The F-35 Lightning II: The Front-runner

The front-runner:  F-35 Lightning II.

Billed as the "only 5th Generation jet fighter on the market" the F-35 certainly seems like the natural choice for replacing a nation's 4th generation F-16 or F-18 fighter fleet.  To say the F-35 has been controversial is an understatement.  Like many other military programs, it is years behind schedule and billions over its planned budget.  Yet the program is now starting to show some progress lately, and costs are said to be dropping.

In 2010, the Canadian government declared the F-35 to be Canada's CF-18 replacement.  The opposition parties, critics, and the media immediately started questioning why there was no competition, no bidding process, or no consideration of other jet fighters.  Over the next few years, costs related to the F-35 purchase became the focus.  Several audits and press conferences later, a $9 billion fighter purchase was revealed to cost $46 billion when long term costs, such as parts, maintenance, and upgrades were factored in.  This prompted the government to declare the program "reset" and it would look into other options.

Canada is still a partner nation of the Joint Strike Fighter program however, and it is still considered the likely choice.

So why choose the F-35?

Everyone else is doing it.

For one, it was designed from the beginning to replace the F/A-18 Canada currently uses as a front line fighter.  It will also replace the F-16 Fighting Falcon, A-10 Thunderbolt II (Warthog), AV-8 Harrier, and the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter.  Three versions will be available, the conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) F-35A, short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) F-35B, and the carrier version (CV) F-35C.  Canada is opting for the cheapest version, the F-35A.  Altogether, there will well be well over 2000 F-35's in service, planned for the US, UK, Italy, Japan, Israel, Australia, Singapore, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, and likely others.  Commonality and interoperability is said to help keep costs down and make joint operations run smoother.

It's the only stealth fighter available.

The F-35 is also the only stealth fighter available on the market right now, as the F-22 is no longer in production. The F-22 was likely too expensive and under an export ban regardless.  Other stealth designs, like the Russian PAK FA and Chinese J-20 are likely years away and politically unattractive.  Other aircraft can promise stealthy features and advancements on older fighter designs, but the truth of the matter is that stealth has to be designed into an aircraft from the beginning of the design.

It's the most advanced.

There is also no denying that the F-35 will be the most advanced fighter on the market.  Along with its stealth, it mounts an advanced sensors such as AESA radar, EOTS infrared tracking system, and DAS (digital aperture system) giving it a clear view of the space around it.  It also eschews the traditional HUD (head's up display) for a special helmet that projects information directly ahead of the pilot's eyes.

Sounds like a compelling argument, doesn't it?  So why is the F-35 purchase so controversial?

It takes a lot of money to get a modern fighter off the ground.

It's development has been troubled.
Put simply, the JSF program is years behind schedule and billions over budget.  This is not unusual for a large defense project, but the sheer scale of the program makes it only that much more open to 
criticism.  Recent news seems to indicate that progress is being made toward the fighter becoming fully operational, but many remain unconvinced.

It may not match the performance of current fighter models.
Initially intended to match the performance of "4th generation" fighters like the F-16 and F/A-18, the F-35's specifications have been downgraded.  Lockheed still maintains that its fighter is superior to legacy aircraft, but many remain unconvinced of that particular claim.

It may not be ready for action just yet.
The USAF is now declaring that the F-35 will be operational in December of 2016.  This comes with a caveat, however, as that only includes 12 jets at a reduced capability called "Block 2B" instead of the more capable "Block 3F" planned.  This means a reduced missile capacity and attack ability.  Other questions have risen regarding whether or not the aircraft will be able to meet basic training requirements and resolve some niggling maintenance issues by then.

One of the biggest controversies about the F-35 at this point, is price.  This question may go unanswered for the time being, as the F-35's unit price is still very much in flux.  Some reports have it as low as $78 million per copy, while other state it will be closer to $200 million per copy, depending on factors such as production rate and other costs.  The F-35's price is highly dependent on economies of scale, and its cost will depend greatly on not only how many are produced, but how fast they are put into production.  Given the U.S.A.'s status as the F-35's largest costumer (by a considerable margin), they will have the most direct influence on the price.

So is the F-35 Canada's best choice?  Given Canada's economic realities, the F-35's cost may very well be a deal breaker.  Some have concerns about the F-35's single engine.  Others are not so sure that stealth is an ability that Canada needs.

At the very least, nagging questions regarding price and performance should be settled before Canada decides to commit billions of dollars.  If the F-35 is the best option, then that will become clearly apparent after a full competition.

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