Two decades and three presidents after development of what was once called the Joint Strike Fighter commenced, the F-35 fighter is looking like a success. Three variants tailored to the needs of the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps have met all of their performance objectives. A test program consisting of over 9,000 separate flights has been completed without a single major mishap. Prices for the airframe and engine are falling in each successive production lot. And allies are clamoring to buy the plane.
Nobody needs the F-35 more than the Air Force, which today is operating the oldest combat fleet in its history. Most of the fighters in that fleet were designed long before words like "stealthy" or "digital" became commonplace in military parlance. With U.S. strategy shifting to an emphasis on great-power competition, the ability of these legacy aircraft to survive in airspace near Russia and China is increasingly being questioned. You needn't take my word for that since I have business ties of one sort or another to several companies working on the program; just check out the various forecasts available at http://www.af.mil
The F-35 is the only fighter currently in production that can cope with the emerging warfighting environment. It is invisible to radar. It collects and shares information across vast expanses of the electromagnetic spectrum. It generates ten times as much radiated power for jamming or deceiving enemies as legacy aircraft. And after the most complex flight test program in history, the Air Force knows that all of its key features actually work. So the service is planning to buy F-35s at the rate of about one per week for many years to come.
At that rate, though, it will take decades to recapitalize a fleet that is already on its last legs. Which brings me to an unsettling reality. Because the Air Force version accounts for 72% of the joint buy, and because its "A" variant is the one that most allies want, investment choices that Air Force leaders make over the next dozen or so years will decide whether the F-35 achieves the role originally envisioned for it in revitalizing U.S. air power. If the Air Force scales back its current plan to buy 1,763 F-35s, that will have profoundly negative consequences for other military services, allies and overall U.S. security.
The reason why is easy to understand. From its inception, F-35 was conceived as a tri-service program with extensive allied involvement. Participants shared development costs in the expectation that a big production run of planes sharing common features would be more economical than everybody doing their own thing. Those development outlays, which now approach $100 billion, were predicated on the assumption that all the key players were committed to their roles. If the Air Force were to cut its buy or limit its rate, the plane would become less affordable for everyone.
Evidence is beginning to accumulate that the Air Force is not as focused on seeing the F-35 succeed as previously thought. For example, it is not ramping up production of its version at the rate that would deliver the greatest economies, and it is warning that if costs to keep the plane flying are not reduced, it may have to shrink its buy by hundreds of planes. The rationales for these moves are shaky at best, based on muddled thinking and outdated information that ignores key features of the F-35 bargain proposition.
For example, the notion that F-35 is expensive to operate ignores the fact that it will become much less expensive as it matures; ignores the fact that the latest F-35s are already the highest performing aircraft in the Air Force inventory; ignores the fact that the plane is delivering far better reliability than specified by requirements documents; and ignores the fact that its productivity on combat missions will exceed the performance of legacy aircraft by hundreds of percent.
That doesn't mean that operating costs can't be reduced faster and deeper than planned, but it does raise the question of why the Air Force is not thinking in more rigorous terms about the plane described in its annual acquisition report as "the centerpiece of our future fighter precision attack capability." I suspect I know the answer to that question, because I saw a similar breakdown of analysis occur in the Army during the last decade. To put it simply, the Air Force has become too enamored with big ideas about the future to think clearly about the present.
The biggest idea captivating Air Force leaders is that "near peer" adversaries, meaning Russia and China, are catching up with U.S. warfighting technology and may soon surpass it. The service stated in its Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan that "the Air Force's projected force structure in 2030 is not capable of fighting and winning" against the "array of potential adversary capabilities" it will likely face. You might infer therefrom that the service needs to buy stealthy, networked F-35s faster, but its flight plan highlights other items.
For instance it wants a "penetrating counterair" capability -- maybe a plane, maybe a family of systems -- that can operate within Russian and Chinese air space circa 2030. That would enable it to protect the Air Force’s next-generation bomber in attacks on the most densely-defended targets, or conduct search-and-destroy missions against time-sensitive targets. Obviously, this would require greater endurance than traditional fighters. It also wants unmanned strike and reconnaissance aircraft that can survive in contested airspace, perhaps directed by pilots in penetrating planes.
In addition, it wants all of its warfighting assets linked by a robust network so that each operator can benefit from the reconnaissance and kill capabilities of all the others, and any attrition of assets can be covered via redundancy in the system. And these assets would not be confined to air-breathing platforms -- the network would stretch across multiple warfighting "domains," including space and the electromagnetic spectrum. Electronic and cyber warfare would be ubiquitous in the high-end battlespace it envisions.
Meanwhile, at the low end of counter-terror and counter-insurgency operations, the service wants to acquire planes less costly than the F-35, perhaps turboprops rather than jets, that can deal with enemies who lack their own air forces or air defenses. So F-35 potentially ends up in a squeeze play between the lower-cost systems envisioned for addressing irregular threats and the higher-capability systems needed to address future near-peer competitors. Add in all the other stuff needed for space resilience, mobility, training and so on, and the F-35 program of record starts to look shaky.
I've been following such big ideas since the end of the Reagan era, so I can tell you with some confidence that most of them never come to fruition. What they usually end up doing is undermining programs already in hand before suffering a "controlled flight into terrain." For instance, the Army had its own plan for a networked family of combat systems that absorbed many billions of dollars before disappearing in the shifting sands of Mesopotamia. The service's modernization agenda never fully recovered.
Ironically, the Joint Strike Fighter was, at its birth, the Clinton Administration's all-purpose pretext for not spending money on other weapons. The program was so ambitious that it is a miracle the fighter has succeeded to the degree it has. But now the same kind of loose thinking that so frequently infects military investment plans in peacetime threatens to derail the one aircraft that can assure U.S. global air dominance through mid-century. And the place where that loose thinking is most out of control is the U.S. Air Force.
There's nothing wrong with planning for the future. It's an essential facet of military preparedness. But the Air Force needs to be realistic about how frequently past forecasts have proven wrong, and how tight budget resources will likely be in the next decade. There probably will never be a penetrating counterair system due to changing technological, geopolitical and fiscal circumstances. There may not even be a next-generation bomber. The one option the service can count on is that there definitely will be an F-35.
The question is whether the Air Force will make the most of that option, and in the process enable its sister services and America's allies to do likewise.