F-35A test flight
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.
This article takes a much closer look at the 2008 RAND Pacific Vision study that triggered so much controversy, 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…
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