The Lockheed-Martin F-35 “Lightning II” – aka “Joint Strike Fighter” – has been a much-contested project in military and political circles. When the project was first unveiled to the public it seemed to be the answer to the problem of replacing aging air-to-ground fighters like the A-10 and the F-16. It was going to do everything the older aircraft could do, but it would do it better, faster, and cheaper.
Over the last several years of testing – and contesting – the JSF, one thing has become abundantly clear: it is not the end-all, save-all fighter aircraft originally promised.
I am not saying the Lightning II won’t be an extremely capable, lethal fighter – I’m saying it comes with some serious caveats that weren’t mentioned in the beginning. This article is not meant to be an in-depth, comprehensive review of the F-35, but rather a means to provide other “aviation junkies” a couple of topical points for discussion. I will provide you with some links that will take you down the rabbit hole as far as you want to go (assuming you have the time and the interest to take the deep dive.)
This is my favorite issue with the F-35 because so far the process as mirrored almost exactly that of the F-22. In the beginning, a low per-unit cost was advertised – $60 Million for the F-22/$35 Million for the JSF (USAF Variant). Over the years, as politics began to wreak havoc on the weapon system programs, several different cost estimates have suddenly sprung from the woodwork to cloud public opinion. Nothing can do more damage to a government program than a mad constituency, and people get mad when they get confused.
Costs will typically go up over the life a project. At first, the contractor will say they can meet spec with a low estimate. Then, the military will start to think of new technologies, or other emerging capabilities it wants to add, and of course the contractor can do it…for a price. It’s kind of like how your family budget gradually increased after you got married. You wanted your sweetie to be happy so you said, “Sure, Honey, you can buy that extra expensive set of bath towels”. Then, at the end of the month when you crunched the numbers, she said, “How come we don’t have any money left?! It’s all your fault!”
Suddenly, all kinds of numbers start showing up. “The F-35 will cost taxpayers $1.3 Trillion” – “Each F-35 will cost about $200 Million”. Very rarely will I see an estimate with a cost break out – one that shows exactly what the “estimates” are based on or what type of cost is being quoted.
So how much does the F-35 really cost? Heck if I know…or if anyone really does. Here are some articles you can spin through to decide for yourself.
The F-35 Costs More Than You Think:
The F-35…Not as Expensive as You Would Think?: http://www.forbes.com/sites/beltway/2011/06/27/massive-cost-estimate-for-fighter-program-is-misleading/
Another great discussion is: “So what are we getting for our hard-spent tax dollars?” The JSF program initially outlined some pretty specific requirements: It’s got to be cheap, it’s got to be fast, it’s got to survive, it’s got carry a lot of fuel, and it’s got to carry a lot of weapons. I’m pretty sure those exact words were all that was written in the initial Request for Proposal.
SO…what can it do? Originally, it was going to have an inexpensive radar and would rely heavily on air-to-ground targeting data passed via data link from JSTARs and other off-board sources. Then, someone actually asked a CAS pilot what he or she would prefer. The F-16 community wanted a good radar capable of keeping them safe from air-to-air threats that may have broken through the protective CAPs (Combat Air Patrols). Voila, the F-35 got the AN/APG-81 AESA radar. They needed a full compliment of air-to-ground tools, so they got Electro-Optical (EO) and Infra Red (IR) targeting suites. With all these cool gadgets they needed a fast processor and a way to fuse the data from the various sensors to display it all in a comprehensive way to the pilot. Boom: iPad Mini. Just kidding. But the jet does have a pretty sweet touchscreen avionics display that puts most modern glass cockpits to shame.
In-Depth Analysis by a Leading Aerospace Research Center (Air Power Australia): http://www.ausairpower.net/APA-JSF-Analysis.html
Here’s What Lockheed-Martin Says It Can Do: https://www.f35.com/about/capabilities
It seems these days everyone is hating on the F-35. It’s not as stealthy as it was supposed to be. It’s more expensive. It won’t survive. It can’t carry that many weapons. There are too many problems with the prototypes.
I’m trying to keep an open mind here, but it is very difficult. When you read reports indicating the aircraft is not safe to fly and lacks aft visibility (didn’t John Boyd already help the engineers understand that one?), or that it’s too heavy to deliver the promised performance, you have to wonder if it’s really worth stringing the project along. The real kicker for me was learning that several terabytes of classified information pertaining to the “design and electronics systems” were stolen by spies back in 2009! How comfortable would you feel going to war in a weapon system that has knowingly been exploited?
In summary, when you start to look at major defense spending programs like the F-35, it’s difficult to find the truth. Political jousting, coupled with not-so-transparent reporting can confuse the public. I think the F-35 has some amazing potential…if the things that are promised really can come to fruition. Until the jet finally comes Initially Operational Capable, I can rest peacefully knowing this one thing: at least the F-35 isn’t as ugly as its original competitor, the Boeing X-32.
Keep Up on F-35 News: http://www.jsf.mil/news/
By Tally One Editor Rob Burgon