In recent months, a slew of bad press for Lockheed Martin’s long-troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has once again made calling the 5th generation jet a failure culturally en vogue. From overt statements about the aircraft’s financial woes to newly announced tech issues causing “strategic pauses” in development and even an apparent lack of confidence in the aircraft coming out of the Air Force’s top brass, the Joint Strike Fighter program hasn’t faced such an uphill battle since the Pentagon first decided it wanted a single aircraft that could hover like a Harrier, fly supersonic like an Eagle, sneak past defenses like a Nighthawk, and land on carriers like a Super Hornet.
With all of this bad press, the inclination for some is to simply dismiss the F-35 program as an egregious acquisition debacle and nothing else. After all, the aircraft still can’t go into full-rate production because of a laundry list of issues, hundreds of delivered airframes may never actually be combat-ready, and the Air Force isn’t even sure they can afford to operate an F-35-focused fleet… With all of that piled up in the “con” column, it’s easy to see why some people never make it past those cons to begin with.
Assessing the F-35’s worth: Concept vs. Reality
The truth is, the F-35 isn’t a concept–it’s an aircraft–and that’s an important distinction. Concepts can usually be neatly filed under right or wrong; good or bad. Real things, by and large, aren’t so easily organized, and often (when it comes to new technologies) are as much a product of their challenges as their original design. Every groundbreaking military aircraft program has faced setbacks, and while no aircraft program has ever cost as much as the F-35 promises to in its lifetime, that cost doesn’t negate the real capability the fighter brings to the table. Let me be clear–this isn’t an argument in favor of the F-35 program, or even necessarily for the jet to keep its lauded position atop the Air Force’s priority list. It’s just an objective observation about what this fighter can do.
Again, as a concept, we can neatly file the intent behind the F-35 in the “good idea” category and the execution behind paying for it in the “bad idea” one–but in terms of this specific aircraft made of nuts and bolts, those distinctions aren’t quite as important as they are to the broader discussion. We can either take the significant leap in capability the F-35 offers and find a way to shoehorn it into a pragmatic model for spending as we move forward… or not. Lessons learned from the F-35’s acquisition debacle should certainly inform how America sources its next fighters (or anything for that matter), but in terms of the F-35 itself, only time travel could solve most of these past headaches… and time travel is one of the things Lockheed Martin has yet to deliver.
So let’s divorce ourselves from the emotion tied to dollar exchanges ranked in the trillions, forget about the frustration we’ve felt as the F-35 program has languished behind delays, and look at this fighter for what it was meant to be, what it is, and what it can be in the years ahead. Past failures in one column don’t necessarily mean future failures in another, after all.
The F-35 might be a horror story in accounting, but it’s also a massive success from the vantage point of its trigger pullers.
Asking for the impossible
The first studies that would lead to the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program as we know it began in 1993, with America shopping for a short take-off, vertical-landing fighter that could operate in the modern era.
Soon, the Pentagon took notice of other fighter programs in development and posited a theory: If America could find one airplane that could replace a whole host of aging platforms, it would shrink acquisition cost, streamline maintenance and operation training, remove many of the logistical headaches tied to operating a large number of aircraft in far-flung theaters, and make everyone’s day that much easier and less expensive. In hindsight, of course, those goals weren’t just naive, they may have been the program’s first major problem.
Lockheed Martin, the same firm responsible for the world’s first operational stealth aircraft, the F-117 Nighthawk, and the world’s first operational stealth fighter, the F-22 Raptor, would ultimately beat out Boeing for the Joint Strike Fighter contract, thanks to their track record in the field of stealth and impressive technology demonstrators.
Today, meeting the broad requirements of three American military branches and at least two foreign partners is one of the F-35’s biggest selling points… but in the late 1990s, it was akin to Kennedy’s announcement that America would put a man on the moon within the following decade. It was a good idea on paper… but nobody really knew how to make it actually happen.
