Don’t Doubt It: The F-35 Is a 5th-Generation Powerhouse

October 24, 2023 Topic: F-35 Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: F-35Military5th Generation FighterStealth Fighter

Don’t Doubt It: The F-35 Is a 5th-Generation Powerhouse

The unparalleled fifth-generation capabilities of the F-35, combined with its increasing deployment throughout Europe, are establishing the groundwork for the future of NATO's air power.

At the beginning of September, NATO revealed that its future is once again rhyming with its past. Next Spring, its leaders plan to rehearse the largest deployment of forces since the cold war—up to 700 air combat missions, 50 ships, and 41,000 troops.

Not since the USSR threatened incursions in western Europe has the alliance placed such emphasis on deterring great power foes and winning a conventional war. The exercise—named Steadfast Defender—seeks to transform NATO. Members of the compact will no longer prioritize crisis management, adopting a posture aimed at thwarting aggression by Russia.

In the arena of joint exercises, this news is the most significant development since Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced last October that NATO would proceed with prearranged nuclear exercises. President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling did not prevent the alliance from maintaining readiness. Russia’s menacing threats, which have coincided with its recent incursions in Ukraine, have transformed thinking about security on the continent.

On the heels of Steadfast Defender’s unveiling, the crown jewel in the West’s arsenal of combat aircraft—the F-35—has suffered a volley of bad press. Attention has lingered on a high-profile crash, in large part because the errant plane’s stealth made it hard to find after the pilot ejected. Predictably, the mishap has become fodder for internet memes and humdrum ridicule from longtime critics.

Detractors argue the F-35 is too expensivetoo unpredictable, and too difficult to maintain—with former President Donald Trump denouncing the plane as “defective,” and others casting it as a bellwether for mismanagement within the Department of Defense.

This grandstanding requires a reality check. Despite setbacks, the F-35 provides proven support for NATO’s renewed mission of deterrence. It promises to put the “collective” back into “collective defense”—enhancing what the alliance calls “interoperability” as new members join. These tremendous gains are ignored by those for whom every defense project is a Spruce Goose waiting to be discredited.

Conceived long before Russia reasserted its will for revanchism, the F-35 has remained a strategic asset well ahead of its time. Evidence from the Middle East underlines this reality. Following a series of incidents in Syrian airspace, U.S. officials observed in August a reduction in the aggressive behavior of Russian pilots towards U.S. forces, coinciding with the deployment of the new fighters.

Initially dispatched to deter potential Iranian threats against commercial vessels in the Arabian Gulf, F-35s have since served many different roles in the region. These missions seem to have influenced Russian conduct—their pilots have ceased the practice of deploying flares in front of U.S. drones, which they had done on multiple occasions in recent months. This behavior had previously resulted in damage to U.S. drones twice in the previous month and had disrupted an anti-ISIS operation.

Upping the ante attached to that kind of harassment is what the F-35 does best. It will be needed in the new environment of persistent threats facing Europe. It should have come as no surprise that immediately following the recent incursions against Israel, American officials highlighted that F-35s would be sent to patrol the Eastern Mediterranean. Their mission? To deter Iran and other governments from expanding the war begun by Hamas.

At a time of expanding alliance membership, NATO needs combat aircraft that deliver interoperability—a cornerstone of efforts to prevent Russian aggression through collective defense. Put simply, interoperability, as defined by the alliance, is “the ability for Allies to act together coherently, effectively and efficiently to achieve tactical, operational, and strategic objectives.” As a constellation of likeminded democracies, interoperability is integral to NATO’s survival.

The F-35’s pilot training program at Luke Air Force Base exemplifies this purpose. Service members from multiple nations collaborate with counterparts to refine their skills. Moreover, additional F-35 aircraft from the Netherlands, the United States, and the United Kingdom are stationed at Edwards Air Force Base for the purposes of training, testing, and experimentation. The cockpit is a vital workstation in the laboratory where the plane’s potential is being fulfilled.

As a result, the F-35 has succeeded in joint exercises conducted around the globe. For instance, during Falcon Strike ‘22, F-35s from the United States, Italy, and the Netherlands showcased their heightened interoperability. The exercise specifically focused demonstrated how F-35s fit seamlessly into existing capabilities in Europe, including the F-16—the fighter jets that were finally supplied to Ukraine.

And there is more to come. The F-35 European User Group, which includes the Israeli Air Force and is coordinated by U.S. Air Forces Europe, convenes semiannually. The primary objective of this forum is to strengthen multilateral relationships in Europe and the Levant, while addressing matters of mutual interest.

Steadfast Defender, scheduled for 2024, will test these measures. Sweden, whose NATO membership request is awaiting ratification, will also be incorporated in the exercise, increasing the overall count of participating nations to 32. Following the successful landing of two Norwegian F-35s on Finnish highways—a first-time feat—Norway’s Minister of Defense Bjørn Arild noted “with Finland’s entry into NATO and Sweden's imminent membership, the Nordic countries have a particular responsibility for developing and coordinating NATO's deterrence in the northern regions.”

Collaborative endeavors reinforce the alliance’s collective defense. This, in turn, enhances the defensive readiness of NATO forces throughout Europe. Speaking earlier this year, a former NATO Supreme Allied Commander pointed this out. “The benefits of [this] interoperability and networking offered by the F-35,” noted Retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Tod D. Wolters, “doesn’t bode well for an enemy of NATO.”

Furthermore, the F-35 promises to play a vital role in NATO’s nuclear deterrence strategy, which relies in part on the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe. There is little room for debate that American B-61 gravity bombs—and the planes that would drop them—are rapidly losing their credibility as deterrents. Yet nearly all NATO member states participating in nuclear sharing are due to supplant their aging fighters with the F-35A Lightning II. Coupled with the upgraded B61-12 nuclear bomb, this will revitalize the deterrent value of NATO’s nuclear sharing. Moreover, the widespread acquisition of the jet by alliance members will dispel doubts surrounding their political commitment to nuclear sharing.

In the next few years, it will become clear whether the U.S. has in fact created a new aviation powerhouse. The unparalleled fifth-generation capabilities of the F-35, combined with its increasing deployment throughout Europe, are establishing the groundwork for the future of NATO's air power. The alliance will require the competitive advantage that a thriving fifth-generation fighter can offer.

George E. Bogden is a Krauthammer Fellow, an Olin Fellow at Columbia Law School, and a Senior Visiting Researcher at Bard College.

This article was first published by RealClearDefense.

Image: DVIDS.