Ten Signs The F-35 Fighter Program Is Becoming A Smashing Success
Summer is the silly season for defense coverage in the nation’s
capital. With much of official Washington gone, journalists have to
work harder to find anything worth reporting. When they uncover an item
that sounds like it might be newsy, they get as much mileage out of it
as they can.
One approach is to take the latest glitch (real or imagined) in the Pentagon’s biggest weapon program and use it as a pretext for revisiting past issues — even though most of those issues have long since been resolved. The F-35 fighter is an easy target because its budget dwarfs funding for other programs, and the plane thus is a lightning rod for every conspiracy theorist’s fears about the machinations of the military-industrial complex. Few of the reporters on the defense beat realize that all of the legacy fighters sustaining America’s global air power today were subjected to the same sort of withering scrutiny during their own development.
I have an emotional attachment to the F-35 because I have worked with many of the companies that build it, including prime contractor Lockheed Martin, for much of my adult life (the program was awarded to Lockheed on October 26, 2001 — the day I turned 50). So when I see a widely-read pundit describe the plane as a “laughingstock,” as I did last week, I resent it. Are there really people out there that believe three presidents, three military services, and eight allies would pour a hundred billion dollars into a fighter that doesn’t work? Apparently there are.
All of these critics will eventually be left behind by history. The F-35 is shaping up to be the greatest combat aircraft in history. That isn’t my characterization, it’s what Senator John McCain — no friend of the military-industrial complex – said when the plane began operations at the Marine Corps air station in Yuma, Arizona three years ago. Here are ten signs that McCain was right.
1. Flight tests are over two-thirds complete with no show-stoppers. The Air Force, Marine and Navy variants of the F-35 have each completed at least two-thirds of their flight tests — over 8,000 are planned — and no major problems with the design have been identified. All of the key performance parameters for each of the variants have been satisfied, and the plane is flying every day (there have been over 13,000 operational sorties). Tests have validated that the airframe is extremely stealthy — nearly undetectable by enemy radar — and that it affords unparalleled situational awareness to pilots.
2. Risks associated with a revolutionary design are being steadily retired. The F-35 is probably the most complicated military-technology project in history. It introduces a host of innovations that have never before been integrated into a combat aircraft. However, developers have successfully resolved every problem that arose with the new technology. For instance, a deficiency in the data that pilots see displayed on the visor of their high-tech helmets has been eliminated; a tailhook on the Navy variant of the fighter that wasn’t consistently grabbing arresting wires was redesigned and now works 100% of the time; a cracked bulkhead discovered during durability testing of the Marine version was strengthened.3. The Marines will declare initial operational capability this summer. The Marine Corps variant of the F-35, which is capable of vertical takeoff and landing, will officially become operational this summer and begin replacing aged Harrier jump-jets. For the first time ever, the Marines will have a highly survivable, versatile attack aircraft that can land on a dime pretty much anywhere. The Air Force variant will become operational next year, and the Navy variant in 2018. So this isn’t just a development program anymore — the F-35 has begun to reach the operational force.