“If you were to go back to the year 2000 and somebody said, ‘I can build an airplane that is stealthy and has vertical takeoff and landing capabilities and can go supersonic,’ most people in the industry would have said that’s impossible,” Tom Burbage, Lockheed’s general manager for the program from 2000 to 2013 told The New York Times.
“The technology to bring all of that together into a single platform was beyond the reach of industry at that time.”
But money has a way of making the impossible start to look improbable… and then eventually, mundane. The Saturn V that kept Kennedy’s promise about the moon was the most complex and powerful machine ever devised by man, and by Apollo 13–just NASA’s third mission to the moon–the American people already thought the rocket’s trip through space was too boring to watch (at least until everything went wrong). Likewise, building a supersonic, stealth fighter that can hover over amphibious assault ships sounded downright crazy, that is, right up until it was boring.
Making the impossible mundane costs lots of money
In order to meet the disparate needs of a single aircraft that could replace at least five planes across multiple military forces, Lockheed Martin chose to devise three iterations of their new fighter.
The F-35A would be the closest to what might be considered a traditional multi-role fighter–intended to take off and land on well-manicured airstrips found on military installations the world over. The second, dubbed the F-35B, would incorporate a directional jet nozzle and hidden fan to provide the aircraft with enough lift to hover and land vertically for use aboard Marine Corps amphibious assault ships or on austere, hastily cleared airstrips. Finally, a carrier-capable variant dubbed the F-35C would boast the greater wingspan necessarily for lower speed carrier landings, along with a reinforced fuselage that could withstand the incredible forces tied to serving aboard an aircraft carrier.
The plan was to leave as much about all three iterations as identical as possible, so parts, production, training, and maintenance could be similar enough regardless of the operating theater. That plan would prove infeasible almost immediately.
“It turns out when you combine the requirements of the three services, what you end up with is the F-35, which is an aircraft that is in many ways suboptimal for what each of the services really want,” Todd Harrison, an aerospace expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said.
Lockheed Martin’s team of designers began with the simplest version: the landing-strip-friendly F-35A. Once they were happy with the design, they moved on to the F-35B, which needed to house its internal fan right in the middle of the aircraft’s fuselage. As soon as they began work on the F-35B, it became clear that simply copying and pasting the F-35A design wouldn’t cut it. In fact, they were so far off the mark that it would take an additional 18 months and $6.2 billion just to figure out how to make the F-35B work–something you’d think might have come up prior to securing the contract.
This was the first, but certainly not the last, time a problem like this would derail progress on the F-35. To some extent, these failures can largely be attributed to poor planning, but it’s also important to remember that the F-35 program was aiming to do things no other fighter program had ever done before. Discovery and efficiency don’t always walk hand in hand–and to be clear, Lockheed Martin had no real incentive to make the Joint Strike Fighter work on a budget.
Concurrent Development: The dirtiest two words in aviation
The United States knew that what they were asking Lockheed Martin to deliver wouldn’t be easy. Stealth aircraft programs from the F-117 to today’s B-21 Raider have all faced a struggled balance between price tag and capability, but with so many eggs in the F-35 basket, the stakes quickly ballooned. With highly advanced 4th generation fighters like Russia’s Su-35 and China’s J-10 already flying, and their own stealth fighter programs in development by the 2000s, America was in trouble. The dogfighting dynamo F-22 was canceled in 2011 after just 186 jets were built, making the F-35 the nation’s only fighter program on the books. This new jet would have to be better than everything in the sky today and for decades to come… and it had to start doing it immediately.
To make this possible, the Pentagon believed the best approach would be “concurrent development,” or just “concurrency.” The premise behind concurrency is simple: You begin production of the new aircraft once the design is settled, and then you go back and make changes as testing highlights any issues that may need to be addressed. On paper, this looked like a way to begin fielding these new, highly capable fighters, training pilots and maintainers, developing tactics, and settling the fighter of the future into service as it matured. In reality, however, it meant building F-35s before they’d been fully tested and then spending billions to go back and fix the old jets after testing was complete.
