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National Defense

Outside the Box: Is It Time to Kill the F-35?


A pair of recent disclosures on the flight testing of the F-35 Lightning II reveals more bad news for the seemingly cursed Joint Strike Fighter program. In early April, Aviation Week[1] published the results of air combat maneuvers between an AF-2, equivalent to the Air Force’s F-35A variant, and a two-seater F-16D, first produced in 1984. The article was eloquent in what it did not say:

“…based on the results of these and earlier flight-envelope evaluations, test pilots say the aircraft can be cleared for greater agility as a growth option.”[2]

That is polite military speak for saying that the F-35 currently flies like a pig and did not win the head-to-head encounters with older aircraft, at least not consistently. The “growth option” means future development on the already long-delayed and enormously over budget program to enable the advanced jet to outperform a 1970’s air frame that cost the taxpayer 1/6th as much per airplane[3].


This impression seems confirmed by unofficial[4], but easily searchable, testimony from an anonymous F-35 test pilot who participated in these trials. The report reveals that the F-16 was not even in an air superiority configuration, being hampered by large external drop tanks: “Even with the limited F-16 target configuration, the F-35A remained at a distinct energy disadvantage for every engagement.”[5] The same pilot had flown F-15E strike aircraft and considered the F-35 to be substantially inferior to that aircraft as well. In a dogfight, energy management is everything: the aircraft with less kinetic and potential energy will be outmaneuvered and destroyed unless it can outrun its foe. That is not the F-35’s strong suite and the test pilot admitted as much: “There were not compelling reasons to fight in this region (at visual range).”[6]

Unfortunately, in war, one does not always have the choice of how and when to fight. Against a peer opponent – like China or Russia – the F-35 pilot may be jammed, detected and even surprised by the advanced interceptors of our adversaries. And then some of our pilots will die for flying in an inferior aircraft.

Supporters of the F-35 will point out these tests are not true indicators of the advanced fighter’s capabilities: the advanced avionics on board the JSF would allow detection of adversaries far beyond visual range and thus permit either their destruction or avoidance, while the stealth features of the aircraft would permit it to avoid a similar fate. They would also argue that the F-35 is not built as a dogfighter, but as a strike aircraft. These are somewhat valid points, but not convincingly so. For one thing, the stealthiness of the F-35 actually makes visual range combat more likely rather than less, since detection is most likely to occur visually rather than be radar. Assuming air dominance or that advanced avionics will always be able to clear a path is not realistic either: radar technology is advancing to enhance detection rates against stealth aircraft, and aircraft cannot always alter their flight profiles to avoid enemy interceptors.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a program killer, but the F-35 is plagued by many other problems:

  • The F-35 has been repeatedly grounded due to failures in a variety of key components, including: the power generator[7], the electrical subsystem[8], software[9], engine, tail hook[10], the hydraulic fuel line to the engine[11], and most recently, a catastrophic engine failure[12] that severely damaged the aircraft and forced the pilot to eject;
  • The is no software to support the firing of the F-35’s internal 25-mm cannon until 2019[13], even though the Marine Corps’ F-35B’s are scheduled to enter front-line service this year and the Air Force’s F-35A’s in 2016. This may not be a big deal, since the plane can’t dogfight worth a damn, but it is nearly incomprehensible that such a SNAFU could occur;
  • If the gun doesn’t work, the plane can at least drop bombs, can’t it? Not exactly. The Marine F-35B’s weapons bay is the smallest of the three variants due to the V/STOL capability taking up so much of the available space. It turns out that the bay is too small for the military’s most advanced munition[14], the Small Diameter Bomb (SDB II). This tiny bomb was ideal for the F-35: small enough to carry eight bombs in the internal weapons bay, but with a stand-off capability that allows the bomb to be launched 40 miles out from the target and then home into to both stationary and moving objects using an advanced target recognition AI or more traditional guidance methods. The Marines will have to wait until at least 2022 before the bay is redesigned to fit all 8 bombs of the payload…at least the gun ought to be working by then;
  • It was found that the F-35’s engine is too big and heavy for the Navy’s existing replenishment means. The engine won’t fit into the cargo doors of cargo onboard delivery planes, while at 9,400 lbs it is also too heavy for the supply ships’ transfer station to move to the carriers during underway replenishment.[15] The Gerald Ford class supercarriers will not have this problem, but there will only be two of those operational by 2022. This won’t be a problem under normal circumstances – the carriers already pack some spares – but it could become a major issue in the ability to sustain a high sortie rate during combat operations far from friendly ports;
  • Not to mention that the F-35 program is 2 years behind schedule and at over a trillion dollars, the most expensive procurement program in United States’ history.

