Happy Friday, FighterSweep Fans! Despite what the date on the calendar says, we can assure you, this is not an April Fools joke. Contrary to what many are saying, the F-35 program is actually making significant strides in its journey toward full operational capability and system maturity. While it is true the aircraft has a long way to go, it’s much further along in very critical areas than most believe.
Last week senior Pentagon officials and a representative from a congressional watchdog agency testified before Congress about the status of the tri-service F-35 fighter program. F-35 is by far the biggest weapon development program in the world; to quote two of the officials testifying last week, it will provide the “backbone” of U.S. air combat superiority through 2070, and will serve as a “linchpin” for coalition air operations with allies — many of whom are buying it. So I try to check in on the program every quarter.
To be successful, the F-35 program must deliver three distinctly different aircraft for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. The Marine version must be able to take off and land vertically, so it can be used even in places where there aren’t airfields.
The Navy version must be able to withstand the shock of carrier landings and takeoffs while carrying bomb loads much further than current strike aircraft. The Air Force version must do everything from air combat to suppression of enemy defenses to penetrating reconnaissance without costing more than the Cold War jets it replaces.
With 50,000 flight hours accumulated, the F-35 program is only a quarter of the way to the 200,000 hours when it will be judged fully mature. So all of the performance and cost numbers currently associated with the program are provisional, based on assumptions that in many cases will eventually be judged too pessimistic. What can be said for sure today, though, is that the program is progressing rapidly and almost all of its key metrics are trending positively.