Issue after issue bubbled to the surface. By 2017, they’d become so serious that the Air Force began to consider just abandoning the first 108 F-35A’s they’d received (and the $21.4 billion they’d spent on them) simply because fixing them would be too expensive. By the end of 2020, Lockheed Martin once again postponed full-rate production, with a long list of issues yet to be resolved.
And amid all of this spending rose yet another financial hurdle: the immense cost of operating the F-35. While a top-of-the-line but decidedly non-stealth F-15EX may cost as much as $28,000 an hour to fly, the F-35 costs at least $44,000 per hour… and each F-35 airframe is only rated to fly for less than a third of the total hours an F-15EX can. In other words, the F-35 has been egregiously expensive to develop and promises to stay egregiously expensive to operate. As a result, the Air Force is now considering adding another, cheaper fighter to the mix despite planning to order more than 2,000 total F-35s over its lifetime. The fact of the matter is, the jet is just too expensive to use for some jobs.
“I want to moderate how much we’re using those aircraft,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. said of the F-35.
“You don’t drive your Ferrari to work every day, you only drive it on Sundays. This is our ‘high end’ [fighter], we want to make sure we don’t use it all for the low-end fight… We don’t want to burn up capability now and wish we had it later.”
So… the F-35 is a failure?
Not so fast. It’s easy to spiral down the acquisition rabbit hole until you start shaking your fist at the sky, and if you only read up until this point in this article or similar ones, it makes sense that you’d feel secure in lumping the F-35 in with flying aircraft carriers and pigeon-guided missiles as yet another mistake on Uncle Sam’s bar tab… but these vantage points are missing one incredibly important bit of context: The opinion of the warfighters who fly them.
In terms of responsible spending, you’ll probably only hear the F-35 program defended by Air Force officials and Lockheed Martin employees, but in terms of sheer capability, you can find lots of folks singing the F-35’s praises.
“My wingman was a brand new F-35A pilot, seven or eight flights out of training,” Col. Joshua Wood, 388th Operations Group commander, said about flying with F-35s in the Air Force’s large scale Red Flag exercise. “He gets on the radio and tells an experienced, 3,000-hour pilot in a very capable fourth-generation aircraft: ‘Hey bud, you need to turn around. You’re about to die. There’s a threat off your nose.’”
According to Wood, that same “brand new” pilot would rack up three kills against those enemy pilots in just the next hour.
These stories tend not to get as much reach as the bad news for a few important reasons. The first is that bad news sells, and folks are more likely to click on an article highlighting an expensive American failure than they are a tactical success story. The second is a bit more nuanced: While we tend to think of fighter operations in terms of scenes we’ve seen in the movie, “Top Gun,” the F-35 doesn’t simply operate in those terms.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is slower than the F-15, can’t fly as high as the long-retired F-14, carries less ordnance than an F/A-18, and wouldn’t be a match for the F-16 in an acrobatic competition. In terms of just about all of the things that we think fighters have to do, the F-35 is worse than the old jets we watched our parents fly in the 1970s… But there’s a good reason behind that–and it isn’t just about stealth.
Data fusion, not stealth, is the F-35’s most potent weapon
Yes, the F-35 can fly faster than the speed of sound, deliver its payload to unsuspecting targets in highly defended airspace, and then land vertically on the deck of a helicopter carrier… but all of that is just part of what makes it special. The most important part, many would argue, isn’t its ability to avoid detection or even deliver ordnance: It’s the F-35’s ability to soak up information and process it into something our oversized monkey brains can actually use in a fight.
Despite their bravado, fighter pilots are made out of the same guts and water as the rest of us–and that really makes their jobs a lot harder than most people realize. Not only does it take an incredible amount of physical resilience just to manage the rigors of flying in a combat environment, but it also takes a huge amount of mental bandwidth and focus.
Pilots managing even the best 4th generation fighters have to split their attention between as many as 20 dials and readouts in their cockpits, all while keeping their eyes on the horizon and skies around them, looking out for enemy aircraft or surface to air missiles, among other things.