But beyond these “teething problems” if we wish to generously call them so, the plane suffers from contradictory design requirements which are so fundamental that they cannot be rectified in future “growth options”.

  • The JSF is supposed to replace a wide variety of aircraft across the three services including: F-15E, F-16 C/D, A-10, F-18A-D, and AV-8B. These aircraft currently perform a number of very diverse roles including: air-to-surface; air-to-air; intelligence; surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR); command and control; and electronic attack;


  • The JSF is supposed to have high commonality between all three service variants (A – Air Force, B – Marines, C – Navy, Marines), which will improve logistics, costs, parts inventories, acquisition of munitions, etc… But according to a RAND Corporation study[16], commonality has fallen from the original planned 80% down to 27%. In other words, the services might as well have ordered three different planes better suited to their individual requirements and still saved money.

These requirements, especially the Marine Corps’ requirement for at V/STOL capability[17], have led to a design that makes too many compromises to excel at any of its tasks. It is a “jack of all trades, master of none” aircraft, though no one involved in the program will admit to it. It is a plane that cannot carry the ordinance or protection of an A-10, cannot dogfight like an F-15 or F-16 (or F-18 for that matter) and which is far costlier and more trouble-prone than all of these models put together. Perhaps that was adequate in the low-threat environment of the 1990’s when the F-22 and F-35 came off the drawing board as concepts, but the world has become far more dangerous since then.

Does this prejudice the continued development of the multi-role aircraft? Air Force General Michael Hostage, of Air Combat Command, recently told Air Force Times that “If I do not keep that F-22 fleet viable, the F-35 fleet frankly will be irrelevant. The F-35 is not built as an air superiority platform.”[18] That is now obvious. But the Air Force only has 187 of the air superiority Raptors to provide cover to the F-35 fleet because of serious cost overruns on that program. And what is the Navy to do? It has no F-22’s. Should our Navy and Marine aviators hope the Air Force is always nearby or that the enemy is incompetent? That is unlikely to be the case in the Pacific theater and any potential conflict with China. There, the carriers will be on their own with their contingent of Lightning IIs.


If the cost of the F-22 and F-35 fleets is justified by the need to ensure the continuation of US air supremacy well into the middle of the century, then it ought to be a very great concern that recent exercises show comparable levels of performance from likely adversaries, such as the Russian Su-30 fighter. During the most recent biennial exercise between the USAF and the Royal Malaysian Air Force[19], the F-22 and Su-30 went head-to-head for the first time and the Russian jet held its own[20]. At a cost of approximately 30 million dollars that works out to 4 Sukhoi fighters for every F-22 we could buy: not a great ratio. Luckily, most of the Su-30 aircraft in operation today are with the Indian Air Force, a country we are highly unlikely to find ourselves in a conflict with. The next largest operator is China, with approximately 70 in operation; but they are beginning to produce quantities of the Shenyang J-16, an advanced fighter based on the Su-30 airframe. The Russian Air Force is also purchasing more Su-30’s and is expected to have over 100 in operation by 2016, while it continues development of the next generation PAK FA fighter. China is also developing not one but two indigenous 5th generation stealth fighters, the J-20 and the J-31.


The “unkillable” program?

What are the options for the US? None of them are panaceas, but they at least offer food for thought:

