Key point: Critics fail to grasp that F-35 is one of the greatest technological achievements of this generation.
This week's performance by the F-35 fighter at the Paris Air Show is a turning point for the world's most advanced multi-role fighter, demonstrating that even when fully loaded with combat gear, it can out-perform the tactical aircraft of every other country. Although prime contractor Lockheed Martin has always professed confidence F-35 would prove itself, a dwindling collection of critics continues to attack the plane citing outdated or simply erroneous arguments.
The critics fail to grasp that F-35 is one of the greatest technological achievements of this generation, a program that will assure global air dominance for the U.S. and its allies through mid-century. It also will help assure that aerospace remains America's most dynamic export sector. F-35 will generate tens of billions of dollars in trade earnings, and tens of thousands of jobs, from over a dozen foreign customers. The plane has never lost a competition in which it went head-to-head with other fighters.
However, the triumph of the F-35 is obscured by the way in which news is reported. Program coverage often highlights the latest development, good or bad, without capturing the steady progress made over 16 years since the development contract was first awarded, nor the high priority that three U.S. military services have continuously assigned the program through multiple presidencies. What follows, therefore, is a concise review of five areas of accomplishment that collectively demonstrate the F-35 program has become a smashing success.
Testing. This year the F-35 program will wrap up the most comprehensive flight test program in aviation history. The three variants of the fighter being built for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps have undergone 8,000 flights to gauge their performance without identifying a single show-stopper. Each of the variants has met all its "signature" specifications for stealthiness, making F-35 by far the most survivable fighter being built anywhere. Sensor fusion, networked operations, and other features have been thoroughly tested and retested, assuring the planes will always see first and fire first in aerial engagements. Tests of the Navy version were the most successful at-sea trials the service has ever conducted.
Operations. The Marine Corps version of the F-35 has been operational for two years and the Air Force version for one year. F-35s have deployed to Japan (from which they recently engaged in exercises with South Korea's military) and Europe (where they participated in exercises across the continent). Israel, the only Middle Eastern country approved to buy F-35, is also operating the plane. Over 200 F-35s have been delivered, with the number expected to rise to 600 in 2020. Over 400 pilots and 4,000 maintainers have been trained at 12 operating bases. In recent Red Flag exercises, the Air Force variant achieved a kill ratio of better than 20-to-1 against adversary aircraft while being available over 90% of the time.
Cost. The Air Force version of F-35, the one being bought by most allies, is projected to cost $85 million in 2019. That's about what the latest version of legacy fighters like the F-16 cost, equivalent to roughly ten minutes of federal spending at current rates. It is also less than what a 737 MAX, Boeing's smallest next-generation jetliner, lists for. The peak year for F-35 production is scheduled in 2026, at which point all the fighters for all three domestic military services will cost less than a single day's worth of federal spending ($13.6 billion versus $17.5 billion). If current trends hold up, the planes could be even cheaper: the price-tag for the Air Force version of F-35 fell 12% over the last two production lots.
Demand. Washington has not wavered from its plan to buy 2,457 F-35s since development began in 2001. Obviously, that would not be the case if the program had encountered major problems. It is unusual for three services to stick with a plan through multiple presidencies covering 16 years. Equally striking, almost all of the original international partners have stuck with the program, and several new players have signed on -- Denmark, Israel, Japan and South Korea. Canada is the only country that has wavered, and in all likelihood, it will return to the fold once it sees the advantages of buying a highly survivable fighter operated by most of its key allies. F-35 has emerged as the global gold standard of next-gen air power.
Pilots. The most telling testimonials to F-35 excellence come from the pilots who have flown the plane. The Navy reported after the first at-sea trials of the carrier version that "the aircraft demonstrated exceptional performance throughout its initial sea trials." More recently, a squadron commander who participated in last year's Northern Lightning exercise told an in-house Air Force publication, "I couldn't ask for anything better. It's like fighting somebody with their hands tied behind their backs." Another pilot flying adversary aircraft in the exercise remarked, "We just can't see them like they can see us. It can feel like you are out there with a blindfold on." Pilots generally say F-35 is far superior to legacy fighters.
If you are searching for a metaphor that captures what F-35 delivers to America's military, consider the example of two prize fighters. The next-generation contender has a stronger punch, a longer reach, and superior situational awareness. But he also has something else that transforms the fight -- he is invisible to his adversary. Whatever the other fellow's training might be, he can't see his rival to land a punch. So he's down before the first round is over. That's what makes the F-35 a game-changing aircraft, the one plane that can keep America's enemies at bay for another generation. It isn't just the best air power option the joint force has -- it's the only one that works in places like Eastern Europe and Northeast Asia.
Loren Thompson is chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute and taught nuclear strategy at Georgetown University.
This first appeared in RealClearDefense here.