The F-35 stealth fighter jet has had quite a trajectory over a period of many years, including substantial ups and downs marked by some breakthrough successes such as new weapons integration, performance-enhancing software upgrades, wargame performance, favorable pilot reviews, growing global demand and some measure of initial combat success.
As part of this multi-year developmental maturation, there have also been some developmental hurdles including computer glitches, technical maturation hiccups and a one-time engine malfunction. Of course, the largest criticism over the years has been cost.
Debates and discussion about the merits of the jet and its cost are again emerging with new vigor in light of recent comments from the hill, a scenario that is inspiring an uptick in new conversation. Some critics are maintaining that many missions would be equally well served by upgraded, less expensive fourth-generation planes. Rep. Adam Smith has made many headlines recently criticizing the F-35 on the grounds of cost, however, his remarks are generating a flood of responses.
For example, F-35 proponents counter that Smith’s comment seems to overlook the reality that F-15s and F-16s are now decades old. While they are upgraded and different from when they were first built, there are limits to how much a fourth-generation airframe can be upgraded. Specifically, computing technologies, threat library information, emerging applications of AI, and stealth technology, all contribute to points made by those seeking to sustain the current level of F-35 production. Interestingly, on this point, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown was recently asked about the service’s plan for F-35s in light of new budget discussions and an emerging sixth-generation aircraft. He was clear to say that he maintains the current plan to acquire more than 1,700 F-35s and that it will fly alongside and complement a new sixth-generation plane.
Over the course of many years, I have had the occasion to speak with many F-35 pilots, going back to several iterations of Developmental Testing of the F-35C aboard Navy carriers in 2014, an F-35 pilot in 2015 and another in 2019. I have noticed a consistent refrain, particularly among pilots with extensive experience flying fourth-generation aircraft such as F-16s and F-15s, and it suggests that there does appear to be something paradigm-changing about the F-35 jet.
“We can take full advantage of our stealth signature to penetrate enemy defenses, whereas a 4th Gen fighter will have to operate outside of those areas. We can go inside there and fill that close-in air support role,” Flynn Billie Flynn, former military F-35 Pilot, told The National Interest in an interview in 2019. “We can stay outside of small arms fire because of the sensor suite.”
Flynn’s remarks are consistent with comments from many pilots over the years, and they speak to the principle advantage F-35 pilots and proponents argue: ease of fight, a new generation of sensor-integrating computing and long-range, highly-precise targeting. While engineered with a 25mm cannon for close-in fight and close air support, the plane features many futuristic upgrades. The F-35 is engineered with stealth to destroy enemy air defenses and armed with a growing arsenal of next-generation air to air weapons. Moreover, the largest F-35 margin of difference pilots notice is its sensor range and “fusion.”
During a Red Flag combat wargame several years ago, an F-35 was in fact able to find and destroy a small fleet of approaching enemy or “red team” airplanes, well before it was detected itself. The concept is to leverage a new generation of now Raytheon-built Electro-Optical Targeting sensors and a 360-degree camera called the Electro-Optical Distributed Aperture System, to find, see and destroy targets while remaining undetected. The other often discussed advantage is its “sensor fusion,” something a former Air Force Chief Scientist told me represents early iterations of artificial intelligence (AI), something which is a fast-advancing technology. Designed to “ease the cognitive burden,” the main advantage of the system is to rely upon integrated computing such that pilots are given targeting, navigational and threat data on a single screen in an organized fashion.
As critics express concern about the need, utility in low-end battle and cost of the F-35, many proponents, advocates and developers are likely to keep hitting the airwaves, out of concern that major F-35 cutbacks, coupled with a small number of F-22s, could result in a largely fourth-generation aircraft fleet operating in a modern threat environment. Of course, both China and Russia are growing large fleets of fifth-generation aircraft, there are also threat circumstances perhaps somewhat uniquely addressed by the F-35.
The F-35s drone-like sensor technology brings new tactical dimensions to fighter jets, as something which could change the scope of modern amphibious warfare and function in a high-priority way as part of the Pentagon’s growing effort to “network” platforms to one another across interconnected air, ground and surface nodes. Future wars are expected to be much more dispersed, disaggregated and heavily reliant upon long-range sensing, targeting and networking. This means that air platforms such as the F-35 can perform missions in a high-threat great power war scenario in a very different capacity than a fourth-generation jet. This is particularly true in the case of amphibious warfare, as ship to shore attacks are expected to be much more dispersed and networked with large numbers of unmanned systems to reduce risk and attack in a less concentrated and therefore less vulnerable way.
A F-35B, now arming amphibious assault ships in large numbers, can bring close-air support to advancing forces while also operating as an aerial sensor node to coordinate with drones, advancing forces and higher-headquarters in real time. Also, in a maritime environment in particular, the F-35 is engineered with a first-of-its kind “delta flight path” software technology which brings new levels of automation and flight-trajectory stability to ocean landings. This technology helps with landings such as a carrier approach for an F-35C or vertical landing on an amphib from an F-35B.
While few question that the most expensive acquisition program in history has had some struggles over the years, there does also seem to have been a turning point years ago. For the last five years or more, since the time during the Obama administration when Frank Kendall was the Pentagon acquisition chief, the program has experienced a visible, profound and decided shift. By and large, the program has been on track and seems to have fully recovered through a series of successful developmental milestones such as flight testing, weapons integration, computing enhancements, unique pilot reaction to the jet’s functionality, combat performance and a staggering increase in international demand for the jet.
On the cost front, there does seem to have been a longstanding Lockheed-driven effort to adjust and lower costs of the jet, resulting in a decrease from close to $99 million per plane several years back to somewhere in the rage of mid-$80 million now, depending upon the size of the buy. In 2019, Lockheed developers told me there was an ongoing effort to lower the cost of the jet.
“We are on target now for the A-models to be at or less than 80-million per copy,” Edward “Stevie” Smith, Lockheed’s Domestic Director of Development for the F-35, told The National Interest in 2019.
While upgraded fourth-generation aircraft are now getting new computers, targeting sensors, weapons and radar, they simply cannot parallel what is possible on an F-35, something of great relevance given the kinds of adversaries likely to be encountered in any type of massive future engagement. For example, while some engineers have tried to make the F-18 a “little stealthy” with conformal fuel tanks and a smoothed-over external weapons pod, there is simply no equivalent to stealth, a technology taking on new urgency in light of the known technical progress of modern enemy air defenses.
For instance, this is what Flynn told the National Interest in 2019:
“Stealth contributes to the survivability of the platform. The only way to achieve that survivability is to build an aircraft that is stealthy from the word “go”—from the very beginning. The fuel is carried internally, 18,000 pounds of gas in an F-35A and 20,000 pounds of gas in an F-35C. The antennas are embedded into the skin of the airplane and every sensor is flush mounted into the airplane. This allows us to fly with less drag than any legacy platform, go farther and remain on station - and be survivable. The stealthy exterior of the F-35 represents an effort to achieve low-observability, survivability and lighter weight to enable speed and maneuverability. The seamless F-35 structure is, by design, a result of a particular engineering technique.”
Electronic pings generated by enemy radar need specific structures against which to bounce off to send a return signal. If a fuselage is configured such that it does not offer those structures and edges against which an electromagnetic ping can collide, shapes and contours defining an aircraft are more difficult to detect. In essence, it blinds or removes the return signal, and radar is unable to produce a “rendering” of the fighter jet. As an electronic signal, radar emissions travel at the speed of light–a known entity. If the speed of light, which is fixed, is known and the amount of travel time is also able to be determined, then algorithms can calculate the exact distance, shape and even speed of an object.