Explained: Why the F-35 Is Now the World’s Most Dominant Stealth Fighter
Here are 10 things you need to know about America's top fighter jet.
The F-35 Lightning II is now the world’s most dominant multi-role fighter. Its detection range, geolocation, threat identification, and system response capabilities allow the jet to precisely fix and destroy the most advanced threats in the world including every layer of Russia’s latest SA-20 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system.
While it still has several rough edges, the F-35 has now crossed several thresholds that make it the most lethal and cost-effective fighter in or nearing production within the NATO Alliance. Here are 10 updates you need to know about this stealth fighter.
1. The first U.S. F-35A wing is fully equipped and already executing combat deployments. The maneuvering restrictions the jet had when first introduced are now completely removed. Even with a complete internal weapons load-out and full internal fuel, pilots can fight without limitation. Last year, I interviewed 30 pilots at Hill Air Force Base, and all 20 with previous experience in fourth-generation fighters said they would rather fly the F-35 in combat than their previous rides. That preference held for almost every dogfight scenario they could imagine.
2. The price of the Lightning has fallen below even the most optimistic government targets. In 2018, the Congressional Research Service estimated that an F-35A produced in 2020 would cost $77.5 million using constant 2012 dollars. Translating that cost estimate to current year dollars makes the price of each F-35A $87.1M. The actual cost of an F-35A in fiscal year 2021 is $79.2M, and it is expected to fall to $77.9M in 2022 – $9.2M cheaper than the government’s best estimate using current year dollars.
3. The F-35A now costs less than any other ally-produced fourth-plus generation fighter. A fully combat-equipped F-35A is the same price of an F/A-18 E/F, $9.8 million below the $87.7 million base price of an F-15EX, and $40 million less than the Eurofighter—and all three of those competitors require additional equipment like multi-million dollar targeting pods before they can employ weapons in medium threat combat environments. The F-15EX self-protection system is estimated to cost $7.5 million, and the Sniper Targeting pod costs more than $1.7 million per jet, making the total cost for a combat configured F-15EX $19 million more than a fully combat configured F-35A. And none of those other jets would last for a day in a modern-day high-threat environment.
4. Competition has increased performance and driven down costs. The total price of an F-35 is comprised of the aircraft, assembled and produced by Lockheed Martin, and the F135 engine produced by Pratt and Whitney -- plus profit. When a Northrup Grumman-produced aircraft subcomponent called the Distributed Aperture System (DAS) failed to meet reliability thresholds, that system was replaced with a DAS produced by Raytheon that delivers twice the performance and five times the reliability at a per-unit cost 45 percent lower than the Northrup Grumman model. This switch alone will save the government $3 billion over the life of the program.
5. Not all manufacturers who help build the F-35 have moved aggressively to reduce costs. Assuming it has stayed on track with Pentagon acquisition estimates, Pratt and Whitney is now delivering F-35 engines for $11.8 million a copy. With production efficiencies, that price was expected to fall to $10.7 million by FY 2025 (FY12 dollars), saving the taxpayer another million dollars per fighter. Unfortunately, without a competitive motor available, Pratt and Whitney has made it clear that further savings are no longer in the cards. The ability to competitively reduce engine cost and improve performance was lost when Congress killed funding for the F-35 alternative engine contract in 2011, leaving Pratt and Whitney as a sole-source supplier with no incentive to reduce its profits.
6. The F-35A cost per flying hour (CPFH) is falling, but one must wade through Mark Twain’s “lies, damned lies and statistics” to find out how the jet is doing with this often misconstrued metric. CPFH calculations vary significantly between evaluating agencies, but all of them add costs for the F-35 that they do not include for the fourth-generation fighters they compare it to. Electronic countermeasures (ECM) and a precision infra-red targeting system are built into the F-35, elevating its maintenance requirements and ultimately its CPFH. Fighters like the F-15E and E(X), F-16C and FA-18E require additional equipment like external pods to give them similar capabilities but, because they are not “built in,” the pod’s acquisition price is not factored into those fourth-generation jets’ purchase price, nor are maintenance costs for those systems included in their CPFH calculations.