  • Option 1: Continue as planned. By 2025, this will leave the USAF with 187 F-22 fighters for air superiority and 1,763 F-35A’s and 219 F-15E’s for strike and close air support missions. The Navy will have 260 F-35C’s, 350 F-18E/F Super Hornets, and 140 EA-18G Growlers[21]. The Marine Corps will fly 350 F-35B’s and 70 F-35C’s (to supplement the USN air wings);
  • Option 2: Re-open the F-22 production line and purchase more air superiority fighters at a cost of reducing the number of F-35A’s purchased, as well as an increased fly-away cost for the Navy and Marine variants.. The USAF originally planned to purchase 330 of the fifth generation fighters before scaling back to 187. Unfortunately, according to a 2010 RAND study[22], reopening the line would take at least 2 years and cost upwards of 500 million dollars. Each new F-22 would also be about 50 million dollars more expensive than the original 187 fighters. The total cost of purchasing an additional 75 fighters would be 17 billion dollars;
  • Option 3: Cancel the F-35 altogether and skip ahead to a sixth generation plane. This would require us to continue upgrading the current fleet of aircraft. There is only so much you can do with an airframe; however, no matter how much you improve the weapons and avionics. The 1970’s and 1980’s aircraft simply won’t be able to compete with future opponents; they are not stealthy enough and that is not something easily fixed. Additionally, regular wear-and-tear means that the per hour cost of flying these planes will continue to increase, eating into the savings; and material fatigue will lead to more accidents – some fatal- and will eventually ground most of these planes no matter what is done to keep them in the air. This option also suffers from two additional disadvantages: first, that we don’t yet know what a sixth generation plane should look like; and second, that we have no guarantee that we would be able to procure it any more efficiently or more cheaply than the current fifth generation fiascos;
  • Option 4: Buy foreign. That is not something the US has done since the First World War, with the exception of the Marine Corps Harrier (license-built). Purchasing Eurofighter Typhoons or Dassault Rafales to supplement the F-22’s and F-35’s would be a cheap and quick method of retaining capabilities, as well as maintaining commonality with our NATO partners. At $100 million per aircraft, the Eurofighter would make an excellent complement to the F-22 fleet in the air superiority role while the Rafale M could replace the naval variant F-35C at 70% to 80% of the projected cost of the latter plane[23]. Impacts on the US manufacturing base would have to be evaluated, but it is not a bad short-term solution though the Marines would be left without a new aircraft to replace the AV-8B;
  • Option 5. Develop domestic. There have been a number of proposals to develop a stealthier version of the F-15, including the F-15SE “Silent Eagle” and the F-15 Advanced. By making use of a proven airframe, significant cost savings in development could be achieved, with Boeing estimating a fly-away cost including program development of 100 million dollars[24] for the “Silent Eagle”.


Reimagining the F-35

It probably impossible to kill the F-35 program completely, but there might still be combinations of the above options that optimize the mix of suitable aircraft for each mission and introduce a real element of competition that has been lacking in the current procurement process. Lockheed Martin and Boeing would surely jump through hoops if they believed the Pentagon was seriously considering purchasing a foreign aircraft.

What would this look like?

  • Keep only the F-35B, which despite its defects is entering front-line service this year with the USMC. Yes, that means we spent a trillion dollars on a replacement for the AV-8B Harrier 2, but those are sunk costs and should not be considered. New development would be focused exclusively on fixing the F-35B’s problems, not those of 3 variants, which should ensure that they are fixed sooner. That also allows us to keep our promise and fulfill the export contracts to our partners in Italy and the UK;
  • Cancel the F-35A program completely. Instead, hold a fly-off competition between the Boeing F-15SE and Eurofighter Tranche 3A to determine which would replace the Air Force Lightning IIs. The Boeing aircraft has the advantage of being a domestic manufacturer as well as the USAF’s familiarity with and commonality to the existing F-15 variants; while the European fighter has the advantage of an existing production line, and “off-the-shelf” purchase capability and proven – if limited – combat record;
  • Also cancel the Navy’s F-35C program, which is the costliest of the three Lightning variants and the only one that is exclusively for US military use (no export orders). There are not very many 4++ generation naval aircraft in service, and even fewer when you eliminate Russian and Chinese aircraft from consideration, but a competition could be opened between the Rafale, the naval variant of the Typhoon and the Hindustan Aeronautics Tejas Mark2/3. The Rafale has the cost advantage on the Typhoon, as well as the USN preference for twin-engine aircraft over the Tejas.

In both of the above cases, a foreign aircraft would need to be license-built in the US in order to be politically acceptable to Congress. The US-variant would undoubtedly need to be updated with the advanced avionics deployed on the F-35, including the Distributed Aperture System (DAS), the nose-mounted targeting system (EOTS) and the enablement of sensor fusion via the advanced data link (MADL). These enhancements will help mitigate the greater observability of the European fighters and are the real basis of the F-35’s capabilities. Although some development might be necessary, it would surely be considerably less expensive than trying to improve the flight characteristics of an inherently unaerodynamic slug.

