Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

The Critics are Dead Wrong: The F-35 Is a Game Changer

A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II, assigned to the 63rd Fighter Squadron, Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., climbs to a higher altitude Aug. 26, 2019, at the Barry M. Goldwater Range near Gila Bend, Ariz. Pilots use the airspace in Gila Bend to train dropping ordnance and conducting strafing passes. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Aspen Reid)

The F-35 Is Writing A New History As The Most Capable Fifth-Generation Fighter: When defense writers have nothing new to say, they sometimes dredge up old stories.

This is the case with a piece in The Week titled “The F-35 Fighter Jet’s Troubled History.” The article is an unbalanced mishmash of old news about challenges the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) faced as a developmental program, inadequate information about the F-35’s current status, and the almost obligatory suggestion that entrenched interests are keeping the program going. There is both a lack of balance and a failure to recognize the F-35 program’s successes. It also lacks a straightforward acknowledgment that, to date, 17 countries have chosen the JSF as their fighter for the 21st century after independently analyzing combat effectiveness, cost, and sustainability of the aircraft.

(Subscribe to 19FortyFive‘s New YouTube Channel here.) 

Every one of the Pentagon’s developmental programs has had teething problems. The JSF is no exception. Yet what The Week fails to remember is that most of these technical challenges have already been dealt with. For example, problems with the original helmet led to corrective measures several years ago. The same is true for the maintenance of the aircraft’s stealth coating.

The article notes that the F-35 still has not been approved for full-rate production. This is misleading, if not disingenuous, since the primary reason for this delay in the defense department’s Initial Operational Test and Evaluation process, including the difficulty in building the required simulation capability. 

Another way of denigrating the JSF is to suggest that it is too expensive. The article in question notes that the life cycle costs for the F-35 program are estimated to be $1.7 trillion over the next fifty years. What is not mentioned is that this is an after-inflation estimate. My colleague, Loren Thompson, put this argument to bed years ago, pointing out that over the same period, inflation means that the costs of military bands would be some $25 billion

The article also reflects a failure of imagination. The authors make the mistake of viewing the F-35 as just another fighter, albeit one with fifth-generation features. There is a failure to understand that the F-35 is unlike any fighter ever built. It is less the last fighter of the industrial age than the first aerial platform of the Information Age. It is a sensor/network node with wings and weapons. With its advanced electronic systems, sophisticated networking technologies and ability to fuse sensor data from multiple sources, the F-35 can act as the “quarterback” for complex air operations and even combat operations involving land and naval units.

Moreover, unlike fourth-generation platforms which often have to be reconfigured with “bolt-on” capabilities to conduct particular missions, the F-35 comes as a complete package, with sensors, computers, weapons and electronic warfare all part of an integrated whole. This not only simplifies mission planning but allows the JSF to switch between air-to-air, air-to-ground and sensing missions as the tactical situation dictates.

In multiple Air Force exercises, the F-35 has consistently demonstrated its unparalleled performance in both air-to-air and air-to-ground modes. In the 2017 Red Flag exercise, the F-35 achieved a kill ratio of 15 to one, something no other fighter in the U.S. inventory has ever done. Employing its sophisticated sensors and networking to collect and pass targeting information, the F-35 also demonstrated that it could improve the performance of fourth-generation aircraft. 

A year of fighting in Ukraine has provided a number of lessons regarding the evolving role of airpower in the Information Age. In the latest Project Convergence exercise, designed to demonstrate sensor-to-shooter connectivity and the ability to rapidly engage targets at long distances, the U.S. Army successfully employed data from an F-35’s sensors to an artillery unit. The F-35 can use its stealthiness and advanced sensors to penetrate hostile air defenses and destroy critical targets, while simultaneously providing critical targeting data to other shooters in multiple domains.

While more sophisticated than any deployed fighter, the F-35 is also more cost-effective to operate and maintain. It is no accident that the F-35 has repeatedly won fair and open competitions to replace existing, aging fighter fleets. Recent acquisition decisions by Germany, Canada, Switzerland, Poland, and Finland have each been the result of comparative evaluations of the F-35. 

The reality is that acquiring the F-35 will actually save money. The Swiss decision to acquire 36 JSFs came after an exhaustive four-year evaluation process. According to an article authored by respected defense aviation analyst John Venable:

“The Swiss evaluators found the networked systems of the F-35A enabled pilots to have more situational awareness and that the stealth fighter was more survivable in all mission areas. The F-35A also achieved the highest grades for product support, efficiency of maintenance and potential for collaboration with other countries.” 

