WASHINGTON — Days after billionaire SpaceX founder Elon Musk shocked the defense community by criticizing the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Pentagon’s head of the F-35 program countered that the jet will be relevant for decades to come.

“I guess I’m not all that interested in engaging in a battle of words with Elon Musk. I don’t necessarily share his opinion,” Lt. Gen. Eric Fick told attendees at McAleese & Associates’ Defense Programs Conference on Wednesday.

“I think the F-35 is a remarkable capability and will continue to be a remarkable capability with the initiatives and the process, procedure and transformation that we see within the program. I’m happy to see what comes next, be it manned or unmanned, but I think the F-35 is going to be here for a long time.”

Musk made national news after he shared a couple of provocative opinions at an Air Force Association conference on Feb. 28. During a discussion on the future of air warfare, Musk mused that “the fighter jet era has passed” and that it was only a matter of time before the Air Force pivoted toward autonomous combat drones.

Unprompted, Musk also shared his opinion on the F-35, built by Lockheed Martin, saying its past problems with cost and schedule performance could have been avoided if the Defense Department had retained a fifth-generation competitor to the jet instead of downselecting to a single vendor in 2001.

“There should be a competitor to [the Joint Strike Fighter],” he said at the conference, adding that he knew that was a controversial opinion.

He later upped the ante, tweeting that “the competitor should be a drone fighter plane that’s remote controlled by a human, but with its maneuvers augmented by autonomy. The F-35 would have no chance against it.”

Asked about Musk’s comments on Wednesday, Gen. Mike Holmes, head of Air Combat Command, said that the defense community may have misinterpreted Musk’s comments.

“I’m not sure Elon really meant that we should park them all today,” he said, referring to fighter jets more broadly. “I think he meant we should start thinking about what comes next, because something is coming next.”

While the Air Force may some day shift almost entirely to a combat aircraft inventory made of drones, existing artificial intelligence technology is not mature enough to deal with unknown information as well as a human fighter pilot, Holmes said. “For a long time, we’re still going to need manned aircraft [for] the fighter and bomber side,” he added.

Still, he acknowledged that the Air Force should explore unmanned technologies, saying that “we will increasingly be experimenting with other options.”

As the Air Force looks to replace its aging fighter inventory, it has multiple “on ramps” where it can start retiring legacy fighters like the F-15 and F-16, and swap them with new F-35s or other jets, Holmes said. For example, the service will buy F-35s and F-15EXs to replace the F-15C/D. The next decision point will be whether to replace Block 30 and older F-16s with the F-35A or other nascent capabilities.

“I want to work to do the experimentation to answer that question,” Holmes said. “Will I still want to replace them all with F-35s, or will I start cutting in something else like Elon talked about or what [Air Force acquisition executive] Will Roper and I are discussing?”

While Holmes did not elaborate on those options, they include developmental programs like Skyborg — an AI-equipped XQ-58 Valkyrie that the Air Force hopes to develop as a “loyal wingman” to augment manned fighters — or Digital Century Series aircraft that could be developed within years using mature technologies and new advances in digital engineering.

Holmes’ comments seem to hint that the Air Force would be open to combat aircraft that could compete or complement the F-35.

In his own comments on Wednesday, Fick argued that the F-35’s program had turned a corner, describing the jet’s performance as “eye watering” and saying the jet will improve as it receives a suite of modifications called Block 4.

However, he also acknowledged wanting to see improved affordability and reliability. Although the mission-capable rates for combat-coded F-35s increased to 72 percent in 2019, Fick said the jet is still “falling short” of operator readiness requirements for fully mission-capable aircraft. He also criticized the price of flying the aircraft, saying it was critical to get the cost per flying hour to $25,000 for the F-35A.

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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