image: Kaszynzki, Lockheed Martin

The F-35—Not the Super Fighter We Were Promised

A Decade Behind Schedule, The Most Expensive Defense Program in World History is Failing

The Pentagon has bet the farm on an airplane championed as a “super fighter” that can do everything for everybody. The F-35 is intended to replace and improve upon several current—and aging—aircraft types with widely different missions. To achieve this, the airplane must meet the mission requirements of the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, all in one basic airplane. The F-35 is marketed as a cost-effective, powerful, multirole fighter airplane, significantly better than anything potential adversaries could build in the next two decades. But it’s turned out to be none of those things.

Officially begun in 2001, with roots extending back to the late 1980s, the F-35 program is nearly a decade behind schedule, and has failed to meet many of its original design requirements. It’s also become the most expensive defense program in world history, estimated to cost around $1.5 trillion before the fighter is phased out in 2070.

The unit cost per airplane, well above $100 million, is twice what was promised early on. And yet the Pentagon is still throwing huge sums of money at the project. Essentially, it has declared the F-35 “too big to fail.” As a retired member of the U.S. Air Force and currently a university professor of finance, who has been involved in and studied fighter aircraft operations and sustainment, along with system developments and acquisitions, I consider the F-35 to be one of the greatest boondoggles in military purchasing history.

Part of the enormous cost of the F-35 program is the result of an effort to share a single basic aircraft design across different branches of the military. This concept was supposed to be a way of reducing development and sustainment costs, but it has accomplished the exact opposite.

A 2013 study by the RAND Corporation found that it would have been cheaper if the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps had simply designed and developed separate and more specialized aircraft to meet their specific operational requirements.

Lockheed Martin, the company building the F-35, said the plane would be far better than current aircraft—“four times more effective” in air-to-air combat, “eight times more effective” in air-to-ground combat, and “three times more effective” in recognizing and suppressing an enemy’s air defenses. It would, in fact, be “second only to the F-22 in air superiority.” In addition, the F-35 was to have better range and require less logistics support than current military aircraft. The Pentagon is still calling the F-35 “the most affordable, lethal, supportable, and survivable aircraft ever to be used.”

But that’s not how the airplane has turned out. In January 2015, mock combat testing pitting the F-35 against an F-16, one of the fighters it is slated to replace, resulted in the F-35’s test pilot noting that the F-35 was less maneuverable and markedly inferior to the F-16 in a visual-range dogfight.

One reason the F-35 doesn’t possess the world-beating air-to-air prowess promised, and is likely not even adequate when compared with its current potential adversaries, is that it was designed foremost to be stealthy to enemy radar. This requirement has taken precedence over maneuverability and undermined its overall air-to-air lethality. The Pentagon and especially the Air Force seem to be relying almost exclusively on the F-35’s radar stealth capabilities for it to succeed at its missions. However, in 1999 the same type of stealth technology was not able to prevent a U.S. Air Force F-117 flying over Kosovo from being located, tracked, and shot down using obsolete Soviet radar and surface-to-air missiles. In the nearly two decades since, that incident has been studied in depth by the Pentagon and by potential adversaries seeking weaknesses in passive radar stealth aircraft.

Radar is not the only way to locate and target aircraft. An aircraft’s infrared emissions, which are created by friction-generated heat as it flies through the air, along with its hot engines, can be used to target it. Several potential adversaries’ fighters possess excellent infrared search and tracking systems to locate and target opposing aircraft. It’s also very common in air-to-air battles for opposing planes to come close enough that their pilots can see each other. The F-35 is as visible as any other aircraft its size.

Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon say the F-35’s superiority over its rivals lies in its ability to remain undetected, giving it “first look, first shot, first kill” capabilities. Hugh Harkins, a highly respected author on military combat aircraft, called that claim “a marketing and publicity gimmick” in his book on Russia’s Sukhoi Su-35S, a potential opponent of the F-35. He also wrote, “In real terms an aircraft in the class of the F-35 cannot compete with the Su-35S for out and out performance such as speed, climb, altitude, and maneuverability.” Other critics have been even harsher. Pierre Sprey, a co-founding member of the so-called “fighter mafia” at the Pentagon and a co-designer of the F-16, calls the F-35 “inherently a terrible airplane” that is the product of “an exceptionally dumb piece of Air Force PR spin.” He has suggested the F-35 would likely lose a close-in combat encounter to a well-flown MIG-21, a 1950s Soviet fighter design. Robert Dorr, an Air Force veteran, career diplomat, and military air combat historian, wrote in his book Air Power Abandoned, “The F-35 demonstrates repeatedly that it can’t live up to promises made for it. . . . It’s that bad.”

How did the F-35 go from its conception as the most technologically advanced, do-it-all military aircraft in the world to a virtual turkey? The F-35 program is the result of combining several separate and diverse projects into a set of requirements for an airplane that is trying to be everything to everyone. With the F-35, it appears designers created an inelegant jack of all trades but master of none—at great expense, both in the past and, apparently, well into the future.

Michael. P. Hughes, Ph.D., is Professor of Finance at Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina. Dr. Hughes served over 21 years in the U.S. Air Force. He spent his initial years in the aircraft maintenance and engineering (propulsion) arena with F-4 and F-15 aircraft, followed by over 14 years in nuclear treaty monitoring and related activities.

13 responses to “The F-35—Not the Super Fighter We Were Promised

  1. I’m not a fan of the F-35. It has some things I like (high fuel fraction, decent, workable stealth, good avionics) and others I don’t (ALIS not working; continual downgrading of performance specs, heat issues, smallish weapons bays, continual code glitches, endless overruns….). At $50 million/copy if it was flying now it’s fine. At $100 million its not. And that’s not even addressing overall maintenance issues that have yet to be sorted out.

