The F-35 Lightning II program has been beset by a number of problems that were not anticipated when it was first proposed. It is astounding, even when considering the technological advancements that the F-35 represents, for a military aircraft program to require more than eleven years of development and not a single operational squadron yet exists.
If you have been reading this blog, you are well aware that one of the underlying reasons that America pays so much for its weapons is because the Pentagon seeks to push the tech envelope in every direction. Sometimes, this results in a remarkable weapon system, such as the M1 tank, while in others, the result is dubious (the V-22 Osprey) or both (the F-22).The F-35, which is shaping up to be the costliest weapon buy in American history, may never be the cost-effective, multi-service jet that was promised. It was meant to be a fighter usable by the US Air Force, the Navy, and the Marines, as well as a number of other countries. The problem is that Lockheed had to design a fighter that was stealthy, like the F-22, could dogfight, drop bombs, carry its weapons internally to keep it stealthy, and, oh yeah, land on a carrier by hovering, just like the old Harrier jump jet.
Getting all of these opposing design requirements to work in a single package, at a reasonable cost, no less, has proven far more difficult than expected. The F-35, which appears to have a distressingly short unrefueled range, reminds me of a latter-day F-111 Aardvark, a swing-wing jet of the 1960’s that, as a cost-saving measure, was supposed to be used by both the Navy and the Air Force. As it turned out the F-111 proved to be too heavy to land on carriers (oops!) and the Air Force was stuck with it. Irony of ironies, this big and heavy “fighter” was actually used in the light bomber role by the Air Force, which demonstrates that trying to be all things to all people usually means that you are nothing to everyone.
At this stage, it seems likely that the F-35 will never live up to the hopes expressed upon the inception of its plan, but it is too far along to give up, both politically and economically. Something will have to be salvaged from this otherwise unhappy fighter program. Look for far fewer purchases than anticipated, as newer and better Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) emerge from the drawing boards of aerospace companies. UAV’s are not yet the Dreadnought battleship that renders all previous designs obsolete, but they are getting close. Read about the sorry details of the F-35 here.