Will the F-35 Dominate the Skies?

Breaking down the controversial 5th generation fighter.

The F-35 will have a future. A different question is whether the type of warfare embodied in the F-35 will ever become central to U.S. strategic interests. High-intensity combat against a peer competitor opponent, or into the teeth of an advanced anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) system, may not occur within the lifetime of the airframe. But if the opportunity comes to demonstrate the F-35’s quality, the result could very well be magnificent, or magnificently disastrous. Similarly, the F-35B has the potential to be a ‘game changer’ in its own right; the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) version of the Lightning II may give several countries the capability to operate a modern, supersonic fighter from small carriers. As the Falklands War demonstrated, even Harriers could pose a significant problem for aggressor air forces seeking to strike deployed naval units.

Even if the F-35 faces problems, they will be in great part covered up by the other advantages that the United States military enjoys:

· Training: Although China’s People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and other air forces have undoubtedly increased their ability to recruit and develop human capital, it is unlikely that any country will match the ability of the United States to recruit and train pilots. Great pilots can make up for inferior airframes.

· Reliable Equipment: America’s greatest contribution to military history is, in large part, its logistical genius. Complexity notwithstanding, the F-35 is likely to always have the weapons, spares, maintenance, and aircrew it needs to operate at its maximum effectiveness.

· The Joint Fight: Evaluating the independent contribution of the F-35 will be difficult, because it will always act as part of a team. The F-22, the Long-Range Strike Bomber, the USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000), and numerous other platforms will contribute to winning whatever fight the F-35 becomes engaged in.

· Choosing Our Fight: Finally, the United States enjoys the advantage of almost always being able to choose its fight. If the U.S. military and political leadership really doubt the capacity of the F-35 to win air superiority and strike in hostile conditions, it is unlikely that the F-35 will be asked to do so.

Conclusion

The F-35 Lightning II (or whatever more helpful name is eventually attached to it) will become, along with the Typhoon and the Rafale, the premier fighter fielded by the ‘West’ for the next fifty years. The battle against the F-35, at least in the domestic context, was lost before anyone beyond Lockheed Martin thought about fighting it. We’ll build it, and for better or worse we’ll have to live with it. This is a lesson that Congress and the Pentagon should take to heart when considering the Next-Generation Bomber, the Flight III Arleigh Burke destroyer, and a variety of other major procurement programs. In retrospect, the United States should have hedged by devoting more attention to the F-22 (a position that this author, to his discredit, opposed at the time) or to legacy platforms. But the future of air warfare is hard to predict, and the F-35 may yet do extraordinary things.

Robert Farley is an assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat. Follow him on Twitter: @drfarls.

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr. 

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