Yes, we should be very clear from the start: the F-35 is one costly fighter jet. But why is that? Well, the F-35 is a stealth fighter that has a lot of capabilities packed into one plane. And that means we can easily call this the Ferrari of fighters for a reason:
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the world’s most advanced stealth fighter jet. The three versions of the fifth-generation stealth fighter jet bring unparallel capabilities to the fight. From sensor fusion that connects all players on the battlefield and enables the kill chain to stealth characteristics that can enable it to strike before it is detected, the F-35 Lighting II fighter jet is an asset to any air force.
However, not everything is rosy with the most advanced stealth fighter jet in the world.
The advanced capabilities of the F-35 Lighting II come at a hefty price, and the overall F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program has already cost approximately $1.7 trillion, although such costs will be spread out over many decades.
While not shocking for the size and scope of the program, it doesn’t help, moreover, that the F-35 program has seen its share of technical issues and concomitant delays that have increased costs over time.
One could reasonably argue that the price tag of the F-35 program reflects the fact that it contains three separate aircraft that share features and capabilities. It also reflects the aircraft’s diverse capabilities. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was designed to be an “everything-in-one” aircraft that could conduct a wide range of mission sets, thus streamlining acquisition, operation, and maintenance.
F-35: A Ferrari Kept in the Garage?
Last year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report that suggested that the increased cost of the F-35 program would severely limit the U.S. military’s ability to operate the stealth fighter jet.
The number of F-35 Lighting IIs that the Department of Defense wants to purchase has fluctuated over time as the cost of the program increased and alternative platforms—such as the F-15EX Eagle II—gained traction.
With a plan to acquire over 2,000 F-35 Lighting IIs of all three types, the Pentagon would have to pay about $400 billion. That is not an unreasonable number if we consider the number of aircraft and the advanced capabilities they bring to the fight.
However, to operate those 2,000 F-35 Lighting IIs for at least six decades, as the Pentagon plans on doing, the U.S. military would need about $1.3 trillion, according to the GAO’s estimates. And these estimates reflect current realities and not the future, meaning that they could very well increase—it should be noted that Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the F-35 Lighting II, has managed to bring the overall cost of the fighter jet down.
Senior U.S. Air Force officials have suggested that the F-35 Lighting II might be too expensive to operate at will in the future. General Charles Q. Brown, the Air Force Chief of Staff, has stated in the past that he wants to moderate how much the Air Force is using the F-35 Lighting II, comparing the stealth fighter jet with a Ferrari.
“You don’t drive your Ferrari to work every day, you only drive it on Sundays. [The F-35 Lighting II is] our ‘high end’ [fighter jet], we want to make sure we don’t use it all for the low-end fight,” Brown had stated.
The Air Force’s top officer added that he wants to preserve the F-35 capability for when it will actually be needed to conduct missions that other, older aircraft would be incapable of performing or wouldn’t be as effective. Here, Brown, was referring to the near-peer threat posed by China, whose ever-advancing military capabilities are making it harder for older U.S. aircraft to operate freely in the Indo-Pacific area of operations in a potential conflict with Beijing.
F-35: A Popular Aircraft
To be sure, the high purchasing and operating cost of the F-35 Lighting II hasn’t dissuaded foreign air forces from purchasing the aircraft.
Country after country is falling into the checkout line to buy the F-35 Lighting II, with Finland, Switzerland, and Germany being some of the latest, while Greece and the Czech Republic are also in the final stages before an order. The above countries alone would purchase more than 200 F-35 Lighting II fighter jets.
Right now, in addition to the U.S., more than a dozen countries fly the F-35 Lighting II all across the world, with more than 700 aircraft in the skies today.
F-35 Lighting II: An Advanced Aircraft
A fifth-generation fighter jet, the F-35 Lighting II comes in three versions (A,B, C). The F-35A is the conventional take-off landing version; the F-35B is the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) iteration that can take-off and land like a helicopter, making it an excellent choice for expeditionary warfare; and the F-35C is the aircraft carrier version designed to withstand the extreme forces of carrier operations.
A multi-role fighter jet, the F-35 can conduct six mission sets effectively: Strategic Attack, Air Superiority, Close Air Support, Electronic Warfare, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), Suppression Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD), and Destruction Enemy Air Defense (DEAD).
At the end of the day, the F-35 is a highly advanced aircraft, and such capabilities don’t come cheaply. The question for any operator, thus, becomes one of balancing risk and cost. Does the threat environment, whether that is China, Russia, or even Turkey (in the case of Greece), justify the cost? Could similar capabilities be found elsewhere for a lower price? Answering those questions honestly would ensure a fair decision for any current or future operator of the F-35 Lighting II.
1945’s Defense and National Security Columnist, Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist with specialized expertise in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. His work has been featured in Business Insider, Sandboxx, and SOFREP.