The F-35: Savior of U.S. Airpower or Albatross of the Asia-Pacific?

Is the F-35 the future of American airpower or a trillion-dollar tragedy? You make the call.

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Debate over the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) has reached a fever pitch in recent months as advocates and critics of the program battle it out in the pages of Beltway publications—all for the purpose of influencing congressional support of the program. With battle lines clearly drawn, it is worth taking an objective look at the key arguments raised by both sides.

On the one hand, there are those who believe the JSF is the right aircraft for the United States, even if some time is required to work out the technical issues that arise in such an advanced aircraft. Advocates in the services, industry, and associated think tanks view much of the criticism of the JSF as undeserved, shortsighted, biased, ill informed, and a misrepresentation of the platform’s capabilities and costs.

On the other hand, there are those who see the F-35 as a failed acquisition program that illustrates the inherent incompetence, graft and corruption all too common in Washington, DC, facilitated by deep-pocketed contractors stuffing the campaign coffers of Congressmen.

Needless to say, there is little consensus between the two sides, with all indicators suggesting that reaching common ground is unlikely. With much of the debate being a mix of tendentious argument and distaste for the other side, an unbiased look at the F-35 debate is conspicuously absent. While neither side has a clear silver-bullet argument, each side does offer points worth contemplating.  Thus, the remainder of this article examines the three strongest arguments made by advocates and critics, of the JSF. It also offers what are believed to be the most compelling recommendations made by each side.

F-35: Savior of American Airpower

Advocates make three arguments that, upon closer examination, are most persuasive for keeping the F-35:  acquisition history, allies, and options.

History Repeated

While much of the criticism of the F-35 has revolved around cost, schedule, and technical challenges, advocates make a logical case in countering such critiques of the program. Critics argue the JSF is over budget, behind schedule, and suffering from a variety of technological shortcomings and for the most part, these arguments are correct.  But to suggest the program should be cancelled because of these issues shows a poor understanding of airpower history. As Peter Grier has deftly noted, these same challenges were true for the F-15, AWACS, and C-17 programs as well. Every one of these programs was significantly over budget, far behind schedule and suffered a variety of technical challenges that critics thought were too difficult to overcome.

In 1982, Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) called the F-15 a “dubious purchase” and urged the Air Force to buy the less expensive F-14 instead. However, had Senator Stuart Symington (D-MO) had his way in 1973, the F-14 program would have never matured to the point that Senator Levin would have thought the plane a better investment than the F-15.  

In fact, Senator Levin was not the first person to find fault in the F-15 program. A decade earlier, in 1973, the House Armed Services Committee cut funding for the F-15 in half because of a string of engine fires that occurred. The humor and irony in this point is that one F-35 critic recently used the very same technical issue, an F-35 engine fire, to justify cancellation of the JSF program and continued investment in F-15 upgrades. Perhaps F-35 critics are unaware of their favored airplane’s bumpy development history.

What is most troubling is that if critics had their way, there would be no F-14 (no Maverick, no Goose, no Cougar, and no Charlie Blackwood), no F-15 (rated one of history’s top fighters by an F-35 critic, and no F-16 (which critics also sought to kill). Had critics been successful in ending these programs, for many of the same reasons as current critics are seeking to kill the F-35 program, the United States would still be flying the same F-4s it flew during Vietnam.

The E-3 AWACS (Airborne Early Warning and Control) was derided by the New Republic in April 1974 as a “complete phony” and an aircraft that would not survive in aerial combat and had little to no purpose. History has proven AWACS very useful in a number of scenarios that were not foreseen in 1974.

If the previous examples are not enough, in May of 1993 the Department of Defense notified McDonnell Douglas that it would cancel the C-17 unless the contractor overhauled the troubled program. Critics of the C-17 were ecstatic at the thought of the program being cancelled. They had long sought to end the purchase of an over budget, behind schedule, technically troubled airlifter that they thought the nation did not require. Fortunately for the United States, the C-17 program was not cancelled because American combat efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq were heavily reliant on the capability provided by US Air Force C-17s. These conflicts would have been very different had the C-17 program been cancelled in 1993 and not in a good way.

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