The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — a do-it-all strike jet being designed by Lockheed Martin to evade enemy radars, bomb ground targets and shoot down rival fighters — is as troubled as ever.
Compromised design is second rate. Overweight and underpowered
Owing to heavy design compromises foisted on the plane mostly by the Marine Corps, the F-35 is an inferior combatant, seriously outclassed by even older Russian and Chinese jets that can fly faster and farther and maneuver better. In a fast-moving aerial battle, the JSF “is a dog … overweight and underpowered,” according to Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight.
And future enemy planes, designed strictly with air combat in mind, could prove even deadlier to the compromised JSF.
It doesn’t really matter how smoothly Lockheed and the government’s work on the new warplane proceeds. Even the best-manufactured JSF is a second-rate fighter where it actually matters — in the air, in life-or-death combat against a determined foe. And that could mean a death sentence for American pilots required to fly the vulnerable F-35.
Clubbed like baby seals in combat
Engineering compromises forced on the F-35 by an unprecedented need for versatility have taken their toll on the new jet’s performance. Largely because of the wide vertical-takeoff fan the Marines demanded, the JSF is wide, heavy and has high drag, and is neither as quick as an F-16 nor as toughly constructed as an A-10. The jack-of-all-trades JSF has become the master of none.
And since the F-35 was purposely set up as a monopoly, replacing almost every other warplane in the Pentagon’s inventory, there are fewer and fewer true alternatives. In winning the 2001 competition to build the multipurpose JSF, Lockheed set a course to eventually becoming America’s sole active builder of new-generation jet fighters, leaving competitors such as Boeing pushing older warplane designs.
Which means that arguably the worst new jet fighter in the world, which one Australian military analyst-turned-politician claimed would be “clubbed like baby seals” in combat, could soon also be America’s only new jet fighter.
The three F-35 variants are meant to replace around a dozen older plane types from half a dozen manufacturers, ranging from the Air Force’s maneuverable, supersonic F-16 to the slow-flying, heavily armored A-10 and, most consequentially, the Marines’ AV-8B Harrier, an early-generation jump jet whose unique flight characteristics do not blend well with those of other plane types.
2008 RAND Simulation
In Stillion and Perdue’s August 2008 war simulation, a massive Chinese air and naval force bore down on Beijing’s longtime rival Taiwan amid rising tensions in the western Pacific. A sudden Chinese missile barrage wiped out the tiny, outdated Taiwanese air force, leaving American jet fighters based in Japan and Guam to do battle with Beijing’s own planes and, hopefully, forestall a bloody invasion.
In the scenario, 72 Chinese jets patrolled the Taiwan Strait. Just 26 American warplanes — the survivors of a second missile barrage targeting their airfields — were able to intercept them, including 10 twin-engine F-22 stealth fighters that quickly fired off all their missiles.
That left 16 of the smaller, single-engine F-35s to do battle with the Chinese. As they began exchanging fire with the enemy jets within the mathematical models of the mock conflict, the results were shocking.
America’s newest stealth warplane and the planned mainstay of the future Air Force and the air arms of the Navy and Marine Corps, was no match for Chinese warplanes. Despite their vaunted ability to evade detection by radar, the JSFs were blown out of the sky. “The F-35 is double-inferior,” Stillion and Perdue moaned in their written summary of the war game, later leaked to the press.
The analysts railed against the new plane, which to be fair played only a small role in the overall simulation. “Inferior acceleration, inferior climb [rate], inferior sustained turn capability,” they wrote. “Also has lower top speed. Can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run.” Once missiles and guns had been fired and avoiding detection was no longer an option — in all but the first few seconds of combat, in other words — the F-35 was unable to keep pace with rival planes.
And partly as a result, the U.S. lost the simulated war. Hundreds of computer-code American air crew perished. Taiwan fell to the 1s and 0s representing Chinese troops in Stillion and Perdue’s virtual world. Nearly a century of American air superiority ended among the wreckage of simulated warplanes, scattered across the Pacific.
Cost overruns are somewhat less
The price tag —currently an estimated $1 trillion to design, build and operate 2,400 copies—is steadily going down. Production of dozens of the planes a year for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps is getting easier.