The Buzz

One Fighter to Rule Them All: The F-35 Is Finally Unleashed

The U.S. Marine Corps will be sending its stealthy Lockheed Martin F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) version of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) to the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) and Farnborough airshows in the United Kingdom this summer.

The F-35’s appearance at Farnborough marks the type’s debut at one of the world’s two largest defense-aerospace tradeshows (the other being Le Bourget). It’s also a signal that the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin are going to be ramping up their sales campaign for the stealthy new jet as the U.S. Air Force’s F-35A conventional takeoff variant is set to become operational later this year. The STOVL version—which is making the journey to Britain—became operational last July. “The U.S. Marine Corps is looking forward to demonstrating capabilities of the F-35B Lightning II in the skies over the United Kingdom this July,” said Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, deputy commandant for aviation of the U.S. Marine Corps, earlier this week.

The F-35B will also serve with the British military—which is another reason the STOVL version is being displayed in England. “The plan for F-35 aircraft to take part in air shows here in the UK this summer is a significant milestone—for our RAF [Royal Air Force] and Royal Navy personnel training hard to fly the F-35; for British industry who are contributing an impressive 15 percent of every aircraft; and for the British public who will have their first opportunity to see this remarkable aircraft in action,” said British defense secretary Michael Fallon in a statement.

While the F-35 has suffered massive delays, enormous cost overruns, myriad technical glitches and will probably never deliver on all of the capabilities that were envisioned for the aircraft when the contract was awarded in 2001, the JSF is nonetheless set to become a sales success on the international fighter market. The Pentagon hopes to buy a total of 2,443 production aircraft for a total price tag of around $391 billion—that’s $332 billion for procurement and plus $55 billion in research and development costs. The program was originally budgeted at $233 billion for a total of 2,852 production aircraft.

Those figures are just for the Pentagon—the jets will replace the bulk of the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Marine Corps tactical fighter fleets, and supplement the U.S. Navy’s Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fleet. But the program also incorporated foreign partners from day one—Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey and the United Kingdom. Most of those countries either have opted to buy the jet or are seriously considering a purchase. Indeed, some countries such as Italy have started assembling their own F-35 aircraft domestically under Lockheed’s supervision. Further, the program has already signed on three foreign military sale (FMS) customers, who are Israel, Japan and the Republic of Korea. More are sure to follow in the coming years.

Potential customers for the F-35 could eventually include any U.S. ally that currently operates the Lockheed F-16 or Boeing F/A-18 Hornet. In time, it might expand beyond that to other friendly countries that operate other Western types. Indeed, one of the goals of the F-35 program was to create a standard interoperable fighter that could seamlessly integrate American and allied airpower as a result of the lessons leant from the first Gulf War and the 1999 Kosovo air campaign. Those wars demonstrated that U.S. aircraft and those of NATO allies were not always interoperable and didn’t always have the same capabilities.

International sales for the F-35 are likely to dominate the fighter market and eventually force others out of the market. A couple of years ago, Forecast International aerospace analyst Douglas Royce predicted this:

"Our projections call for the F-35 to account for nearly 48 percent of the total fighter market over the next 15 years, a statistic that may well rise. Other fighter manufacturers are thus forced to compete for what is left, with the result that a number of other fighter production lines may well go dark during the next decade due to a lack of orders."

In the intervening two years, Royce’s predictions have started to bear out. The F-35 seems likely to dominate the fighter market for the foreseeable future. One industry analyst put it this way—the F-35 was designed to be “the one fighter to rule them all” by basically putting other manufacturers out of business. It seems to be well on its way to accomplishing that goal.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Marine Corps.