It is important to recognize that an F-35 already acquired or under contract will not be the same aircraft a few years in the future. Planned upgrades and improvements mean that today’s JSFs will have significantly enhanced capabilities. This program involves improvements in computing power and data management, called Technology Refresh 3, intended to support the Block 4 upgrade that will add some 75 new capabilities including new sensors, the ability to employ a number of new munitions, advanced software for better data fusion, and enhanced electronic warfare capabilities.

The F-35 JSF is writing a new chapter in history as the Free World’s fighter of choice. Ultimately, the value of the F-35 is reflected in the fact that 17 nations are currently flying or have decided to acquire the aircraft. The F-35 offers unparalleled capabilities, future growth options, and continuous improvements in maintainability and sustainability. Equally important is that with the number of deployed JSFs approaching one thousand, a community is being created that can not only share tactics, techniques, and procedures but, in the event of conflict, move data across military services and between countries. This ability to share critical information will be of incalculable value in Joint and Coalition operations.

Author Expertise and Experience

Dr. Daniel Goure, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program. Dr. Goure has held senior positions in both the private sector and the U.S. Government. Most recently, he was a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. Dr. Goure spent two years in the U.S. Government as the director of the Office of Strategic Competitiveness in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He also served as a senior analyst on national security and defense issues with the Center for Naval Analyses, Science Applications International Corporation, SRS Technologies, R&D Associates, and System Planning Corporation.

Written By

Dr. Goure is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program.



  1. 404NotFound

    February 21, 2023 at 5:57 pm

    Lightning II basically is a piece of super duper expensive flying crap designed to enrich lockmart and its congressional supporters or patrons beyond imagination or dreams.

    Though, any flying crap CAN STILL ALWAYS PROVE to become highly useful, if used intelligently, used in conjunction with other weapons of war or assets of mass killing.

    First destroy the first or forward line of defense, then use the expensive crap to move in to finish rthe job.

    Voila !, mission accomplished as was once uttered or spoken by george bush.

    That’s only relevant to regime change gurus or masters of invasion and overthrowing of foreign governnents.

    For the rest of f-35 purchasers, they have to increase national taxes, VATs, GSTs, income taxes, import duties and consumption taxes to maintain their flying crap in acceptable condition or flyable condition.

  2. GhostTomahawk

    February 21, 2023 at 8:22 pm

    F35.. let’s see.. what does it do better than anyone else?

    Air superiority? NOPE that’s the canceled F22

    Bomber? NOPE B1 B2 B52

    Strike Fighter? NOPE F18

    CAS? NOPE. A10

    so America dumped billions into a plane that doesn’t do anything well and is so expensive to fly that it’s relegated to stealth missile truck status. ????????????

    This is what happens when companies are given blank checks and vague criteria and no hardlines for development.

  3. Steven

    February 21, 2023 at 9:41 pm

    F-35 as a whole program is a bargain for what it does.

  4. TheDon

    February 21, 2023 at 10:26 pm

    All Ukraine needs is A10s to take out advancing troops and equipment quickly.

  5. Jacksonian Libertarian

    February 22, 2023 at 12:31 am

    “New” anything is never much better than the previous comparable product. If you are in the market for the product, never buy the initial “New” one, wait for the “New and Improved” version.

    Did you go out and buy Windows 11 the moment it came out? Or have you learned your lessons and been waiting for Microsoft to work out some of the bugs first? The smart consumer doesn’t chase after the prestige of having the first (fill in the blank) on the block. But instead patiently waits for the product to be Tuned Up.

    Let someone else volunteer to be the guinea pig.

  6. H.R. Holm

    February 22, 2023 at 12:55 am

    It isn’t genuinely proven until it is proven in combat. Especially a touted whiz-bang machine like this one. And the Israeli use of them so far does not add up as comprehensively proven. The Israelis have yet to go against a fully integrated, dedicated multi-component air defense system like Iran’s on a mass scale. Pinprick attacks against isolated ground targets do not in and of themselves conclusively prove any ‘game changer’ assertion. And what sort of miracle gizmo will the F-35 still prove to be if even some of one’s or more’s critical electronics/computing systems are damaged by gunfire in combat, whether that gunfire is from the ground or another aircraft, or a near-miss antiaircraft missile explosion? I have not heard/read that they are all concentrated in some sort of armored pod deep inside the aircraft, so such potential damage is a considerable risk if they are indeed not. And the groundings to date have been real, and indicate more are possible. That will not be tolerable in wartime, given the nature of this beast. Besides, the numbers are still too relatively few to put this in the game changer mode. This is not the P-51 Mustang, whose both capability and numbers did place it in that territory. The F-35 can only prove to be a game changer (or not) when events occur to sufficiently test its mettle in real-world actual major use against a serious foe like Iran, Russia, N. Korea, or China.

