The US aviation forces’ flagship aircraft, the F-35, stands out not for just one, but for two peculiar features: it is arguably the most advanced warplane in the world, and had by a long shot the most controversial procurement ever seen. The latter has to do with it being the most ambitious and expensive aircraft development program in the Defense Department’s history, expected to cost taxpayers more than 1 trillion dollars over its lifespan (1).
It is not surprising that a harsh debate has sparked among the public following the project’s significant cost overruns and delays. People with little experience in the sector associate the airplane itself with the negative vicissitudes its development had to face. This prejudice has spread among the public, leading to a misleading and undervalued assessment of the airplane’s capabilities and potential.
To begin with, it would be a good idea to understand where this bad reputation comes from.
The F-35 Lightning II is a 5th generation stealth multirole combat aircraft developed by Lockheed Martin and born to perform air superiority and strike missions, besides being capable of carrying out electronic warfare, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations. Even though the US is the primary customer and financial backer, its advancement has been additionally funded by eight allied program partner countries, the UK, Australia, Canada, Italy, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, and formerly Turkey (2).
The primary aim of the project was to modernize the US’ air fleet by replacing several 4th generation combat aircrafts, such as the Air Force’s F-16 and A-10, the Marine Corps’ AV-8B Harrier, and the F/A-18, operated both by the Navy and Marine Corps. To simultaneously meet the need of three different military branches, three variants were planned: the conventional takeoff and landing F-35A for the Air Force, the short take-off and vertical-landing F-35B for the Marines, and the carrier-based F-35C both for the Navy and the Marines (version B and C being able to operate on aircraft carriers) (1).
Yet, the enthusiasm associated with the plane’s expected performance began to wane almost as soon as the implementation of the project began.
One of the first hurdles was caused by the very ambition of designing a multi-role fighter jet, that is, a plane capable of performing an intrepid number of different missions. As a matter of fact, meeting and combining the design specifications required by the three branches of the military risked adversely impacting the jet’s overall performance, making it unsatisfactory for each one of them. Moreover, the three variants ended up sharing only 25% of their parts, far below the anticipated commonality of 70% (10).
As the program moved forward, unresolved technical deficiencies kept emerging.
The main issues regarded cabin pressure, structural damages at supersonic speed and unpredictability during extreme maneuvers, each capable of jeopardizing the success of the mission as well as the safety of the pilot (1). But that is not all. One of the features that makes the F-35 such an advanced aircraft is its complete computerization. Conversely, this has led to issues in the development of its extremely complex software with over 10000 lines of code. The plane accordingly runs the risk of being targeted by cyberattacks.
As issues were resolved, more continued to surface.
The F-35C arrestor hook needed to land on aircraft carriers was unreliable, the safety ejection seat could cause serious injuries to lightweight pilots, and the hyper-technological helmet display was dramatically delayed. In addition, despite the majestic name “Lightning II, the aircraft’s fuel tanks were too vulnerable to lightning strikes, to such an extent that the Pentagon had to ban it from flying in thunderstorms (1).
It is not immediately apparent how these merely technical issues can be related to the overrun of the costs. Despite the Government Accountability Office’s advice to solve all the problems before transitioning to full-rate production, the F-35 procurement ran into a phenomenon known as “concurrency”. To accelerate the deliveries, Lockheed Martin started producing the plane while it still was under development with unresolved issues, forcing the Pentagon to introduce changes both to the aircrafts already produced and to the production chain. This inevitably ended up increasing the cost per plane by 89% relative to the baseline estimate, but the program had to keep going as the plane was to replace many of the fighters in use (1).
The entire circumstance led some of the main opponents to the project, including the controversial Fighter Mafia, to blame Lockheed itself for the program being off course, suggesting that the concurrency was nothing but a strategy purposefully implemented to “steal” more money from the US Government. In support of this thesis, it must be reported that in addition to the plane itself, the company managed the entire supply chain and provided the Pentagon with training gear for pilots, maintenance technicians, aircraft’s logistic system, and support equipment (1).
