NO, THE F-35 IS NOT DEAD.
I know I said I was needed to take a break but this one is a doozy.
"Powerful lawmaker calls F-35 fighter jet a ‘rathole,’ " (Washington Post)
10 Reasons Nearly Nothing Can Stop the F-35 Stealth Fighter (Sorry. This one is from notorious F-35 cheerleader Loren Thompson and his "pay-to-play" think tank)
First of all, (to paraphrase Mark Twain) reports of the F-35's demise are greatly exaggerated.
The Lightning II has not been cancelled. Production has not been stopped. The JSF is still very much a thing and will continue to be well into the future.
All of this started with General Charles Q. Brown Jr, the Air Force Chief-of-Staff, announcing a study to look into a "5th-Gen Minus" fighter to help replace the USAF's inventory of aging F-16s. This, of course, is exactly what the F-35 Lightning II was meant to do.
Hence the reaction.
Pundits have used the announcement of this study to proclaim that the JSF is being cancelled, that the F-35 has failed, and that $1.7 trillion dollars have been flushed down the drain.
This is not the case.
This is merely a study.
In the meantime, the F-35 is not going anywhere. It is still being developed, manufactured, tested, and procured. Even if the Pentagon and all the other JSF buyers were to suddenly cancel their orders, there would still be enough F-35s to cement its place in multiple air forces for decades to come.
So why all the fuss?
This announcement is a clear admission that the F-35 Lightning II is not everything it was hoped to be. Simply put, it cannot replace the F-16. Not from a capability sense but from an economic one.
Since its inception, the F-16 has occupied the lower half of the USAF's "high/low" capability strategy. Higher capability fighters like the F-15 and F-22 solidly occupied the upper tier, but were too expensive to field in high numbers. The cheaper F-16 provided those numbers.
While the F-35 may have been envisioned as a low-cost fighter, in truth it has been anything but. While its unit cost may be slowly coming down, its operating cost has not. It still costs more to fly than the older twin-engined F-15. One can argue about the JSF's capabilities all day, but there is no arguing the fact that its current CPFH (cost per flight hour) would bankrupt the USAF if it replaced the F-16 on a one-to-one basis.
What is especially concerning to the USAF is that the JSF's CPFH is not likely to get much lower.
One could assume that the USAF is learning from its F-15EX experience. With its aging fleet of F-15C/Ds and F-22s, the USAF is in desperate need of air-superiority fighters. Since new-build F-22s are off the table, the USAF commissioned a modernized F-15 Eagle.
Built of the ever-evolving F-15E Strike Eagle platform, the F-15EX promises to take the fighter back full circle into an air-superiority fighter. Not only does it improve on the legacy Eagle's avionics and payload, but it promises to be cheaper to fly thanks to its more modern and robust airframe.
It may not have the stealth capability of aircraft like the F-22 and F-35, the F-15EX should be more than capable of performing duties over uncontested airspace and interception. This saves the F-22 for more dangerous missions where its stealth is actually useful.
The success of the F-15EX would suggest a similar dynamic with the F-35.
The F-35 makes a lot of sense for the "first day of war" scenario, when enemy defenses are at their strongest and you need a stealthy platform to sneak in and "break down the door"... But what about the day after, when enemy airfields are trashed and SAM sites are no more?
The F-35 does have its well publicized "beast mode" in which it forgoes its stealth to mount external weapons. Doing so allows it to perform duties similar to current F-16s and Super Hornets... Albeit at a much higher operating cost. This, of course makes the beancounter furious. The whole point of the F-35 and its commonality was to save costs.
While the F-35 may be able to perform some missions not possible with older fighters, the harsh truth is that it no financial sense to use the JSF for missions that the F-16 can do just as well. The F-35 has positioned itself well into the "high" of the USAF's "high/low" capability strategy.
This was not the original intention of the JSF, but it is the reality. We can thank the Pentagon's habit of gold plating for that. The USAF is now faced with a fighter fleet of:
- Very High Air Superiority (F-22 Raptor)
- High Air Superiority (F-15C/D Eagle soon to be replaced with the EX)
- High Strike (F-15E Strike Eagle)
- High Multirole (F-35 Lightning II)
- Low Multirole (F-16 Fighting Falcon in desperate need of replacement)
Sure, the F-35 should be able to perform any duty done by the F-16, much like how the F-22 can perform the same duties as a F-15C... But is it worth it at twice the operating cost?
Imagine looking in your closet to find a tuxedo, several designer business suits, and a worn-out pair of overalls with a ripped crotch. You are all set for job interviews and weddings... But what are you going to wear to get groceries? What are you going to wear to the gym? Are you going to wear that Italian Linen suit to an all-you-can-eat barbecue buffet?
It is no wonder why the USAF is now pondering a different option.
But what would such a thing look like?
One could argue that the F-15EX already fills the bill of a "5th Gen Minus" aircraft... Unless, somehow, a "5th Gen Minus" is fundamentally different than a "4th Gen Plus" fighter, possibly causing math nerds to drop into convulsions.
