Editor’s Note: Please see previous works by Robert Farley including Will the F-35 Dominate the Skies?, Five Best Bombers of All Time, Top Five Fighter Aircraft of All Time, Five Worst Fighter Aircraft of All Time , the Five Best Submarines of All Time, Five Revolutionary American Weapons of War that Never Happened and Five Revolutionary Soviet Weapons of War that Never Happened.
With the recent engine fire that grounded the entire F-35 fleet (and mostly destroyed one of the few Lightnings in service), critics of the Joint Strike Fighter have renewed calls for a serious review of the program. And yet the F-35 appears unkillable. The only winning move, it seems, was not to play, but we’ve been playing for a while, and we’re well beyond easy answers. The F-35 program, with tentacles across America and in many of the United States’ closest allies, probably cannot be cancelled. The industrial and diplomatic challenges might well dwarf the problems with combat fleet shortfalls.
If it could, however, what would follow? The following five options are not mutually exclusive, and any strategy for replacing the F-35 would need to borrow liberally from several.
Build more F-22s
The first choice seems obvious. Instead of moving ahead with the F-35, the United States could restart the F-22 line. We have enough experience with the Raptor to know that it will likely be an effective platform moving forward, and to update new models with additional capabilities.
However, restarting the line would be expensive, and wouldn’t solve the problems of the Navy or Marine Corps. No one has seriously entertained an F-22 carrier variant for quite some time, and there is no prospect whatsoever for making developing a variant that could operate from the USMC’s light carrier fleet.
Theoretically, the Air Force could lean on the F-22, the Navy on additional Super Hornets, and the Marine Corps on the F-35B. However, since the B variant has had the most trouble of the three, this would still leave the Pentagon with an ultra-expensive, performance challenged aircraft.
The F-22 has other long-term problems. The Air Force has never considered it an ideal strike platform, although air superiority fighters have made the conversion in the past. Also, the Raptor’s hypoxia issues remain stubborn. U.S. law makes it impossible to export the F-22, meaning that it could not resolve the diplomatic problems that would emerge from F-35 cancellation.
What about the killer robots? The biggest story in the last decade of aviation has been the expansion of drone technology and doctrine. The United States, followed by a few other countries, has radically expanded the use of drones beyond what anybody expected in 2000. Drones have fulfilled many traditional airpower roles, including reconnaissance, close air support, interdiction, and long range strike.
The biggest objection with going “all in” on drones is the air-to-air combat problem. As currently configured, drones make for exceedingly poor air-to-air combatants. Existing drones lack the speed, maneuverability, and sensor packages to match modern fighters.
Even new aircraft that could resolve many of these issues would face an additional problem. Unless drones can fight on their own, their datalinks to remote operators will be vulnerable to enemy interference. UAVs that lose contact with pilots, even for a few seconds, will die in air-to-air engagements. Moreover, no drone that can match modern fighter aircraft will be expendable.
And the problem is that almost no one thinks that having robots that can decide to kill on their own volition is a good idea. This makes drones a continuing option for fulfilling many airpower missions, but means that they can’t do everything fighters can do. They may be able to do enough, however, to get the United States air services through until the next generation of fighters comes into service.
Updated Legacy Fleet
The United States already has a huge fleet of advanced fighter aircraft, and an industry capable of churning out new airframes. Why not just update the older platforms? The Su-27 Flanker has often been portrayed as the primary threat to U.S. 5th generation fighters, but it is nothing more than an updated Cold War platform. Of course, the U.S. Navy (USN) and U.S. Air Force (USAF)have also followed this path to an extent; modern Vipers have little in common with the first F-16A production models.
Boeing has worked extensively at developing versions of both the F-15 and F/A-18 that have stealth characteristics, and that take advantage of various technological developments since the airframes originally entered service. In pursuit of a contract with South Korea, Boeing developed plans for the F-15 Silent Eagle, a modernization of the traditionally dominant fighter that would have dramatically reduced its radar signature. Similarly, Boeing has studied the concept of conformal fuel tanks on the F/A-18 Super Hornet, which would enhance its stealth capabilities and increase its range. Meanwhile, ever more sophisticated F-16s continue to roll off the production line.
The Silent Eagle and the Advanced Super Hornet remain in development limbo, but would go a long way to filling the gap before Generation Six fighters arrive. One of the complaints commonly made about maintaining the legacy fleet is that the airframes have aged, making continued use both more expensive and more dangerous. The purchase of new airframes could resolve this problem.
Waiting for Generation Six
Another way of cutting our losses would be to abandon the fifth generation fighter entirely (apart from existing Raptors and F-35s), and focus instead on the development of sixth generation fighters. Expectations for Gen Six fighters generally focus around stealth, supercruise, and networking capabilities, potentially with tailless configurations, the capacity for the installation of laser weaponry, and the possibility of unmanned operation.
Several other countries have played with this concept. Japan, Russia, India, and France have all examined the possibility of skipping the fifth generation and moving directly to the sixth. Expectations of relative great power peace over the next decade, combined with still-large Cold War-era fleets, have made this a plausible option.
Like the other proposals, this would leave the United States with a capabilities shortfall. But it would avoid saddling the USAF and USN with large fleets of (presumably) incapable F-35s, fleets that Congress will no doubt use strategically in order to avoid funding the next generation of fighter.
Of course, this approach assumes that development of a Generation Six fighter will be marginally less disastrous than development of the F-35 (and the F-22). This is a huge assumption, and one that should factor into our decision-making. Putting all of the elements of the Gen 6 Fighter together into a single platform will challenge the expertise of leading firms (especially if they lack good Gen 5 platforms to experiment with and build off of), and is certain to be incredibly expensive. And in 2030, the prospect of life-extension for the legacy fleet will appear considerably less palatable.
Eurofighter! Gripen! Rafale!
This is the longest of long shots, but the US could theoretically fill the gap with purchases of Dassault Rafales, Eurofighter Typhoons, or Saab Gripens. Apart from the Hawker Siddely Harrier, the United States hasn’t purchased a foreign fighter in significant numbers since the First World War. The only other recent foreign designed aircraft to see extensive service was the B-57 Canberra, built under license from English Electric.
In order to have any chance of success, this would have to involve licensing deals to assemble and manufacture the aircraft in the United States. The US would be put into the uncomfortable position of requiring technology transfer agreements from European allies, rather than the other way around. Saab has recently reached a deal along these lines with Brazil, and other suppliers have reached similar deals with local producers.
This would have the advantage of putting the fear of almighty God in the U.S. defense industry, and of putting proven platforms into the hands of the USAF and USN. All three airframes are over a decade newer than the latest US legacy fighters, meaning that they still have significant upgrade potential. They also have reasonably reliable cost and performance expectations.
The United States could also investigate purchase of the Generation 4.5 and Generation 5 programs emerging from South Korea and Japan. The prospect of major foreign sales might drive innovation and production in both countries.
If we could kill the F-35, the ideal solution would likely involve a combination of two, three, and four, with different recipes including different amounts of each. Thus, a different way of phrasing the question that motivates this article is “how many UAVs and legacy aircraft would we need to make it to Generation Six?” If the United States does not envision air combat against a peer competitor within the next decade and a half, finding the right mix might well be possible.
But again, the F-35 has formidable defenses (as a program, if not as an aircraft). Killing the project would require mollifying a wide variety of political interests within the United States, as well as large chunks of the defense industrial base. It would also require unruffling the feathers of allied governments, many of which have devoted considerable political capital to the purchase of the JSF. Still, figuring out alternative options is the first step.