It is therefore unsurprising that Lockheed has acquired significant control not only over the program and the enterprise, but also over technical, contractual, and schedule decisions. Nevertheless, the most important prerogative it had managed to take over from the Pentagon had been the control over the test flights, which might have allowed it to defer some of the most challenging ones, therefore making it possible to avoid addressing some technical issues earlier. Moreover, the firm was not required to report its financials in detail, so the program office couldn’t have a clear picture of actual costs and of how the money was being spent (1).
It should also be taken into consideration that Lockheed does not exactly have the best track record when it comes to transparency. The firm had been the protagonist of a number of scandals in the 70s - serious cases of corruption in various states - which entailed it paying bribes to politicians and soldiers to sell their military aircraft (C-130 Hercules in Italy or F-104G Starfighter in the Netherlands).
One might now wonder how the Congress could let all this happen.
The answer is that the F-35 program’s economic reach touched nearly every US state by relying on more than 1500 suppliers and providing innumerable jobs and becoming a sort of veto-proof constituency bloc on Capitol Hill, making it difficult for members of Congress to credibly threaten the project (1) (8).
These “complications” had become so significant that one of the program’s executive officers has allegedly defined the relationship with Lockheed as the worst arrangement he had ever seen between the Pentagon and a defense contractor, contributing to spread among the public the idea that the F-35 was an overpriced but mediocre dogfighter (1).
However, as the problems had been assessed, the confidence in the jet’s performance has progressively increased, especially when the costs eventually started to drop as the growth in sales and economies of scale brought down the unit cost per jet. Not without great pressure from Congress, in 2018 the price of a conventional F-35A fell to 89.2 million dollars (back in 2006, the first batch cost $241.2 million per plane), and Lockheed and the Pentagon managed to reach a deal that would see the price of the F-35A drop to the long-awaited level of $80 million (similar to older planes like the F/A-18 Super Hornet) (1).
Allied partnerships have further reduced costs, not to mention that, prospectively, allowing allied foreign companies to acquire this kind of knowledge could reduce US dependence on its two main weapon firms, Lockheed and Boeing, and decrease the cost of future planes through competition.
Today, the F-35 is believed to be the most lethal and survivable jet in the world. It is not a coincidence that in 2019 Turkey was removed from the program over security concerns, after it refused to give up the purchase of a Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system: in view of the new potential partnership with Moscow, it seemed too dangerous to share such an advanced technology (3).
In 2015, a report by a well-known military blog sparked a debate after citing a document by a test pilot asserting that an F-35 would not be capable of defeating the 1970s-era F-16 in an aerial combat (4). It then emerged that that assessment was provisional and incomplete: not only would an F-35 outperform an F-16 in a dogfight, but it may actually never need to merge. The F-35 has been designed to stand out in circumstances that involve “Beyond Visual Range” (BVR) capabilities thanks to its sensor suite, its computing technology and its stealth features (6). That means that it is much more likely that an F-35 will kill its enemies before they could even see it.
The plane owes the stealth features to its sinuous shapes, aimed at scattering hostile radar waves away from their source, and to the radar-absorbing materials used to cover it. To further reduce its signature, some parts are hidden from direct view by the enemy radars, such as the plane’s probes and pylons to host weapons and fuel, which are housed internally. What truly makes the F-35 a game-changing force though, is its formidable built-in sensor suite, which provides the pilots with an unprecedented degree of situational awareness and has earned it the name of “a computer that happens to fly” (6).
It consists of three main systems: the EOTS (Electro Optical Targeting System) which scopes the ground looking for areas of interest and detects threats, besides allowing to precisely deliver laser-guided and GPS-guided munitions from the aircraft itself or other allied platforms; the AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array), the most advanced radar system in production, capable of simultaneously monitor air-to-air and air-to-surface environments and suppress adversary air defense systems by carrying out electronic attacks; the DAS (Distributed Aperture System), consisting in six mid-wave infrared cameras located around the outside of the aircraft allowing the pilot to see through the plane through the cutting-edge helmet display (5).
