The $300+ billion, multi-national F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is the largest single military program in history. It’s also reaching a critical nexus. In order to keep costs under control and justify the industrial ramp up underway, participating countries need to sign order agreements soon. The problem is that the F-35 is not a proven fighter design, with a demonstrated baseline of performance in service. It’s a developmental aircraft in the early middle of its test program, which is now scheduled to continue until 2018 or even 2019.
As one might expect, this status makes the F-35 a controversial long-term bet in many of the program’s member countries. Costs aren’t certain, numbers ordered are slipping in many countries, and timelines aren’t certain after numerous schedule delays. With combat testing still a year or 2 away, even operational performance isn’t certain. That’s especially consequential for air forces that expect to field the F-35 as their only fighter.
September 2008 featured a very public set of controversies around the F-35′s air combat performance. Many partner countries were beginning to make decisions about their long-term needs, so the altercation in Australia became a controversy with implications, and responses, that reached well beyond that continent’s shores. The RAND study that triggered it didn’t specifically address the F-35, but it does have implications for the F-35′s projected performance – and for the heart of the USAF’s current fighter force concept.
This article takes a much closer look at the RAND Pacific Vision study, while bringing in other opinions, analyses, and subsequent developments. Understanding the F-35′s real air superiority potential and weaknesses, and their implications for partner nation participation, has only grown in importance since 2008. Let us begin…