What’s the biggest problem with the F-35? Well, it’s not what you think!
The F-35, like the LCS, has garnered a large amount of criticism for many reasons. Range, speed, weapons payload, all aspect stealth, maneuverability, pure dogfighting capability, maintenance, and, of course, cost, have all been faulted.
To be fair, there are good arguments to be made that each characteristic is flawed to a greater or lesser degree.
To be even more fair, any aircraft is a compromise of capabilities. An aircraft’s strengths or weaknesses depends on what it is being tasked to do. Looking at each characteristic in isolation and comparing it to the achievable state of the art is unfair and unrealistic.
That said, the F-35 is a poor compromise for most of the missions it will be tasked with. I’m not going to belabor the missions and aircraft characteristics. That’s been done ad nauseam. Instead, I’ll point out the biggest failing of the F-35.
The biggest failing of the F-35 is not any of its physical characteristics or even its cost. No, the biggest failing is its time to operation.
It has taken almost 20 years to get this far and we still don’t have operational aircraft. With respect to the Marine’s delusional and fanatical obsession with IOC, which is just a PR spin event, the F-35 still won’t be operational when they finally declare IOC victory. True operational status won’t be achieved for another 2-5 years, if that. So, we’re looking at an aircraft that will be 20+ years old before its first operational use. Most aircraft are at their prime and beginning to look at their downslope and replacement by that point.
Consider all the perceived shortcomings of the F-35. Almost all of them can be attributed to the extreme amount of time it has taken to develop the aircraft. Had the F-35 reached operational status 15 years ago, it would have been top of the line in stealth. It’s range would have been adequate for the missions of that time. Its weapons load would have been adequate for the time. And so on. In short, 15 years ago, it would have been a pretty good aircraft. Remember, the Super Hornet only entered service in 1999 and the early 2000’s. Had the F-35 been operational in the year 2000, the Super Hornet, and its subsequent comparisons to the F-35, probably wouldn’t have happened.
Fifteen years ago, the F-35 would have been well designed to meet the threats of that time. With normal upgrades and improvements, it would still be relevant today, if starting to show its age and some limitations as the Chinese threat has evolved.
However, because of the extreme development time, the F-35 will be bordering on obsolete when it enters service. Note, that when I say obsolete, I mean obsolete relative to what it was intended to be. It was intended to be the world’s foremost strike fighter – an aircraft unmatched by any other in the world. Now, in another 2-5 years when the F-35 enters service (we hope! – no guarantees with this aircraft) it will not be the world’s foremost strike fighter. It will not be unmatched in the world. Instead, it will, at best, be a competent aircraft, able to contribute to operations but hardly the dominant aircraft in the world. And, it will be hugely expensive for just being competent!
You see? Even the cost is a function of the extended development time. The same cost, 15 years ago, might have been considered acceptable because it would have bought the best aircraft in the world. Now, however, that cost is going to buy an aircraft that is only competent and that’s poor value for the money.
As we begin discussing the next generation aircraft, designers should take careful note of the F-35’s main failing and the lesson to be learned that a short development time is paramount. It doesn’t matter how magnificent an aircraft’s design is on day one if you can’t field it before it becomes obsolete.
One last lesson for future designers – the main, indeed only, way to ensure a quick and achievable fielding time is to scale back the degree of magical, fantasy wish list, leap-ahead technology. Designers should incorporate nothing into a design that can’t be guaranteed 100% achievable in five years time. That would also greatly decrease cost.
Development time should be pegged at five years – not a day beyond – from the first pencil on paper sketch to the delivery of a fully functional aircraft. Any more than five years and the aircraft’s improvements are being squandered.
What was the F-35’s biggest failing? Now you know.