By means of a process called “sensor fusion”, all the information collected by the sensors are then fused together and catalogued in relevant data, providing the pilot with a prioritized, complete and real-time picture of the operational environment (5). While a 4th generation fighter’s pilot must process all this information himself, an F-35 pilot’s workload is considerably lightened, enabling him to accelerate critical decisions and focus on other crucial operations.
Lastly, the F-35 can be regarded as an information gateway of sorts best suited for joint operations thanks to its ability to support ground, sea and air assets for instance by sharing operational pictures, providing them with the locations of the targets (9). Moreover, its advanced electronic warfare capabilities enable it to additionally support a possible allied formation by jamming nearby radars, making it difficult for the enemy to locate its partners (5). All these features, in addition to a 1.6 Mach speed, increase its chances of evading enemy detection and entering contested airspace, making it particularly suitable for reconnaissance and patrol missions.
The F-35 is designed for total mission success and, considering the future scenario in which it will have to operate, the remarkable number of roles it can perform make the whole greater than the sum of its parts (9).
The fact that its development was troubled is indisputable. Still, it is nothing but the consequence of the tight interconnection that has come into being between technological progress and political and economic interests, especially for what concerns an extremely profitable market such as the one for weapons. The question also arises as to whether the production of more advanced and lethal weapons is becoming an end itself, and not a means anymore. Will we ever need to use such sophisticated armament? Is it even useful?
It might however be better to set such theoretical considerations aside. Despite all the vicissitudes its development occurred in, the F-35 can deservedly be considered the most advanced 5th generation fighter, and an actual game-changing force. Its outstanding computing technologies make it perfectly appropriate for a tactical scenario where the most crucial aspects are progressively becoming electronic warfare, where the outcome of the conflict may be decided long before getting to the dogfight.
As a senior experimental test pilot said, situations represented and popularized by Hollywood’s movies like Top Gun, where the pilots “spent their dogfighting time trying to evade the adversary”, could not arise anymore (1).
(1) Insinna, V. (2019, August 21). Inside America’s Dysfunctional Trillion-Dollar Fighter-Jet Program. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/21/magazine/f35-joint-strike-fighter-program.html
(2) Lockheed Martin · Global Partnerships. (2012, September 2). Web.archive.org. https://web.archive.org/web/20120902025203/http://www.lockheedmartin.com/us/products/f35/global-partnerships.html
(3) US removes Turkey from F-35 fighter jet programme. (2019, July 17). BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-49023115
(4) Modernization, K. O., Warrior Maven-Center for Military. (2023, January 18). F-35s vs. F-16s: The Stealthy Jet with Advanced Sensors and Weapons Wins. Warrior Maven: Center for Military Modernization. https://warriormaven.com/air/f-35-f-16
(5) Lockheed Martin. (n.d.). 5th Gen Capabilities. Www.f35.com. https://www.f35.com/f35/about/5th-gen-capabilities.html
(6) Martin, L. (2015, October 29). The F-35: How it works. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/brand-connect/the-f-35-how-it-works
(7) BAE Systems to provide electronic warfare (EW) radar and missile countermeasures avionics for F-35 jets. (2023, April 4). Military Aerospace. https://www.militaryaerospace.com/rf-analog/article/14291829/electronic-warfare-ew-radar-countermeasures
(8) Economic and Workforce Impact. (n.d.). Lockheed Martin. https://www.lockheedmartin.com/en-us/who-we-are/economic-and-workforce-impact.html
(9) Lockheed Martin. (2018). F-35 Lightning II. Lockheed Martin. https://www.lockheedmartin.com/en-us/products/f-35.html
(10) All For One and All for All. (2016, March 14). Air & Space Forces Magazine. https://www.airandspaceforces.com/all-for-one-and-all-for-all