In the past year, a new fifth generation fighter, the Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II, has been put into action around the world. However, just last month, an article in Forbes, a non-specialist publication, revealed the US Air Force (USAF), after having been supplied just over 250 of these new fighters, admitted it may need to develop a new one to fill its needs. To understand these surprising moves after reports emerged of the technical prowess of the aircraft is not easy unless one understands the original objectives the F-35 was supposed to fulfill, and how the program lost its way.
The F-35 program was started as early as the early 1990s as the Joint Strike Fighter program. To reduce costs, it was the first program involving the USAF, the US Navy, and the US Marine Corps. Each of these outfits had different needs for their aircraft. In particular, the new fighter would have to be able to take off from carriers (requiring a slightly larger wingspan than versions taking off from air bases on land) as well as vertically, like the older Harrier fighters, to suit Marine Corps needs. Indeed, the Marines do not operate aircraft carriers, but only helicopter carriers, sometimes called “light aircraft carriers”, or even “amphibious assault ships”. These ships, with no catapult system and a smaller flight deck, render it necessary for planes to take off and land horizontally.
The new aircraft envisaged was also supposed to be inscribed into the new theory of interoperability and versatility, able to carry weapons to enforce air supremacy as well as bombs and air-to-ground guided missiles.
In short, it was supposed to replace the old F-16s and F-18s operated by the USAF and US Navy, as well as the A-10s and the Harrier IIs operated by the Marines. This single program was thus meant to produce a cheap workhorse aircraft that could suit the needs of the entirety of the US armed forces, an ambitious goal to state it lightly.
The program was given to Lockheed-Martin after a competition with Boeing, and in 2018, more than 20 years later, the F-35 was first used in a combat mission.
As one of the most ambitious and costly programs to have ever existed, judging the capabilities of the F-35 is difficult and much information is classified. Furthermore, there are vested interests in either criticizing its faults, or lauding its technical achievements. The F-35 fifth generation fighter was supposed to be a breakthrough in multiple areas, including most notably stealth and information treatment. In short, the new fighter is supposed to be the first plane with real stealth capabilities to be mass-produced. It is said to be undetectable even for the newer Russian air-defense systems. This is obviously a huge advantage, and is one of the main successes of the F-35 program. While much of this information, as stated previously, is unavailable for obvious reasons, it would seem the F-35 achieves stealth through traditional material or direct methods (working on angles and the materials used for the frame) as well as newer non-material or indirect methods (including electronic scrambling measures and so on). Few aircraft seem to attain this level of stealth, and it is seen by the F-35’s admirers as a breakthrough potentially revolutionizing air combat.
The other area of real focus for the program is that of information sharing. The F-35 should potentially allow for pilots to share their information with other aircraft, for example leading an air-wing to be able to target an enemy spotted by only one of their members. This area has perhaps been less of a success, due to technical issues which we will get to.
All in all, admirers of the aircraft would say the F-35 program has allowed a breakthrough in strategic technologies, leading to real change in the way the US Armed Forces, as well as its allies, will be able to operate their air forces. A technological gem, more advanced than any other model available today, it could be then considered not only a success, but a revolutionary one, giving a critical edge to the US Armed Forces in its rivalry with the rising People’s Liberation Army.
There have also been too many technical setbacks and issues to list extensively, however. While three versions of the aircraft were made (F-35A, F-35B, F-35C), the different requirements for the plane, and in particular the need for vertical take-off, have made the plane heavier than expected, with reduced speed and maneuverability. According to certain reports, the F-35 would not be able to reach its maximum speed (Mach 1.6) without losing significant capabilities. This is slower than European competitors produced in the early ‘90s, like the Dassault Rafale. Furthermore, it does little to improve the weight of payload it can carry, in comparison with the F-18 Super Hornet it was supposed to replace.
A logistics management system, baptized ALIS (Autonomic Logistics Information System), which had cost over 100 million dollars to develop, was abandoned after bugs left pilots completely unsure of whether the plane was ready to fly. This system is being replaced with one called ODIN (Operational Data Integrated Network). The complexity of code is a recurring problem for a plane that is reported to be inefficient in its design.
