Here's what the people who fly and fix the F-35 have to say about history's most expensive weapons system

JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Maryland — In a nondescript US military hangar, steps away from Air Force One, sits America’s priciest weapons system.

“The F-35 is a needed aircraft to get us to where we need to be for the future of warfare,” said US Air Force Maj. Will “D-Rail” Andreotta, the commander of the F-35A Lightning II Heritage Flight Team.

“What it’s giving to the pilots is everything I’m seeing on my screens added to that the helmet, the situational awareness, and the advanced avionics that we have on the aircraft is gonna allow us to fight wars in places that we have very limited capabilities in right now,” Andreotta told Business Insider.

Maj. Gen. Jay Silveria, a US Air Force Warfare Center commander, walking to an F-35A Lightning II with Lt. Col. Matt Renbarger, a 58th Fighter Squadron commander, before his final qualification flight at Eglin Air Force Base. | US Air Force photo

Maj. Gen. Jay Silveria, a US Air Force Warfare Center commander, walking to an F-35A Lightning II with Lt. Col. Matt Renbarger, a 58th Fighter Squadron commander, before his final qualification flight at Eglin Air Force Base. | US Air Force photo

In August, US Air Force Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, the commander of Air Combat Command, declared initial combat capability of 15 Air Force F-35A jets — a significant breakthrough for the weapons program, which has been set back by design flaws, cost overruns, and technical challenges.

Also read: The F-35 just proved it can take Russian or Chinese airspace without firing a shot

“When you look at where the Air Force is headed, you look at coalition warfare and spend time in the Pacific, what this means to the interoperability, the ability to operate with others in the battle space and create the coalition warfare that we will always, always, fight with in the future, the centerpiece of that is gonna be the F-35,” Carlisle said at the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space & Cyber conference.

“The integration, the interoperability, the fusion warfare that this here plane brings to the fight … it changes the game.”

An F-35A conventional takeoff and landing aircraft flying with its afterburner over Edwards Air Force Base on a night mission in 2013. | Courtesy of Lockheed Martin

An F-35A conventional takeoff and landing aircraft flying with its afterburner over Edwards Air Force Base on a night mission in 2013. | Courtesy of Lockheed Martin

The fifth-generation “jack of all trades” jet was developed in 2001 by Lockheed Martin to replace the aging aircraft in the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force.

The fighter is equipped with radar-evading stealth, supersonic speed, and “the most powerful and comprehensive integrated sensor package of any fighter aircraft in history,” Jeff Babione, the head of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 program, said in a statement.

And for an enemy to engage an F-35 would be like jumping into a boxing ring to “fight an invisible Muhammad Ali,” as Gen. Tod Wolters, the commander of US Air Forces in Europe, told Business Insider.

In short, the F-35 gives pilots the ability to see but not be seen.

An F-35B from Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 (VMFAT-501), flies near its base a MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina. | Lockheed Martin

An F-35B from Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 (VMFAT-501), flies near its base a MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina. | Lockheed Martin

 

What’s more, Andreotta added, the F-35A is easy to fly.

“The F-35 is a very, very easy airplane to fly — that kinda sounds funny, but it really is … Things that were difficult and time-consuming and task-saturating in an F-16 have now become easy,” said Andreotta, a pilot in the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona who has 1,600 hours in an F-16.

“I can take information that I’m getting from the F-35 and push it out to other aircraft that don’t have the capabilities that I have. That’s huge. I would have killed for that when I was flying an F-16.”

Maj. Justin Robinson flying the 56th Operations Group flagship F-16 Fighting Falcon, escorting the first F-35 Lightning II to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona in 2014. | US Air Force photo

Maj. Justin Robinson flying the 56th Operations Group flagship F-16 Fighting Falcon, escorting the first F-35 Lightning II to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona in 2014. | US Air Force photo

Unlike any other fielded fighter jet, the F-35 can share what it sees in the battle space with counterparts, which creates a “family of systems.”

“Fifth-generation technology, it’s no longer about a platform. It’s about a family of systems, and it’s about a network, and that’s what gives us an asymmetric advantage,” Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, said during a Pentagon briefing.

Elaborating on the advantages, US Air Force Brig. Gen. Scott Pleus, the director of the F-35 integration office, said the aircraft was “one our adversaries should fear.”

“In terms of lethality and survivability, the aircraft is absolutely head and shoulders above our legacy fleet of fighters currently fielded,” said Pleus, an F-35A pilot and former command pilot with more than 2,300 flying hours.

An F-35A performing a test flight on March 28, 2013. | Courtesy of Lockheed Martin

An F-35A performing a test flight on March 28, 2013. | Courtesy of Lockheed Martin

Alongside Andreotta, US Air Force TSgt Robert James, also of the F-35A Lightning II Heritage Flight Team and a pilot in the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke Air Force Base, offered some insight as a crew chief.

“Aircraft maintenance is aircraft maintenance, but with the F-35 there is an ease in maintenance,” James told Business Insider.

“What they did with the F-35, I feel, and again I do this every day, is that they thought about the maintainer as well as the pilot. They designed the aircraft in a way that the maintainer could do their job better,” James said.

House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry drafted a bill that would stop the Air Force from using funds in their 2017 budget to retire or reduce the use of the A-10 Warthog until the Pentagon's weapons tester completes comparative tests between the A-10 and the F-35 Lightning II. The tests would compare the two aircraft's ability to conduct close air support, search and rescue missions, and forward air controller airborne missions DefenseNews reports. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate Armed Services Committee contend that the F-35 doesn't possess the capabilities of the A-10, and that removing the Warthog from service would create a notable capability gap, which would be felt by the soldiers on the ground. In March of 2015, when Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh's claimed that F-16s and F-15s would take over the role of the A-10, Senator John McCain unleashed the following scathing criticism: "It’s really embarrassing to hear you say something like that when I talk to the people who are doing the flying, who are doing the combat who say that the A-10 is by far the best close-air support system we have." Indeed the A-10, a Cold War-era legacy plane has gained itself a cult following with forward deployed troops in heavy combat zones. The distinctive buzzing noise made by the Warthog's 30 mm GAU-8/A Avenger has come to signal salvation to soldiers in need of close air support. "Cutting back a one-of-a-kind capability with no clear replacement is an example of a budget-based strategy, not the strategy-based budget we need to meet our defense needs," a letter from the legislators stated last year. | U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Connor J. Marth

An F-35A Lightning II team parking the jet for the first time at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho on February 8. | US Air Force photo

And while the F-35 has become one of the most challenged programs in the history of the Department of Defense, US Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, F-35A Joint Strike Fighter Program executive officer, said “the program itself is making progress.”

“Any development program is going to encounter issues,” Bogdan said. “If you’re building a development program and you don’t find anything wrong, then you didn’t do a good enough job building that program.”

He added: “So it’s not a surprise to me that on any given day that we encounter things wrong with this airplane. Now is the time to find those things and fix them. The perfect example is our insulation problem we have right now.

“The mark of a good program is not that you don’t have any problems but that you find things early. You fix them. You make the airplane better, the weapons system better, and you move on.”

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