With a total cost as high as $1.508 trillion dollars, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter program would be the largest single military contract in history. However, a few things need to be put in perspective—and the truth is this fifth-generation fighter offers a lot of bang for the buck and will be flying for decades to come.
First, the total cost has been estimated in 2070 dollars, when the lifecycle of the F-35 will likely come to an end. That means those fighters rolling off the assembly line could be flying when today’s toddlers are middle aged.
Second, and more importantly, three variants of the F-35 have been developed and produced, and the platform was meant to replace the United States Air Force’s A-10 and F-16, the United States Navy’s F/A-18, and the United States Marine Corps F/A-18 and AV-8B Harrier.
Developing a “one-size-fits-all” aircraft didn’t come cheap. Each F-35A variant, including aircraft and engine, cost around $89.2 million; while other variations of the fifth-generation fighter were even more expensive—the F-35B reportedly cost $115.5 million. However, Air Force, Navy, and Marine pilots who have flown a variety of fighter/strike aircraft in combat including the F-35 have reported that it is simply the best platform to date.
Ready for a Changing World
While the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was developed during an emphasis on the Global War on Terror, the aircraft could be seen as well-suited to address the looming threats from near-peer adversaries including Russia and China.
As a fifth-generation fighter, the F-35 Lightning II could offer advanced stealth along with improved agility and maneuverability, as well as better sensor and information fusion, network-enabled operations and advanced sustainment. This has made the Lockheed Martin-produced aircraft among the world’s most advanced multi-role fighters flying today.
The stealth, multirole fighter’s armament includes a 25mm GAU-22/A 4-barrel rotary cannon with 180 rounds of ammunition. There are four internal and six external stations on the wings. It can carry a variety of air-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles, anti-ship missiles and bombs. In a “stealth mode” it can infiltrate enemy territory and carry 5,700 pounds of internal ordnance, and in its “beast mode” it can carry up to 22,000 pounds of combined internal and external weapons.
The Lightning II was also developed with advanced electronic warfare (EW) capabilities that allow the pilots to locate and track enemy forces. In addition, the pilots have the ability to jam radars and disrupt threats, while the advanced avionics give the pilot real-time access to battle space information. The F-35’s warfare and ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) capabilities were made possible by the integration of a core processor that can perform more than 400 billion operations per second. It could collect data from the classified electronic warfare suite, developed by BAE Systems, and then identify enemy radar and electronic warfare emissions via an eight sensor Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS). In turn, the EOTS could provide the pilot 360-degree coverage, recommending which target to attack and whether he/she should use either kinetic or electronic means to counter or negate the threat.
Moreover, data collected by the fighter’s sensors will be shared with commanders at sea, in the air or on the ground. This provides real-time data on the combat situation, which has made the F-35 a true force multiplier during collation operations.
The F-35 has a range of 1,200 nautical miles and can reach speeds of upwards of Mach 1.6 (1,200 mph). It is powered by F135-PW-100 engines that provide 40,000lb. maximum propulsion.
In addition to the U.S. military, the F-35 has been adopted by many allied partners, and the aircraft serves as the backbone of allied airpower for thirteen nations and counting. It has played a critical role in joint domain operations, where the fighter has brought unprecedented situational awareness, information sharing and connectivity to the coalition.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.