defence reach IOC(M) in 2020.

The proverbial dog that hasn’t barked is Canada, which had a plan in place to acquire the F-35 in 2015 but decided to re-open bidding after the victory of Justin Trudeau.  Trudeau ran against the F-35 buy in his first election, and had dithered about the process of replacing Canada’s aging fleet of F/A-18s.  There seems to be little doubt that the Trudeau government has resisted and delayed an open competition because it believes that the F-35 will win handily; there is even now talk of using the F-35 purchase to leverage concessions on electric vehicle parts. That eight members of NATO have acquired or will acquire the F-35 puts Canada into an even more awkward position.

F-35

F-35. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin.

To be sure, the F-35 has had its share of difficulties. It has also loomed large as a cultural and political artifact. The F-35s travails have played out under the harsh glare of social media (and if you wonder, dear reader, whether the F-35 has a Twitter account, wonder no longer) and in a deeply partisan political environment. But we sometimes forget that many of the aircraft that have flown for the US armed forces have gone through severe teething troubles; the F-16, for example, was effectively disowned by its progenitors before it even entered service. Essentially, the F-35 program wins because it has created a reality in which it is clearly the best choice for a certain class of customers. Lockheed Martin’s political strategy for ensuring the success of the aircraft is a tour de force of domestic and international lobbying. As the number of customers increases, the aircraft becomes even more attractive. And since the Next Generation fighter project may be poorly structured for export pre-eminence, the dominance of the F-35 may stretch far into the future.

F-35 Beast Mode

F-35 in ‘Beast Mode’. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. mackykam

    December 22, 2021 at 2:03 am

    The F35 is proving itself militarily. Israel has been having success with it. Of course, the Israeli F35 is configured differently from all others. It uses Israeli components, upgrades and weaponry, far superior to original American configurations.

  2. Doug

    December 22, 2021 at 10:44 am

    The un-said problem with the F35 in this article is this: the F35 in “stealth” mode cannot carry near the ordinance of an F15. Not even close.

    In order to be stealthy all the ordinance is stored in small enclosed bays within the fuselage and can only carry four bombs or missiles.

    The F15 “has the ability to carry up to 29,500 pounds of ordnance split into 12 air-to-air hard points or 15 air-to-ground hard points. It’s new twin engines aren’t just more efficient, they’re also more powerful, making the fastest fighter in America’s inventory even faster.”

  3. Joseph

    December 22, 2021 at 12:14 pm

    This article is short on the problems that afflict the F-35. It is a long list but here are a few: (1) limited range and loitering ability when in stealth mode as auxiliary tanks make it “visible”; (2) very hot engine make it perfect for heat-seeking missiles; (3) the maintenance requirements are gargantuan; (4) Russia’s latest radars can see it from a long distance… and soon will be able to acquire weapons grade signatures thus reducing the F-35 stealth against well equipped opponents.

  4. Alan

    December 22, 2021 at 1:40 pm

    Not mentioning the FACT that the tail will melt in supersonic travel, and this fatal flaw is still not corrected.

    It is a lemon, and that is why we are suddenly purchasing F-15EX and more F-18’s which the F-35 was supposed to completely replace.

    Stop covering up for the worst and most expensive military procurement in history.

  5. HR

    December 22, 2021 at 3:11 pm

    Thanks Doc.
    Unlike the others, I admit my Bias. I work on the production floor. All these so called “problems” have been solved long ago. F35 is now the most lethal,survivable aircraft flying…
    Just ask a pilot.

  6. Ben

    December 22, 2021 at 3:48 pm

    The F22 far outclasses the F35 in every regard, there is nobody serious who can argue this fact

  7. Perry Vincent

    December 22, 2021 at 5:13 pm

    @ Ben: You’re comparing apples to oranges,the two aircraft were not built for the same mission, the best analogy I can think of is the the F35 is the quarterback and the F22 is the running back, there two completely different animals

  8. Sir Anthony Nolie

    December 22, 2021 at 8:58 pm

    The F35 no matter what new incarnation they propose will be inferior to new aircraft and many contemporary aircraft from other nations. The Chinese and Russians are laughing at us. I conclude it as the 12th best fighter jet currently in operation today. The SU57, SU35,the newer MIGs, the J20 and J17, the old and upgraded f15, the F22, the Gripen, the Typhoon, the newest Indian fighter will eat that under powered failure which will never have the proper power and too little wing surface. Whatever military brass who signed off on the F35 for production should be court Martialed and lobby money confiscated from the military heretic. At the moment nothing can touch the new SU57, not even the F22

  9. Perry Vincent

    December 22, 2021 at 9:49 pm

    @ Joseph: There is no evidence or proof that Russian radar can see let alone track it to get a weapons fix on the F35

  10. Spylake

    December 23, 2021 at 2:53 am

    The F35 has been surrounded by bumper sticker bromides since its inception from both sides.