The good news is, if the USAF simply wants a modernized F-16, such a beast has already been flight tested. The F-16XL.
Initially developed as a competitor to the F-15E, the F-16XL lengthened the Viper's fuselage and swapped its stubby little wings for massive cranked deltas. The resulting design gave the F-16 more fuel, more payload capability, and even supercruise once paired with the GE F110-129 (the same engine used in the F-15EX). Pair the XL's airframe with the modern avionics of the F-16V and you are pretty much good to go.
The F-16XL (F-16EX?) would offer substantial improvements over the current F-16 fleet. Commonality with legacy F-16s and use of off-the-shelf parts would keep operating costs low. Best of all for the USAF, the timeline required to incorporate the newer fighters would be mercifully short.
Of course, the decision to replace existing F-16s with a "5th Gen Minus" fighter would have serious repercussions with the JSF program. Every F-16 not replaced with an F-35 reduces the number of Lightning IIs built, increasing the unit cost of each. We can expect a huge push back from JSF partners; even Lockheed Martin, which builds the F-16.
Perhaps a different option would be to simply offer up a downgraded F-35.
An F-35E (for economy?) could forgo the JSFs more advanced features in order to keep costs down. Remove the fragile stealth coating, its complicated helmet-mounted display, convoluted DAS and EOTS systems; and you will have a much simpler, cheaper fighter. Something more akin to the X-35 prototype and what it promised than what was eventually delivered.
This is likely easier said than done, however. The JSF's flight control software has been developed over years to incorporated every aspect of the F-35. Start removing some of those parts could lead to more troubles and costs instead of the opposite. Removing some features might prove counterproductive as well. The removal of EOTS would necessitate mounting of a targeting pod. Removing the HMD would have pilots clamoring for at least a HUD. At the end of the day, cost savings may be negligible.
Of course, the USAF also has the option of purchasing a completely off-the-shelf design, like the Super Hornet Block III or Gripen E.
The idea of a USAF Super Hornet has likely already been talked about under hushed tones in dark corners of the Pentagon. Attempts to bring the subject up to senior Air Force staff is likely met with harsh glares and banging of desks. The idea of replacing the F-16 with an aircraft based on the fighter it beat over 45 years ago would likely give some USAF personnel aneurisms.
Purchasing a foreign-designed fighter like the Gripen is pretty much a non-starter. While the JAS 39E may be a near-perfect replacement for the F-16 on paper; there is no way to make such a thing politically palatable. While America has procured foreign designed fighters in the past, these were the exceptions, not the rule. Depending on a foreign power for a bread-and-butter multirole fighter built in the hundreds (possibly thousands) is almost unthinkable.
This "study" may end up being a nothing-burger. In fact, its findings may be used to shore up support for the JSF program. A close analysis of all the options may reveal that the F-35 is the most financially prudent option, at least until the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) shows up.
Or perhaps this study is little more than a way to light a fire under the Joint Program Office's ass.
For years, Lockheed Martin and the JPO have been promising lower costs for the F-35. So far, there has been little incentive to actually do so. The "winner takes all" mechanics of the JSF selection has effectively quashed any possible competition or alternatives.
No. The JSF has not failed. It is very much a thing and will continue to be for decades to come.
Unfortunately, the JSF is not the roaring success it was meant to be. The very fact that the USAF is considering options is proof of that. The idea that it was going to replace almost every fighter in the Western (and some of the Eastern) World always seemed far-fetched. That was the narrative, however. It was supposed to be almost mythical in its versatility; able to perform just about any duty asked of it.
Many of us know the old adage, "Cheap, fast, good... Pick two." This is simplification of the "iron triangle" used in business management. Any attempt to improve one aspect of project will have repercussions on the other aspects. You cannot simply will a project to meet all its budgetary and performance requirements. Yet this was the practice used with the F-35. Somehow it was going to do the job of many different aircraft, yet do it better and somehow cheaper. This is just not possible.
What the JSF is capable of, is doing some jobs exceptionally well and doing other jobs reasonably well. The trade-off is a higher operating cost. This is all well and good. The admission that other platforms might be better for certain missions does not damn the entire program, it merely syncs it with reality.
Many have compared the F-35 program to TFX program the eventually led to the F-111. This program sought to reduce costs by developing a single fighter to fulfill multiple rolls in the USAF and USN (sound familiar?). The resulting aircraft was the F-111 Aardvark,
The F-111B was an abject failure. Meant to be a fleet defense interceptor for the United States Navy, it was too big and too heavy to perform the role. When asked if this could be solved with more powerful engines, Vice Admiral Thomas Connolly famously replied "There isn't enough power in all Christendom to make that airplane what we want!".
On the other hand, the USAF version of the F-111, the F-111A, can only be seen as a success. It had a storied career as a fighter bomber, and was eventually developed into the EF-111 Raven.
In the end, the F-111 was not all it was imagined to be, but that does not take away from its legacy. Its initial concept was merely an overreach; intending to do too much when it was far better suited to a particular niche.
Such is the case with the F-35. Perhaps it is better suited to being part of a fleet, instead of making up the entire fleet.