Because each of those dials, sensors, and screens are fed by independent data streams, it’s up to the pilot to scan all of them, and the skies, and then combine all of that info in his or her head… even when two sensors offer contradictory information. And that’s assuming all those gauges can help in a dogfight.
“In my cockpit, what I had displayed for me was what I had on my own radar and what I could hear in my headset, and that was it,” Former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein said in 2019. Goldfein flew the F-16 and F-117 as a pilot. “My job was to figure out mentally, in this 3-D, god’s-eye view, what was going on over hundreds of miles of battlespace.”
The F-35, with its incredibly expensive custom helmets and powerful onboard computers, takes all of that information and then adds more, gleaning data from other aircraft, ground assets, satellites, and even Navy vessels. The computers file and sort all of this information and then translate the deluge into a single, convenient trickle right in front of the pilot’s eyes. Instead of trying to manage a dozen gauges and your view of the enemy, F-35 pilots see all the pertinent info they need right in their line of sight, offering info on enemy targets, friendly assets, and mission objectives at a glance–but that’s not all this flying supercomputer can do.
“The mission commander now is taxiing out, hasn’t even taken off yet, and is already getting input from what’s happening in space and cyber,” Goldfien said. “As soon as you pilot that airplane up, it’s already starting to fuse and collect.”
The F-35’s data fusion does give its pilots better situational awareness than any tactical aircraft to come before it, but that value multiplies as the data is shared across other aircraft and assets. A single F-35 in a formation has proven to make its 4th generation wingmen more deadly thanks to relaying such a thorough understanding of the battlespace. As a result, many pilots have taken to calling the F-35 a “quarterback in the sky.” Sure, it’s on the field too, but its game-changing capabilities make it a leadership platform. F-35 pilots have even successfully engaged targets using weapons from ground vehicles by relaying target information in real-time.
The F-35’s data fusion capabilities may get less attention than its stealth, but the truth is, stealth is a 50-year-old concept (with plenty of ongoing application), and data fusion is the future.
What is the F-35’s future… and what should it be?
It seems entirely possible that the U.S. Air Force does pursue a “5th gen minus” fighter that’s cheaper and less stealthy than the F-35, but more capable in contested airspace than an F-16, but that doesn’t mean the F-35 will just be sent out to pasture.
While once seen as the future workhorse of American and allied air power, the F-35 program has been a victim of its own lofty aspirations, reaching into Lockheed Martin’s grab bag of capabilities and coming out with a few more than America’s already bulging defense budget could handle. We may not actually see 2,000 F-35s flying under America’s banner in the long run, but then, maybe we don’t have to for it to be a success yet.
Lockheed Martin drew some criticisms in 2019 when they told Japan that they could build a new stealth fighter that bridges the capabilities of the F-35 and F-22 while all coming in at a lower cost, seemingly acknowledging the fiscal irresponsibility of the F-35 program to date. There’s another way to look at that statement though: The first time you do something will always cost more than the second. As time goes on, that advanced technology becomes more commonplace and less expensive, and then a new expensive technology comes along to take its place. We should expect the next stealth fighter to either cost a whole bunch less or do a whole bunch more. That’s just the nature of warfare and technology.
That next fighter, as well as others like the NGAD, will benefit from expensive mistakes made in the F-35’s development, as well as the incredible lessons learned about avionics, secure networking, and operating in contested airspace. Do those valuable leaps offset the financial boondoggle that has been F-35 acquisition over the past 14 years? No. The F-35 may be jam-packed with game-changing technology, but capability is not, in itself, a measure of cost-effectiveness.
If your opinion of the F-35 is derived on paper, as a measure of carried ones and zeros split with commas, its probably safe to say you think it’s a failure… but the F-35 wasn’t built to operate on paper. This fighter was meant to give America’s warfighters an edge over the competition, and if you ask the guys and gals flying it, that’s exactly what it’s done.
So, is the F-35 an acquisition failure or is it a tactical success? The complicated truth is… it’s both.