  7. TG

    February 22, 2023 at 8:52 am

    A while ago it sure seemed to me that the F35 was an overpriced dog – but – perhaps I was wrong. As we have seen in Ukraine, modern anti-aircraft missiles are so effective that conventional air forces are simply shut down. Now how effective the F35 would be in real combat I have no idea, but consider this: suppose that Russia had a squadron of F35’s and the attendant supporting forces. Suppose (suppose) that these planes could really survive penetrating over western Ukraine. They could actively target supply convoys and freight trains, shut down the Ukrainian supplies from the West and literally win the war. It would not matter if they had a small-ish payload, or were not very maneuverable, or had limited range compared to other planes – just being able to operate in contested airspace would be priceless. Now perhaps advanced drones will prove to be more cost effective, but I think I can see why the military wants the F35 so badly.

  8. Dan

    February 22, 2023 at 12:48 pm

    The F-35 is a transitional platform. It’s a bridge to a networked future for air combat. Not surprisingly, its operational availability has been miserable. It’s a proving ground for a number of key warfare technologies, including stealth and interoperability. Fortunately, we haven’t yet had to go up against a foe that could reveal its current shortcomings. If the F-35 were as capable as the author claims, we wouldn’t be seeing updates to 40-year-old+ designs like the F-15 and F-16.
    Also, sentences like “The F-35 JSF is writing a new chapter in history as the Free World’s fighter of choice,” which sound like they come from a Lockheed press release, don’t help his argument.

  9. H.R. Holm

    February 22, 2023 at 2:40 pm


    Interesting speculative comment. But I don’t know why the Russians are not using what they have available in their air inventory right now to target NATO weapons shipments thru the Ukraine into the combat zones. For starters, any remaining SU-24 Fencers, and ground attack configurations of their latest MIGs and Sukhois. Then there are their Backfire and Blackjack bombers for greater standoff and range capabilities, and any remaining Blinder or other older medium bombers they may still have. Maybe it’s parts, maybe it’s maintenance difficulties, maybe it is limited crew availability, or a combination of all. But it is a mystery why this does not now constitute the bulk of their war effort.
    I do not think they have enough of the SU-57s to want to see what they could do, if those planes could even be used. Perhaps they are too wary of risking them in trying.

  10. tomb

    February 22, 2023 at 4:00 pm

    No combat record,
    A serious lack..

  11. TMark

    February 22, 2023 at 8:27 pm

    The F-22 has no combat record, so is it a failure too?

    I’m amused at this demand that a prototype must go to war before any acquisition begins. It’s like demanding that soldiers prove their marksmanship skills before their mothers can give birth.

  12. socrates17

    February 22, 2023 at 8:36 pm

    The F-35 Joint Strike Force Paperweight is the biggest boondoggle in military procurement history. In trying to do everything, it does nothing well. It has the reliability of a 1970s Jaguar. 17 countries were suckered into wasting money on it in order to suck up to the US. The abandoned A-10 was much better at giving close ground support, but it wasn’t sexy, so the AF doesn’t like it. The Eurofighter Typhoon flies rings around the F-35 JSFP. Communications will consistently be a problem. Anyone in IT (anyone honest, that is) will tell you that different systems invariably have trouble communicating. I have seen this in the corporate world over and over, where companies have decided to implement “Best of Breed” software and then have found out that their sales system can’t talk to their warehousing system. The Lexington Institute is funded by military contractors, so of course the author is going to defend this poor program.

  13. Earl Schultz

    February 23, 2023 at 3:37 am

    As previously pointed out by a reporter at The Washington Examiner, the Lexington Institute is funded by Lockheed Martin, and several other defense contractors. Conflict of interest much?

  14. docdef

    March 17, 2023 at 3:11 pm

    The big issue is still, are all these test completed with live EW deployed against the Data links and GPS The Russians and Chinese are years ahead of the USA in these fields, and the USA relying on GPS only also is a fault the will create chaos

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *