The Joint Strike Fighter, referred to by some critics as ‘the trillion dollar plane’ is perhaps the most misunderstood defence project in history, but what are its advantages, is the F-35 worth the price, and how have these misconceptions fostered?
The sheer scale of F-35 criticism is perhaps more representative of the boom in decentralised information dissemination through social media platforms than actual flaws in the aircraft or its systems. The ease with which misinformation can be shared with the world in 2023 far outstrips that of the era of Super Hornet development in the early 1990s. In the technological age, as opposed to a select few magazines and newspapers with rigorous editorial standards publishing information, anyone with a phone and access to the internet can share their two cents. This comes as a double-edged sword, as while it allows for greater public scrutiny, it also can lead to major flaws in public understanding, as we are exploring here.
Thus, the first point which must be addressed is whether the F-35’s criticism is fair. There are two main points which will be covered here: firstly, the cost of the programme, and second, its mission effectiveness.
As was alluded to earlier, there is much misinformation and misunderstanding in the public domain when it comes to F-35 programme cost. Many interpret the US Department of Defense figure of $1.5 trillion to mean that is the amount which has been spent on the project, or that was the amount spent procuring the aircraft. Neither of these interpretations are correct. What this figure attempts to estimate is the total cost of the Joint Strike Fighter Programme, from its inception to its retirement. That includes design costs, purchasing the 2,456 aircraft, maintaining them through to the 2070s, fuelling them, purchasing spare parts, pilot training, and inflation adjusted wages for all pilots and maintenance crew. When all of these datum points are factored in, it is undoubtable that such an estimation is reasonable. The Lightning II is a ground-breaking platform, featuring unrivalled sensor fusion, battlefield awareness, multirole capability, and the F-35B is the first supersonic aircraft capable of a vertical landing. Such a pioneering platform will of course carry a heavy price, but the technological offset, even when compared to near-peer nations such as the PRC with their J-20 stealth fighter, provides value to Western air forces never before seen.
The phrase “can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run” originated from John Stillion’s written summary of a US wargame, later leaked to the media. However, this has been widely debunked. Claims that the F-35 is ‘too slow’ at a rated speed of Mach 1.6 is once more a misunderstanding of the realities of combat, and the aircraft it is being compared to. While the F-16 can indeed reach speeds twice the speed of sound, that is only possible with no weapons or external fuel tanks, obviously unrealistic in a combat scenario. Meanwhile, the Mach 1.6 of the F-35 is reachable even with full combat loadouts of fuel, bombs, and air-to-air missiles such as the AIM-120 AMRAAM or Meteor. Next, perhaps the most bizarre claim is that the F-35 does not carry enough fuel, and lacks the necessary combat range. Most notably, the F-35 has twice the combat radius of the F-15C and increases combat radius by between 25 and 100 per cent on all of the US aircraft which the Lightning is intended to replace.
In terms of capability, the F-35 is one of the most impressive fighters available, second only to the US F-22 Raptor. According to ‘The Aviationist’, at the 2017 Red Flag wargaming exercise “Three words [summarised] the role of the F-35A… stealth, integration and flexibility. To a greater degree than any previous aircraft in U.S. Air Force history, the F-35A Lightning IIs from Hill AFB acted as sensors, guidance platforms and strike assets almost simultaneously, and they did so in a threat environment that would have been previously impenetrable without significantly greater losses”. In this joint exercise, the F-35 achieved an astonishing kill ratio of twenty-to-one against other USAF aircraft, according to Lt. Gen. Jerry Harris, Vice Commander of Air Combat Command, showing its immense air-to-air capabilities. Alongside these capabilities though, the Joint Strike Fighter can also deliver multiple paveway laser-guided bombs, and once integration has been completed, a number of world-leading Meteor BVRAAMs.
In 2021, British and American F-35B aircraft operating from HMS Queen Elizabeth proved their worth, continuously operating throughout the 28-week CSG21 deployment, and intercepting 30 Russian aircraft in the Mediterranean. Ultimately, the British Lightning force has a bright future, both in its carrier-based operations as a part of the Fleet Air Arm, and in its land-based RAF squadrons. Alongside Typhoon, and the eventual result from the Global Combat Air Programme, F-35 will make up Britain’s air capability well into the 2070s and beyond. However, its success largely depends on HM Government and whether it decides to properly fund Meteor integration, bringing its initial operating capacity forward from the unacceptable 2027 date. The Mach 4 Ramjet-powered missile can hunt down aerial targets at a distance of over 100 nautical miles and will be the key to unlocking the true potential of the growing F-35 fleet. Despite this, certain areas of procurement do look promising, with funding for more F-35s beyond the currently ordered 48 having been secured, according to the UK Defence Journal.
To conclude, the F-35 programme as a whole represents a valuable case study into the impact of social media misinformation, and despite a number of unflattering media portrayals, the F-35 represents one of the most advanced air platforms available, technologically superior to any systems fielded by NATO near-peer adversaries such as China or Russia.