Another issue in general is reliability. With an estimated readiness rate of 69%, the F-35 is significantly less reliable than older models. The engine is also unreliable and its design has been in part responsible for the lack of maneuverability of the aircraft.
The F-35 pilot helmet, costing approximately 400,000 dollars per unit, has also been a story of unbridled ambition. While it theoretically allows the pilot to have 360° vision in VR, bugs have plagued the final result, with the helmet displaying false alarms or poor targeting.
These problems have led those who would criticize the F-35 to argue it has been an immense waste of resources, leading to a product that may be theoretically better than competitors, but in practice would actually be a step back from older models.
But this debate over the actual ability of the F-35 misses the real question, that of its original objectives, that are still waiting to be met. As the recent statements of the US Air Force show, the F-35 is almost certainly not going to be the originally planned cheap and ubiquitous new airplane of the US Armed Forces. The thousands of models planned to be used by the Air Force will never materialize, and it is perhaps likely that a new program will be started. If this is the case, it will need to avoid the problems that led the F-35 program to miss its mark.
As we will see, regardless of whether the F-35 is a real improvement over past models or too unreliable to conceivably make a difference, the aircraft’s cost has been the major issue it has been plagued with and what has caused the program to come under much pressure recently. Indeed, estimates from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) report in 2019 state the cost per aircraft to be about 130 million dollars. This is not the same as the sale price, which has been successfully reduced to about 80 million dollars. Work has been done to establish an economy of scale and render the F-35’s price more reasonable, however it remains above original expectations. Furthermore, the same report estimates “the sustainment costs to operate and maintain the F-35 fleet for its planned 66-year life cycle are $1.2 trillion”. This is above and beyond development costs and acquisition costs, estimated to almost half a trillion dollars if the program is to achieve its goal of replacing old models. This is significantly more, in terms of development and sustainment costs, than almost any other military program ever to have existed, and would be a public relations catastrophe if the program were to be abandoned. The costs are especially painful as technical deficiencies will require a significant modernization effort over time.
The “Trillion Dollar Program”, as it has been dubbed, has become a symbol of the weaknesses of a military-industrial complex lacking competitiveness and oversight. This is interesting, as the F-35 program has been monitored regularly by government officials, and their findings have been published in reports by the GAO. While a welcome move, the possibility of such a project being incredibly over budget lies in the opacity and stability industrial partners enjoy. Indeed, Lockheed-Martin originally competed with Boeing, but quickly was designated as the leader. The project then predictably became what is referred to as “too big to fail”. From this point on, it is difficult for governments to keep costs under control. Furthermore, the “generation” model incentivizes companies to pack in as many technological advances into the same project, lifting the bar for the particular generation constantly. This was also the result of such a long-lasting project, which had to accommodate advances made by competitors as it went along. To put it bluntly: delayed, the aircraft would become more and more complicated and technologically advanced to stay ahead of current competitors, leading to more delays and costs.
These basic problems are not unique to the United States. The Eurofighter Typhoon project suffered years in delays, and went far above its original budget. Indeed, lack of oversight and the opacity of spending render such programs in general difficult to control, and often lead them to lose their way, as has been the case for the F-35. Perhaps this is the lesson to be learned faced with such a financial disaster: not to invest too heavily in any one project, as the efficiency of the money used is most likely diluted after a certain point.
In summary, the F-35 Lightning II project is far from reaching an end. In order to make good on the extraordinary investment provided to it and for it to reach its original goal, multiple versions will most likely have to be developed and produced. The alternative, to start another program from scratch, hoping to avoid the problems the F-35 faced, is not a tempting solution, although some seem to believe it is the only solution left. The pressure and criticism put on the program recently should not be seen as a negative development, but on the contrary, should spur the United States and its allies to change the way in which military projects are developed, with more room for government scrutiny, and with a more focused goal.