The F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter is estimated to be the most expensive weapons system in human history, based on its projected lifetime cost of $1.5 trillion dollars ($406 billion for the aircraft, the rest in lifetime operating costs)—and that’s before we factor in the endless cost overruns.
One could argue there is a certain logic to this. The United States spends greater sums on the military than any other country (though some spend a greater percentage of GDP), and it has emphasized air power as its chief military instrument in recent decades. Additionally, different variants of the F-35 are prepared to equip the Air Force, Navy and Marines through most of the twenty-first century, and the type is also slated to serve in the air forces or navies of Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea and Turkey—with more countries likely to join the list.
However, the F-35 program has been notoriously mismanaged and perpetually over budget, and remains far behind schedule. The Pentagon was persuaded to pay for “concurrent” production of F-35s before it had been developed into a fully operational prototype; today Lockheed is shipping non-feature-complete F-35s, which will need to be expensively upgraded later when new components and systems are finally ready. Listing everything that was and continues to be wrong with the F-35 procurement process could be the subject of many articles .
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But at the end of the day, however mismanaged the program may have been, does the F-35 at least amount to a decent jet fighter?
How Did the F-35 Come to Be?
Back in the 1990s, the U.S. Air Force developed the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter , which arguably still reigns as the top air-superiority fighter in service: it is fast, highly maneuverable and extremely stealthy. However, the Raptor was less optimized for ground-attack roles and deemed too expensive to build and operate to serve as a replacement of the Pentagon’s large inventory of fourth-generation fighters —so production was cut to just 180 aircraft, 120 of which serve in operational units.
The Navy and Marines also needed a new fighter, so the Pentagon committed to building a more multirole “joint” stealth fighter that would eventually replace the F-15, F-16, FA-18 and AV-8 Harriers serving in all four branches. The last time an interservice fighter-bomber was pursued, it didn’t work out , but Lockheed and Boeing both gave their best shot anyway, and the former won the competition. The JSF was supposed to a more affordable stealth fighter that could also be marketed to friendly nations, unlike the Raptor.
The trickiest requirement for the JSF was the Marine Corps’ insistence on making its version of the F-35 a jump jet. For historical reasons, the leathernecks want jets like the Harrier that can fly off smaller Marine-operated amphibious carriers or remote forward bases. However, the compromises needed to make them work leave them significantly inferior to conventional fighters. Lockheed actually acquired schematics for a prototype Russian jump jet called the Yak-41, and tried to make the most aerodynamic airframe possible.
Sniper, Not a Sword-Fighter
To cut a long story short, the additional weight and bulkier fuselage necessary to make the F-35B jump jet version left all variants of the F-35 saddled with performance thresholds that are objectively inferior to the fourth-generation fighters it is intended to replace.
The F-35 has a maximum speed of Mach 1.6, compared to Mach 2 to 2.5 for the F-16 and F-15, respectively. Its service ceiling is fifty thousand feet, compared to sixty thousand for the other models. In 2015, the Air Force tested the F-35 in a short-range dogfight with an F-16D mounting external fuel tanks, and the test pilot complained that it was simply out-turned and less energy efficient than its more agile opponent.
This critique doesn’t mean that the F-35 is a terrible plane. In one post (scroll down for English), a Norwegian F-35 pilot praises its ability to maintain high angles of attack. Nonetheless, the Lightning remains less kinematically optimized for air-to-air combat than most fourth-generation fighters.
The Air Force and Lockheed, however, insist that the F-35 isn’t meant to engage in a within-visual-range dogfight in the first place. After all, low-observable aircraft are stealthier when they are more distant from adversaries—and new beyond-visual-range missiles like the AIM-120D or British Meteor that can strike enemies up to a hundred miles away potentially allow an F-35 to sneak up on enemy aircraft and engage them with missiles without having to get close. Such a strategy is aided by the superior characteristics of U.S. Active Electronically Scanned Array radars.