  • Reopen the F-22 production line and increase the number of the proven and capable Raptor back to the original target of 330 aircraft. In order to both reduce the cost of the F-22 overall and to ameliorate the blow of cancelling the F-35A to our partners in Australia, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway and Turkey, we should offer the Tier 1 and 2 nations a chance to purchase the F-22 instead. This would require a substantial reduction in the fly away costs of the Raptor; the RAND study estimates these at an unaffordable 179 million dollars per aircraft, for 75 aircraft. However, the fly away cost of the original product F-22 was “only” 139 million dollars; with a larger guaranteed order and foreign sales, it is entirely possible that the fly away cost could be reduced to as much as 110 million dollars. This would bring it close enough to the 100 million cost of the F-35 that it would be affordable to our allies. It is consistent with the cost savings of 5% to 15% generated in previous aircraft designs benefiting from large, multi-year orders[25].There are of course serious and legitimate concerns about sharing our most advanced – our only advanced – aircraft with our allies; allies who might be spied upon by our potential adversaries. But honestly, given revelations of the scale and longevity of Chinese and Russian hacks into our government, military and business systems, do we really think that there are many secrets that they don’t already have their hands on? Given these facts, I believe it is entirely within reason to argue that the benefit of expanding the F-22 fleet at a more affordable price, and having our closest allies benefiting from that same platform, outweigh the risks of security leaks.

The final consideration: we must entirely rethink and redesign our military procurement process. The pace of technological innovation used to be measured in years or even decades; now it is a revolution every 18 months[26]. Unless we find a way to reduce design times and costs in such a manner that a weapons system can be designed, tested and field in little more than 3 years, we will continue to field expensive equipment that is obsolescent by the time it is in the hands of our soldiers. There is no doubt it is possible: private industry manages this feat. We can accomplish this in our defense procurement as well: otherwise, we will continue to fail our soldiers and our country.

Sources and Notes

[1] Guy Norris and Amy Butler, “F-35 Flies Against F-16 in Basic Fighter Maneuvers,” Aviation Week, 02 April 2015

[2] Ibid

[3] In constant 2005 dollars. Using estimated fly-away costs for the F-35A variant.

[4] David Axe, “Test Pilot Admits the F-35 Can’t Dogfight,” War is Boring, 29 June 2015

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] David Lerman, “Air Force Lifts Flight Ban on Lockheed F-35 Fighter Jet,” Bloomberg Business, 18 August 2011

[8] Stephen Trimble, “F-35 fleet grounded after electrical subsystem failure,” Flight Global, 03 August 2011

[9] Andrea Shalal-Esa, “Honeywell to test some F-35 parts after smoke incident,” Reuters, 25 February 2013

[10] Dave Majumdar, “F-35C Tailhook Design Blamed for Landing Issues,” Defense News, 17 January 2012

[11] David Majumdar, “F-35B grounded after fueldralic line failure,” Flight Global, 18 January 2013

[12] Brian Everstine, “AF investigation: Catastrophic engine failure caused F-35 fire,” Air Force Times, 08 June 2015

[13] Dave Majumdar, “New U.S. Stealth Jet Can’t Fire Its Gun Until 2019,” The Daily Beast, 31 December 2014

[14] Tyler Rogoway, “F-35 Can’t Carry Its Most Versatile Weapon Until At Least 2022,“ Foxtrot Alpha, 28 February 2015

[15] William H. McMichael, “JSF engine too big for regular transport at sea,” Navy Times, 29 November 2010

[16] Tony Capaccio, “Report: F-35’s one-jet approach more costly for military,” Star-Telegram, 17 December 2013

[17] Vertical/Short Take-Off and Landing

[18] Aaron Mehta, “Air Combat Command’s challenge: Buy new or modernize older aircraft,” Air Force Times, 02 February 2014

[19] Tyler Rogoway, “US Air Force’s F-22s & F-15s Just Battled One of Their Most Feared Foes,” Foxtrot Alpha, 27 June 2014

[20] Haris Hussain, “MAN: Turning and burning with the best,” New Straits Times, 28 June 2014

[21] This is the electronic warfare and counter warfare version of the F-18F Super Hornet.

[22] Obaid Younossi, Kevin Brancato, John C. Graser, Thomas Light, Rena Rudavsky and Jerry M. Sollinger , “Ending F-22A Production: Costs and Industrial Base Implications of Alternative Options,” Rand Corporation, 2010

[23] According to the French Senate website, the Rafale M cost 78 million euros in 2013, which at recent USD:EUR exchange rates is a little over 80 million dollars unit cost.  “Projet de loi de finances pour 2014 : Défense : équipement des forces et excellence technologique des industries de defense

[24] Stephen Trimble, “Boeing unveils upgraded F-15 Silent Eagle with fifth-generation features,” Flight Global, 17 March 2009

[25] Obaid Younossi, Mark V. Arena, Kevin Brancato, John C. Graser, Benjamin W. Goldsmith,  Mark A. Lorell, Fred Timson and Jerry M. Sollinger, “F-22A Multiyear Procurement Program: An Assessment of Cost Savings,” RAND Corporation, 2007

[26] Know in computing circles as Moore’s Law.

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