Suddenly, The F-35 Fighter Is Everywhere
If the F-35 fighter was a normal Pentagon program, this July would look like a landmark month of spectacular successes. Instead, it is shaping up to be a fairly typical month in the recent history of the world’s biggest weapons project.
Greece disclosed that it wanted to buy 20 of the multirole fighters, and maybe twice that number. The Czech Republic revealed that it wanted 24.
The government of South Korea announced it would increase the size of its planned F-35 fleet by 50%, to 60 aircraft.
And news out of the Farnborough Air Show was that the Pentagon and airframe integrator Lockheed MartinLMT 0.0% had reached agreement on the next three production lots of F-35, with the aim of buying 375 fighters in three versions for the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and various overseas partners.
Meanwhile, F-35 pilots, of whom 1,700 have been trained, continued to fly training and operational missions, having accumulated well over half a million flight hours.
In the Baltic region, U.S. F-35s flying out of Estonia supported regional air defense. In the Mediterranean, they flew from Souda Bay on Crete to train with Greece’s air force. In Northeast Asia, they conducted exercises with the F-35s of South Korea’s air force.
Elsewhere in the Pacific, sea-based F-35s participated in Pacific Rim exercises off Hawaii, and Australia announced that it had stood up the first full-service depot for maintaining F-35 engines in the Indo-Pacific—organized to support the 100 F-35s Canberra is buying plus those of Japan, South Korea, and U.S. services operating in the region.
Remember, I’m just talking about July, and the month isn’t over.
F-35 is fast becoming the most ubiquitous tactical aircraft in the world, the fighter every friend wants and every enemy fears.
With 830 fighters delivered and thousands more to come—the U.S. alone plans to buy 2,456—it seems that F-35 will define what air dominance means through mid-century. The Pentagon plans to operate them until 2070, and is already pursuing technology upgrades to assure they will always “overmatch” adversaries (to use a favored term of Pentagon jargon).
Even without the upgrades, F-35 out-performs other fighters in the U.S. fleet. It defeats adversary aircraft in exercises by a 20-to-1 margin, it accomplishes a broader array of tasks, and it is easier to maintain. By some measures, it is the most reliable tactical aircraft in the joint fleet.
But there was a time, not so long ago, when the fate of the F-35 was far from certain. The program was conceived during the early years of the Clinton Administration, when the collapse of the Soviet Union had undercut any sense of urgency about investing in future military technology.
Determined to wring a “peace dividend” from the demise of communism, officials loaded up what was then called the Joint Strike Fighter with a slew of performance requirements so they could avoid buying other things.
The fighter had to be nearly invisible to enemy radars. It had to provide pilots with unprecedented situational awareness. It had to collect and process vast amounts of intelligence. It had to be securely networked to other military aircraft. It had to meet the distinctly different needs of three separate military services.
And oh by the way, it also had to be affordable—bending the cost curve that previously drove up the price-tag of each new generation of fighters.
Nobody had ever before tried to combine all those features in a single military aircraft. At the program’s inception, it seemed possible that nobody could. But Lockheed Martin led an industry team that satisfied all of the “key performance parameters,” and confounded analysts by delivering each new production lot at a lower cost per plane than the Pentagon had projected.
Pratt & Whitney, the company that won the contract to provide each fighter’s engine, delivered a propulsion system that combined unprecedented thrust, flexibility, and even stealth.
Both of these companies, and several others supporting them, gave money to my think tank, so I secured a front-row seat for the agony they felt each time Congress threatened to scale back the program or kill it entirely.
Lawmakers had reason to doubt good-news accounts of how the program was faring, because the technical demands were so imposing that success was uncertain.
But success is what the companies ultimately delivered. A flight-test regime of over 9,000 sorties proved Lockheed and Pratt had met performance goals, and once that was demonstrated they turned to refining sustainment practices to keep the fighters affordable across a 50-year service life.
The sustainment challenge continues to be worked, but once you grasp the functionality each fighter delivers, it looks like a bargain even if it costs more to maintain than a legacy fighter. After all, what is it worth to America to defeat Chinese pilots 19 times out of 20 in a future conflict?
So now the F-35 really is poised to be everywhere that matters, from Finland to Italy to Poland to Israel to Australia to Japan. Sixteen countries are buying it or have expressed an intention to do so, and other countries will reportedly join the community of users in the near future.
F-35 is, by any reasonable standard, a smashing success. It is one of the greatest technological achievements of this generation.
However, there is nothing “sudden” about the increasing ubiquity of the F-35. It required two decades to get to this point, and a domestic political system that was willing to set aside partisanship for the sake of national security.
If anyone tells you Washington can’t get big things done anymore, remind them of the F-35—a program that Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump and Biden have all agreed needed to be kept on track.
Today, the F-35 fighter thrives as an example of what discipline and innovation can accomplish despite the naysayers, and despite the frictions of a contentious political culture.