The F-35 is in the middle of a public relations storm.
With the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith, referring to the program as a “rathole” and news reports attacking the aircraft, the public is left to wonder about America’s newest fighter. However, reality dictates a far different conclusion: The F-35 is an operational success.
While the program has challenges that must be rapidly addressed, war-fighting realities demand we stay the course. Air superiority — a fighter’s primary mission — is an imperative required for any successful military effort. Ships at sea, forces on the ground, space control stations and rear echelon bases will stand little chance if subject to enemy aerial attack.
The U.S. has held an advantage in this regard for so long that many now take it for granted. Attacks leveled against the F-35 in recent weeks speaks to this hubris. Critics seem to want it both ways: wanting the benefits of air power while seeking to undermine necessary mission investment.
Adversaries like China and Russia have long sought to challenge America’s ability to project power through the air. They saw the decisive advantage yielded by U.S. air power in Operation Desert Storm and beyond. In response, they developed highly capable air defenses in the form of advanced surface-to-air missiles, next-generation fighter jets, and sophisticated sensor networks tied to command-and-control facilities.
America’s air power arsenal is woefully ill-equipped to face these new realities: 80 percent of the Air Force fighter inventory is comprised of aircraft designed in the 1960s and 1970s, primarily built in the 1980s and flown hard for decades. This is literally Ronald Reagan’s Air Force, and that’s a problem.
The ability for airmen to launch into harm’s way in a 30-year-old aircraft, attain mission results and get home safely is eroding precipitously. A mere 20 percent of the fighters in the inventory are built with the modern attributes of stealth, situational awareness and electronic warfare systems necessary to succeed in the modern era. The F-35 is the only U.S. fighter in production with these attributes.
The critics of the F-35 do not overtly deny the challenges, but their answers to the issues invariably focus on the promise of tomorrow’s solutions. Paper programs are tempting facades: They cost little in the near term, they can be anything to anyone, and they have yet to encounter the invariable technological challenges, budget growth and schedule slips that beset any modern military acquisition program.
However, if the focus is always on “program next,” the nation will never realize meaningful capabilities and capacity. Leaders will commit billions of dollars to research and development, testing, and early production, but squander these investments amid the calls for program cancellation at the very time meaningful production should accelerate. This is exactly why today’s Air Force is the smallest and oldest it has ever been since the service’s founding.
Whether discussing the decision to truncate B-2 production at 21 airframes, not the 132 required; the F-22 line canceled with just 187 of the 381 aircraft needed; or C-17 production halted despite a never-ending need for the type, among numerous other examples, leaders in the Department of Defense and Congress have grown far too comfortable pursuing a destructive modernization pathway that yields too little at a tremendous expense.
The reality is that the perfect acquisition program never existed. Now legendary aircraft like the B-52, C-17, F-15 and F-16 were pilloried in their early years. Headlines of the time reveal scathing assaults. Yet today, these aircraft are viewed in a wholly different light. The reason for this transformation is simple: commitment. Leaders recognized that successful programs are a journey, not immediate miracles.
Frankly speaking, the F-35 is doing well in this vein.
The Air Force’s version of the aircraft now costs less than new-build versions of older types, like the F-15EX. A 2019 report by the Government Accountability Office cited the mission-capable rate of combat-coded F-35s at 80 percent. More recently, then-Under Secretary for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord said in January 2021 that the military’s F-35 mission-capable rate sits at 69 percent; however, that number included noncombat-coded aircraft. But those who fly the F-35 still rave about its performance.
Many areas of the F-35 program that need improvement, like availability of spare parts, are tied to past attempts to squeeze budgets by underbuying components, not the actual design of the items themselves. Figures like the cost to fly the aircraft on an hourly basis do need to come down, but such assessments fail to recognize that a handful of F-35s can accomplish what would otherwise take more than a dozen older aircraft to accomplish, thus providing enterprise savings and better combat value at lower risk. Critics normally miss these points in their rush to attack the program as pure evil.
In many ways, the attack on the F-35 is not about the aircraft. America faces tremendous fiscal challenges in the wake of COVID-19. The F-35 is one of the larger defense procurement efforts in play. Those who seek to cut defense are going after targets of opportunity absent prudent consideration regarding national security requirements.
Operational realities demand the F-35′s capabilities in quantity. Modern alternatives would not be available until the 2030s, would run into similar teething challenges and would end up costing more. Ronald Reagan’s Air Force is simply worn out, and new aircraft are needed today. Bottom line: America needs the F-35.
Douglas Birkey is the executive director of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. He previously served as the Air Force Association’s director of government relations.