    However, I wish critics would stop referencing the F-16 – F-35 ‘dogfight’. From what I’ve read that was a version of the F-35 that wasn’t yet completely capable due to code limitations on its flight surfaces. It was just a test of a limited airframe to see where it was. That’s fine, and illustrative, but shouldn’t be taken as the end all/be all.

    Also, the more I read of Sprey the less respect I have for his opinion. He and Boyd are given a ton of credit for the F-16; but the F-16 they wanted is not the successful fighter we have now. They wanted an aircraft without radar and set up mainly for short range dogfighting. I read an article where Sprey talks about the F-15 being a boondoggle. He has interesting ideas but he comes off as a zealot that can’t see anything beyond those ideas.

    The F-35 program with its cost and delays is bad enough without weakening the argument.

    Honestly, despite the money spent, I’d like to see the tech developed put into new, separate airframes; much like the F-111 program got subdivided and gave us the F-14.

    We need to to separate out capability and focus on cost and maintainability and uptime as much as we can. It’s my opinion that if our jets are just *as good* as the best in the Chinese and Russian inventories, but we can afford more, and afford to train our pilots at a high rate, we’ll be fine.

    1. he last truly proven successful aircraft of US design was the F4 Phantom. Before (at least after the Sabre) and after that, the US designed and produced a wide range of fairly unimpressive aircraft, the F15 Eagle being the latest of the type in large scale service. If it was all it was cracked-up to be – a fighter aircraft with ‘legs’, and the potential to carry out other missions, why was there the need to put substantial resources into the F16 – which remains, essentially, a short range interceptor?

      The F22 ay have had the makings of something, but that wan’t the F35 – or the missing F’s 23 through 34.

  2. It’s not the plane, it’s the networking. Only the f-35 has the ability to adapt to AI swarming techniques using drone wingmen. Look to when only one in five fighters is manned. Now, anything with a person in it becomes vulnerable. If designing 5G fighters is hard, that’s a good thing. It means less competition at the top.

  3. The F35 is the greatest aeroplane ever devised. Any aeroplane which can remove all its far better predecessors from its makers’ arsenal without a shot, and then is so bad as a combat aircraft that its adversaries would only have to show up to win. must rate as a great aircraft. And when the nation that bankrupts itself building this is the imperialist American hegemonistan, that aeroplane is doing something that the rest of the world couldn’t manage: bring the Empire down to dust. And all by making said Empire itself pay for it!

    Who could fail to love such a plane?

  4. I’m not a fan of overpriced Pentagon projects like the F-35. But, this article seems highly misleading. These are not the days of Snoopy his Sopwith Camel fighting the Red Barron to save democracy and freedom. When was the last ‘dogfight’ between fighter planes? Modern fighter combat consists of flying 50 to 100 miles away from an opponent and launching missiles at them. I know the fighter jocks like to talk about dogfighting like its still their good ol days, but these days the fight is resolved long before the planes ever get close.

    That doesn’t mean that this plane isn’t an overpriced boondoggle. But the real crime is the cost and the fact that the Pentagon still can’t tell us how much this plane is going to cost to operate. Defending a nation that goes bankrupt from the debt incurred to build an overpriced airplane while its citizens starve and go homeless is not a success.

  5. Yawn. A rehash of old news and opinion – mostly overtaken by events since then.

    Red Flag 17-01. F-35’s ran up a 15:1 kill ratio over F-16 aggressors.

  6. The F-35 started as an economy version of the F-22, like the F-16 was to have been a cheaper supplement to the F-15.

    It grew in the promises made to sell the program.

    But it was always what it started as, from an engineering point of view. Its stealth was not meant to be all-aspect, just frontal. It has one engine, and that was a conservative design with a more advanced idea cancelled to save money.

    We are told constantly to look past what it is to what they’d dream it is to be now. That is not how engineering works.

    1. The F-35 certainly did not start as an economy F-22. I was there when the F-35 was born. It was the ASTOVL, then CALF, then JAST, then JSF, then F-35. Or something like that. Too many to remember. It was born at DARPA as a Harrier replacement. The Air Force variant (“CTOL”) that came along was always a strike fighter, happens to look like an F-22 because LockMart won the contract.

  7. I think the F35 will be Ok after the Israel Airforce puts the same electronics on it that the Russians purchased and have on their planes . The Jews have several f 35 now . I’am betting they will make these planes do what they are supposed to do . Other wise the Russian planes can best all our planes accept the F 22 and we don’t have so many F 22

  8. This is the perfect example of the military industrial complex’s American exceptionalism at it’s best. That is they have always been allowed to run contracts this way because, supposedly this was the best way to ensure the safety of the homeland.

    Time to DOJ and CBO to audit everything from toilet paper and ice cream for the navy to the cia’s contracts and paper clips. Time to murder the gravy sucking pigs that are government defense contractors.

  9. Somebody says, “I want to build a car that is also a truck and a bus, carries eight passengers, can handle a two-ton load of dirt, will pull a 22-foot sailboat, and will outperform a Ferrari, with a top speed of two hundred miles an hour.” Would anyone have listened?

    They listened when they were told the F-35 would be pretty much the flying equivalent.

  10. Based on a pilot blog : The F-35A can function as a reconnaissance aircraft, air-to-air fighter, air-to-ground fighter or stealth aircraft engineered to evade enemy air defenses, Canterbury explained.The Air Force’s new F-35A multi-role, stealth Joint Strike Fighter brings an unprecedented ability to destroy targets in the air, attack moving enemies on the ground and beam battlefield images across the force in real time, an Air Force pilot told Scout Warrior in a special interview.

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