    How about some real facts? If you’re man or woman enough.

    1) EVERY new weapon from the simplest rifle to the stealth fighter, evolves, matures, and improves over its lifetime. Some even grow from disasters to excellence.
    2) The COST argument largely pretends that the alternative to the F35 is magically free. In fact, the difference between them is not significant. How could it be when the projected cost over its 40+ year lifetime at ~ $1,600,000,000,000 is considerably less than the current administration wants to spend on Build Back Better over the next couple of years.
    3) Fact, the F35 has already detected, targeted, and guided a missile fired from a destroyer to intercept a threat that the ship had no awareness of. The complaint is often raised that the F35 weapon load is inadequate. Hogwash. Semi-autonomous drone wingmen will be the F35’s bomb and missile truck. An F35 will be able to launch and control any available weapon in the battlespace and direct it to a target, from land, sea, air, and potentially space.

    Last Fact. The F35 is not without areas needing improvement but it could be perfect and the same people would still try to fault and cancel it.

  11. Cadet

    December 23, 2021 at 3:44 am

    Of course Beast mode sounds real dangerous but what is the point of all that stealth tech in that mode? Seems like a waste to give this platform its full attack capabilities at the cost of all that expensive stealth…

  12. Jim

    December 23, 2021 at 5:16 am

    Why using stealth technology, has limited our American fighters, to a few missiles, and no active 30mm cannons? Radar is jammable, especially with emp weapons, and massive amounts of inter detectable plans combined with a an Air Force uva, loaded with multiple levels of large-scale scale missiles and smaller hybrid stealth, and thousands of drones, witch are cheaper and possibly hyper sonic, that can equal the aged F-15e. Massive production cost with emp weapons to destroy our enemies capacity for electric controls. A drone with a 30mm cannon, and emp explosive taken near enemy air craft, or land based military and sea surface systems. The 30mm, the a 10 can be used as a basic system design for stealth, and then a a “suicide ” drone explodes near enemy military capacity and the combined with a massive high explosive, 2nd then takes out life of the enemy. 2 stage weapons. Multiple levels of large-scale known technology that can be massively produced. Thousands for the cost of 1 b-2 or the next b-21 bomber. An aircraft the size of a car could easily be launched from subs, or our aircraft carriers long before. High explosive devices in the thousands at an affordable price per unit. Overwhelm enemy assets.

  13. Zero

    December 23, 2021 at 10:04 am

    All these naysaying arguments only reveal the ignorance of the critics. No other combat aircraft has ever been tested so much, and with such public transparency.

    The F-35 is a platform which contains multiple advanced components. The airframe imparts stealth–but for all the rest, it is the integration of these advanced components-from radar, to DAS, to IR, to MDF’s, to MADL, to third gen helmet etc. in an aircraft with a flyaway cost of just over 80 million dollars–cheaper than even vanilla versions of 4th Gen competitors which do not have the same capabilities out-of-the-box.

    The new advanced adaptive engine will boost an already impressive thrust, and range–and the thermal management will support airborne lasers. Even the new NGAD will probably only have a different airframe, but will likely use all of the components and engines designed for the F-35.

    This is the key point which most F-35 critics do not appreciate. All the the advanced avionics and various advanced systems and components designed for the F-35 will also be used on NGAD, the B-21, and other future airframes.

    The bottom-line is that the F-35 has propelled the US and its allies far ahead of any competitors by more than a decade.

  14. Vladolph Putler

    April 29, 2022 at 9:09 pm

    Range: Drones. (MQ-25 etc.)

    Payload: Drones. (Loyal Wingman) Or arsenal birds.

    Maneuverability/guns (Again- Loyal Wingman- Skyborg *super slayer*)
    Besides, initial neutered programs in the RSS FBW were temporary.

    Heat: Bestest buddy on a tag line.

    Guns: It’s not a CAS vehicle. LRPF, CAS vehicle (A10/AH64) or manpad battlefield drones.

    Long wavelength radar: Sloppy- (Bird? ICBM? Slingshot?), no weapons grade lock.

    Clearly there is a larger plan, which the F35 is merely a component of. Skyborg killed every pilot it flew against, using a Dollar Store attritable airframe.

    Critics generally have had their opinions spoon fed to them. If not, they would have figured it out on their own.

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