The Buzz

The Air Force Still Hasn't Unleashed the Full Potential of the F-35 (Yet)

The United States Air Force is currently operating interim Block 3i configuration Lockheed Martin F-35A Joint Strike Fighters with limited capabilities.

To unlock the full warfighting capabilities of the new stealth fighter, the service will need to field the Block 3F configuration of the F-35—which is the fully operational configuration that Lockheed is contractually obligated to deliver. Lockheed is expected to deliver the first of those fully operational Block 3F jets later this year according the Air Force’s Air Combat Command (ACC).

“We’re testing that right now. 3F testing scheduled to finish at the end of the year,” Lt. Col. Steve Speares, ACC’s deputy division chief of the F-35 system management office told The National Interest on April 25 during a visit to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. “We already have operational testers that are looking at it from MAJCOM [major command] perspective at Nellis and Edwards as well.”

The 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base in Utah will be the first frontline operational unit to receive the new configuration aircraft. “The first 3F get delivered off the line this fall up to Hill, and then to Luke and to a couple other places as well,” Speares said. “But next year is when 3F will be fielded.”

Once Block 3F is declared fully operational, the Pentagon will finally have concluded the F-35 System Development and Demonstration phase that began in 2001. But that doesn’t mean that development work on the F-35 will cease—it just means that the aircraft will move into the block upgrade phase.

The Pentagon is already working on the requirements for the follow-on Block 4 configuration of the F-35. The next block will add new capabilities and address certain obsolesce issues with some the jet’s sensors. “Block 4 divided up in four different blocks,” Speares said. “That’s what we’ll be working on the next couple of years.”

One of the advantages of the F-35 as a joint program, Speares said, is that the services can share resources for developing new capabilities. “Our ability to leverage and share requirements lets each service [is a huge advantage],” Speares said. “Instead of each service paying 100 cents on the dollar, we can pay something less that because the partners share the cost, the Navy shares the cost, the Air Force shares the cost for the same capability.”

Of there are unique missions that each service—and each partner nation—has that must for accounted for. “For those cases, then, yes, we’ll develop things differently just because what we do is different, but where we can share we do,” Speares said.

The F-35 will be in service until 2070 at least. Thus, the process of developing requirements, executing upgrades and sustaining the worldwide F-35 fleet will go on for the foreseeable future. For the contractors, the F-35 program will be a lucrative source of income for decades to come.

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

Image Credit: Creative Commons.