The F-35 Is Writing A New History As The Most Capable Fifth-Generation Fighter: When defense writers have nothing new to say, they sometimes dredge up old stories.
This is the case with a piece in The Week titled “The F-35 Fighter Jet’s Troubled History.” The article is an unbalanced mishmash of old news about challenges the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) faced as a developmental program, inadequate information about the F-35’s current status, and the almost obligatory suggestion that entrenched interests are keeping the program going. There is both a lack of balance and a failure to recognize the F-35 program’s successes. It also lacks a straightforward acknowledgment that, to date, 17 countries have chosen the JSF as their fighter for the 21st century after independently analyzing combat effectiveness, cost, and sustainability of the aircraft.
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Every one of the Pentagon’s developmental programs has had teething problems. The JSF is no exception. Yet what The Week fails to remember is that most of these technical challenges have already been dealt with. For example, problems with the original helmet led to corrective measures several years ago. The same is true for the maintenance of the aircraft’s stealth coating.
The article notes that the F-35 still has not been approved for full-rate production. This is misleading, if not disingenuous, since the primary reason for this delay in the defense department’s Initial Operational Test and Evaluation process, including the difficulty in building the required simulation capability.
Another way of denigrating the JSF is to suggest that it is too expensive. The article in question notes that the life cycle costs for the F-35 program are estimated to be $1.7 trillion over the next fifty years. What is not mentioned is that this is an after-inflation estimate. My colleague, Loren Thompson, put this argument to bed years ago, pointing out that over the same period, inflation means that the costs of military bands would be some $25 billion.
The article also reflects a failure of imagination. The authors make the mistake of viewing the F-35 as just another fighter, albeit one with fifth-generation features. There is a failure to understand that the F-35 is unlike any fighter ever built. It is less the last fighter of the industrial age than the first aerial platform of the Information Age. It is a sensor/network node with wings and weapons. With its advanced electronic systems, sophisticated networking technologies and ability to fuse sensor data from multiple sources, the F-35 can act as the “quarterback” for complex air operations and even combat operations involving land and naval units.
Moreover, unlike fourth-generation platforms which often have to be reconfigured with “bolt-on” capabilities to conduct particular missions, the F-35 comes as a complete package, with sensors, computers, weapons and electronic warfare all part of an integrated whole. This not only simplifies mission planning but allows the JSF to switch between air-to-air, air-to-ground and sensing missions as the tactical situation dictates.
In multiple Air Force exercises, the F-35 has consistently demonstrated its unparalleled performance in both air-to-air and air-to-ground modes. In the 2017 Red Flag exercise, the F-35 achieved a kill ratio of 15 to one, something no other fighter in the U.S. inventory has ever done. Employing its sophisticated sensors and networking to collect and pass targeting information, the F-35 also demonstrated that it could improve the performance of fourth-generation aircraft.
A year of fighting in Ukraine has provided a number of lessons regarding the evolving role of airpower in the Information Age. In the latest Project Convergence exercise, designed to demonstrate sensor-to-shooter connectivity and the ability to rapidly engage targets at long distances, the U.S. Army successfully employed data from an F-35’s sensors to an artillery unit. The F-35 can use its stealthiness and advanced sensors to penetrate hostile air defenses and destroy critical targets, while simultaneously providing critical targeting data to other shooters in multiple domains.
While more sophisticated than any deployed fighter, the F-35 is also more cost-effective to operate and maintain. It is no accident that the F-35 has repeatedly won fair and open competitions to replace existing, aging fighter fleets. Recent acquisition decisions by Germany, Canada, Switzerland, Poland, and Finland have each been the result of comparative evaluations of the F-35.
The reality is that acquiring the F-35 will actually save money. The Swiss decision to acquire 36 JSFs came after an exhaustive four-year evaluation process. According to an article authored by respected defense aviation analyst John Venable:
“The Swiss evaluators found the networked systems of the F-35A enabled pilots to have more situational awareness and that the stealth fighter was more survivable in all mission areas. The F-35A also achieved the highest grades for product support, efficiency of maintenance and potential for collaboration with other countries.”
It is important to recognize that an F-35 already acquired or under contract will not be the same aircraft a few years in the future. Planned upgrades and improvements mean that today’s JSFs will have significantly enhanced capabilities. This program involves improvements in computing power and data management, called Technology Refresh 3, intended to support the Block 4 upgrade that will add some 75 new capabilities including new sensors, the ability to employ a number of new munitions, advanced software for better data fusion, and enhanced electronic warfare capabilities.
The F-35 JSF is writing a new chapter in history as the Free World’s fighter of choice. Ultimately, the value of the F-35 is reflected in the fact that 17 nations are currently flying or have decided to acquire the aircraft. The F-35 offers unparalleled capabilities, future growth options, and continuous improvements in maintainability and sustainability. Equally important is that with the number of deployed JSFs approaching one thousand, a community is being created that can not only share tactics, techniques, and procedures but, in the event of conflict, move data across military services and between countries. This ability to share critical information will be of incalculable value in Joint and Coalition operations.
Author Expertise and Experience
Dr. Daniel Goure, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program. Dr. Goure has held senior positions in both the private sector and the U.S. Government. Most recently, he was a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. Dr. Goure spent two years in the U.S. Government as the director of the Office of Strategic Competitiveness in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He also served as a senior analyst on national security and defense issues with the Center for Naval Analyses, Science Applications International Corporation, SRS Technologies, R&D Associates, and System Planning Corporation.