America's Troubled F-35: Five Ways to Replace It

Sure, it would not be an easy task—but there are options.

Editor’s Note: Please see previous works by Robert Farley including Will the F-35 Dominate the Skies?, Five Best Bombers of All Time, Top Five Fighter Aircraft of All Time, Five Worst Fighter Aircraft of All Time , the Five Best Submarines of All Time, Five Revolutionary American Weapons of War that Never Happened and Five Revolutionary Soviet Weapons of War that Never Happened.

With the recent engine fire that grounded the entire F-35 fleet (and mostly destroyed one of the few Lightnings in service), critics of the Joint Strike Fighter have renewed calls for a serious review of the program. And yet the F-35 appears unkillable.  The only winning move, it seems, was not to play, but we’ve been playing for a while, and we’re well beyond easy answers.  The F-35 program, with tentacles across America and in many of the United States’ closest allies, probably cannot be cancelled. The industrial and diplomatic challenges might well dwarf the problems with combat fleet shortfalls.

If it could, however, what would follow? The following five options are not mutually exclusive, and any strategy for replacing the F-35 would need to borrow liberally from several.

Build more F-22s

The first choice seems obvious. Instead of moving ahead with the F-35, the United States could restart the F-22 line. We have enough experience with the Raptor to know that it will likely be an effective platform moving forward, and to update new models with additional capabilities.

However, restarting the line would be expensive, and wouldn’t solve the problems of the Navy or Marine Corps. No one has seriously entertained an F-22 carrier variant for quite some time, and there is no prospect whatsoever for making developing a variant that could operate from the USMC’s light carrier fleet.

Theoretically, the Air Force could lean on the F-22, the Navy on additional Super Hornets, and the Marine Corps on the F-35B. However, since the B variant has had the most trouble of the three, this would still leave the Pentagon with an ultra-expensive, performance challenged aircraft.

The F-22 has other long-term problems.  The Air Force has never considered it an ideal strike platform, although air superiority fighters have made the conversion in the past.  Also, the Raptor’s hypoxia issues remain stubborn.  U.S. law makes it impossible to export the F-22, meaning that it could not resolve the diplomatic problems that would emerge from F-35 cancellation.

Go Unmanned

What about the killer robots? The biggest story in the last decade of aviation has been the expansion of drone technology and doctrine.  The United States, followed by a few other countries, has radically expanded the use of drones beyond what anybody expected in 2000.  Drones have fulfilled many traditional airpower roles, including reconnaissance, close air support, interdiction, and long range strike.

The biggest objection with going “all in” on drones is the air-to-air combat problem.  As currently configured, drones make for exceedingly poor air-to-air combatants. Existing drones lack the speed, maneuverability, and sensor packages to match modern fighters.

Even new aircraft that could resolve many of these issues would face an additional problem.  Unless drones can fight on their own, their datalinks to remote operators will be vulnerable to enemy interference.  UAVs that lose contact with pilots, even for a few seconds, will die in air-to-air engagements.  Moreover, no drone that can match modern fighter aircraft will be expendable.

And the problem is that almost no one thinks that having robots that can decide to kill on their own volition is a good idea. This makes drones a continuing option for fulfilling many airpower missions, but means that they can’t do everything fighters can do.  They may be able to do enough, however, to get the United States air services through until the next generation of fighters comes into service.

Updated Legacy Fleet

The United States already has a huge fleet of advanced fighter aircraft, and an industry capable of churning out new airframes.  Why not just update the older platforms? The Su-27 Flanker has often been portrayed as the primary threat to U.S. 5th generation fighters, but it is nothing more than an updated Cold War platform.  Of course, the U.S. Navy (USN) and U.S. Air Force  (USAF)have also followed this path to an extent; modern Vipers have little in common with the first F-16A production models.