As the Cold War waned, the United States took a big gamble that the nation would need the advanced F-35 Lightning II fighter-bomber. And, after two decades, America’s big gamble has, for all intents and purposes, come true as advanced technologies come online to counter a resurgent Russia and an increasingly aggressive China. Today, the F-35 is the standard for top-level air forces around the world. But this underappreciated, hard-earned framework for global success could crumble as the Pentagon, hungry for the “next big thing”, begins to cut the grass under the F-35 program, hitting it with a brutal cut 35% to next year’s order book.
Observers expect next year’s Air Force order to be cut by a third, the Marine Corps to buy 25% fewer planes and the Navy to cut its purchases by half. F-35C marinized. A total of 33 devices will be cut out of a planned purchase of 94.
This drastic cut makes little sense. With the F-35 operating and with fifteen nations currently operating or committed to operating F-35s, disengagement from the program is difficult for the Pentagon to defend. No alternative is in public view, and the F-35 is well on its way to becoming the global fighter it was originally intended to be.
From a doctrinal point of view, the reduction in production is hardly justifiable. Granted, the new National Defense Strategy has yet to emerge from the depths of the Pentagon, but President Joe Biden’s Interim National Security Strategic Directions support the F-35’s value proposition. The interim guidelines highlight the international threats the F-35 was designed to respond to. It also calls for the revitalization and modernization of alliances and partnerships around the world. As such, the F-35 is already part of the “smart and disciplined” glue that keeps the United States as a vital contributor to NATO and other critical alliances.
With a little effort, the Navy, Air Force, Congress, and Administration can unite for victory. There is still time for the Administration to reverse the proposed cuts, and even if the Administration forges ahead, locking itself into a cost-limited “divest to reinvest” strategy, service secretaries can still encourage both the Navy and Air Force to include the restoration of lost F-35s in their respective lists of unfunded priorities, allowing Congress to debate both the value and the future of the F-35 program.
The F-35 works:
Despite the headlines in the test reports, the F-35 works. That is, the plane is not a flying version of the ill-fated Navy Zumwalt class destroyer – a 22 billion dollar disaster. And even if, after fifteen years, only one of the three Zumwalt-class destroyers is currently being commissioned, the Pentagon seems ready to allow these ships to wallow, with no mission and no functioning primary armament. In contrast, the F-35 goes to work every day in countries around the world.
It’s not something the public hears much about due to the classified nature of the mission and the capabilities of the F-35.
As more and more defense agencies strive to keep their “high-end” combat capabilities secret, the F-35’s successes are rarely discussed or disclosed. The F-35’s first combat success was kept secret for a year. This month, the Israel Defense Forces revealed the F-35’s first combat success. Twelve months ago, F-35I Adir fighters shot down two Iranian Shahad 197 drones in the “world’s first operational interception of a UAV by an F-35I aircraft”, with the Israeli aircraft detecting, identifying and engaging with their targets accurately.
If demonstrated performance falls short, the conflict in Ukraine reinforces the value of the F-35’s ambitious focus on fighter integration and alliance operations. In the disputed airspace of Ukraine, Russia’s first rank 4and The Air Force generation platforms, unable to effectively integrate with other Russian combat systems, have utterly failed to live up to their solid reputation. Russia’s arsenal of electronic warfare systems – systems that observers feared were hopelessly jamming the F-35’s ambitious sensor integration and networking capabilities – proved far more vulnerable and fragile than expected.
The daunting computational and simulation challenges associated with the 5and F-35 generation platform are paying huge dividends. Completed work on the F-35 will help keep the United States ahead as warfighters work to bring together other platforms – friendly aircraft, networked UAVs, deployable drones and other networks of fight.
Let’s get things straight before cutting production and rushing to buy the next thing.
The F-35 is the arsenal of democracy:
Worse still, if Congress allows the Pentagon to withdraw from the F-35 program now, it will leave key members of major US alliances off guard. By cutting back on purchases and potentially dragging the platform into a deadly spiral, where unit and operational costs soar to the point where customers balk, the Pentagon risks throwing America’s global dominance into the air war and, potentially , to end the program early.
Deep, steep cuts send a dire message to NATO, mocking President Biden’s clear guidance on building alliances. Defense leaders across Europe are taking real risks to support the F-35. What does it mean to roll back America’s record-breaking F-35 program as foreign orders flood in? Late last year, Finland committed to 64 F-35As, beating high-end and low-end competitors from Boeing, Dassault, Saab and the Eurofighter consortium. Last week, to everyone’s surprise, Germany stepped in, replacing aging Tornado fighter-bombers with 35 F-35As. Even cost-conscious, economy-conscious Switzerland bought F-35s.
At sea, until Russia withdraws from sanctions and China begins delivering carrier-ready aircraft, the marinized F-35B and F-35C jets are the only modern aircraft available to countries that seek to generate aircraft carrier capabilities. For decades to come, the F-35 will be the platform of choice for friendly navies.
Around the world, other nations are considering their options as they modernize their air forces. And with poorly integrated Russian aircraft failing to demonstrate their effectiveness over Ukraine, the F-35 – and the painstaking effort to seamlessly merge the platform into cohesive sensor constellations – begins to look like the last remaining option for countries aspiring to field a modern air force.
With Russia’s air deals now out of favor, the Pentagon’s efforts to save pennies may cause potential “non-aligned” buyers to reassess their options. And if the only other viable top-tier bid is Chinese, the machinations of the Pentagon’s green visor strategists will have unwittingly thrown a lifeline to America’s biggest tech competitor.
In short, each additional F-35 purchase helps control the costs of the F-35 program. And with each purchase, the global industrial base deepens, providing the US F-35 fleet with an additional measure of resilience. The large-scale use of the F-35 offers American decision-makers far more opportunities to take advantage of easy coordination with foreign partners.
Few other platforms in America’s arsenal have done more to irreversibly entangle the United States in alliance structures that today prove their worth in the face of creeping authoritarianism.
Let’s discuss the F-35 value proposition:
In Washington DC, the technology contained in the F-35 becomes “old news” and Pentagon technologists, in the name of “divest to reinvest”, turn to novelty.
We already know how this story goes. A decade from now, once the next “big thing” fails to live up to its full potential, Washington will scramble to keep America’s downsized F-35 fleet operational and think of fantastic initiatives to resurrect F-35 production lines long dead. .
The F-35 has come a long way. A surprise 35% reduction in purchases, right now, is a penalty imposed only on the worst performing programs. It’s a step worth considering by Congress, and if the Pentagon forces the Air Force and Navy to limit their purchases, jeopardizing the US goal of a fleet of 2,400 F-35s, the services should add their missing F-35s. 35 to their unfunded priority lists and for Congress to open the debate on the value proposition of the F-35. We can see that, in this case, the much abused F-35 is worth every penny – and more.