CPFH calculations by the Defense Department Selective Acquisition Reports (SARs) still benefit fourth generation systems. They show the F-35A CPFH has dropped from $32,554 an hour in 2014 to $30,137 in 2018 (FY 2012 dollars). When you consider maintenance for the F-35’s targeting and ECM systems are included in that price, it begins to compare much more favorably with the F-16 CPFH of $25,541 (FY12 dollars) as well as the elusive CPFH for the F-15E and its sibling the F-15E(X). Time will tell if the F-35 CPFH make it down to the target of $25,000, but if Lockheed-Martin’s work reducing the F-35A’s cost can be used as a guide, the jet’s CPFH may very well fall below the historic cost for the F-15E (and F-15EX) and compete favorably with the F-16C—even with CPFH calculations that favor those jets.
7. Mission capable (MC) rates for the F-35 rose considerably over the last year, but they are still below the 80 percent mission capable threshold set for the fleet by Secretary of Defense in 2018. According to Lt. Gen. Eric Fick, director of the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO), the MC rate rose to 73.2 percent in 2019—up 18.5 percentage points from the previous year. With priority for parts, forward-deployed F-35 combat squadrons were able to sustain an 89% MC rate, which means parts availability for the fleet is still an issue.
8. Depots limit F-35 mission capability. When an F-35 component fails, it is replaced with an available spare, and the failed part is shipped to a depot for repair. A total of 68 depots are required to effectively sustain the F-35 weapons system, but just 30 are up and running and only 11 of those are fully operational. Parts availability for the F-35 will continue to hold down MC rates until all depots are operating at capacity. Lockheed Martin and the F-35 Joint Program Office have accelerated their efforts to get depots up and running and now project that 64 depots will be operational by 2024 – five years earlier than the estimated 2029. Assuming funding for parts remains consistent, the parts shortfall will end, allowing fleet-wide F-35 MC rates to meet or exceed 80%.
9. The Helmet Mounted Display System (HMDS) for the F-35A is still having problems. The HMDS gives pilots an unparalleled level of situational awareness in combat as it displays all critical flight and weapons systems data on the inside of the pilot’s visor. The image from the system’s built-in night vision camera is also projected onto the visor, as is the image from the Distributed Aperture System (DAS) that automatically tracks and provides vivid cues directly to the pilot on the location of friendly and enemy aircraft. The HMDS is a game-changer in combat, but interface issues with its display have caused pilots to become disoriented when refueling, or while landing the jet at night. Lockheed Martin went to work fixing this system just as soon as pilots flagged it as an urgent operational need, and that fix is currently being fielded for Navy F-35Cs. It may take several years before the HMDS fix makes its way to the Air Force.
10. The Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) is still too big, slow and suffering too many problems. Every aspect of the F-35A’s maintenance, supply, and operations are managed through the F-35A ALIS. Much like an Apple iPhone Operating System (iOS), ALIS is a computer operating system that holds a conglomeration of 65 applications, sub-programs, or modules. Some were built exclusively for the F-35A; others are commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) programs. The problems arise when digital inputs from either the jet or a more modern ALIS application meet analog inputs or processing from another module. The Department of Defense has elected to replace ALIS with a cloud-based operational data integrated network (ODIN). The new system is designed to decrease workload and increase mission capability rates for all F-35 variants and should begin fielding later this year.
Overall, the F-35A fighter is flying exceptionally well. It now provides the United States with a significant competitive advantage against a peer competitor threat. Shortfalls in repair parts and other smaller issues need to be fixed as soon as possible, but the capabilities that the F-35 provides the nation today along with the dramatic drop in price make Air Force decisions to procure the F-15EX and to not ramp up F-35A procurement very puzzling indeed. The aircraft provides a capability America needs to engage in strategic competition.
JV Venable is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.