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The F-35: Newer Isn’t Always Better

The F-35 Lightning II is portrayed by its advocates as an “essential”, “irreplaceable”, even “one-of-a-kind fighter jet.” According to Lockheed Martin, “It is more important than ever for U.S….fighter fleets to have the F-35, the world’s only 5th Generation, international, multirole aircraft, capable of countering current and future threats.” While it is tempting to buy into this hype, the reality of the F-35 is actually rather dismal. It is the most expensive weapons system in history and has been plagued with severe performance and software problems since its inception. The absurdity of the program is magnified by its redundancy. Much of what is does can be done as well – or better – by the very aircrafts that it is built to replace.

The F-35 is set to replace a number of American jets, including: the F-16, F/A-18, EA-6B, F-111, A-10, and AV-8B. While all of these planes are older than the F-35 (which is still in testing), most of them are still capable of fulfilling their original purpose. In fact, many of the planes that will be phased out in favor of the F-35 outperform the newer, shinier jet in various critical capabilities.


F-16: Currently, the United States Air Force (along with twenty five other countries) uses Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Fighting Falcon. Because the F-35 will not be fully ready for at least four more years, the US is planning to refurbish a number of its F-16 in a Service Life Extension Program (SLEP). SLEP is commonly used for military technology because it can be cheaper to refurbish and update older technology than to purchase completely new aircraft altogether. Updating the F-16 costs less than $20 million per aircraft – the F-35, on the other hand, costs at least as eight times as much at $159.2 million per plane – a figure likely to continue growing.

Among other hardware and software improvements, the refurbished F-16 will have integrated situational awareness and a better ability to detect threats. The F-35, which has been touted for its new-age radar system, has consistently failed to identify threats accurately or in a timely manner due to severe software problems. The F-16’s capabilities, on the other hand, have proven their effectiveness in combat.

F/A-18: The F/A-18 Super Hornet has been used by the Navy for the past thirteen years. It is an all-weather, day or night jet that can be used in fighter or attack missions and for close air support. Boeing, with Northrop Grumman, has been working on updates to the Super Hornet to create an Advanced Super Hornet. The new F/A-18s are due to be ready in as early as three years, before the F-35 would be ready, and the cost (at $16,000 per flight hour) is half the $32,000 per hour cost of the F-35. The Advanced Super Hornet will have a better targeting system, multi-sensor integration, advanced weapons, electronic attack, and air-to-surface warfare capabilities.

Meanwhile, the F-35 cannot yet fly in weather conditions like lightning, at night, or in very hot or cold temperatures. While the F/A-18 excels in attack missions, F-35 software is currently so poor that use of real or simulated weapons on the jet is prohibited. The Advanced Super Hornet will be capable of flying at speeds of Mach 1.8, while the F-35 can currently fly at only half that speed, Mach 0.9. Canada and Denmark, who have both begun to reconsider their purchase of F-35s, are already looking at the Super Hornet as a viable alternative.

EA-6B: While the F-35 is also slated to replace the EA-6, the EA-18G Growler has already jumped in as the Navy’s electronic warfighter. The Growler demonstrated an impressive success rate in its missions in Iraq and Libya, and the Navy is already investing in upgrading the Growler fleet.

There are no plans to build an F-35 electronic warfare variant, which means that the F-35 is not comparable to the EA-6B, much less to the upgraded Growler. While the F-35’s cheerleaders claim that its stealth gives the F-35 a huge advantage, the Navy believes that using jamming aircraft and long-range missiles will compensate for the Growler’s lack of stealth.

F-111: The F-111 has not been used by the USAF for almost 20 years; clearly, there is no urgent need for a direct replacement for this aircraft. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) is replacing their F-111’s with the F-18. With an upgraded F-18 readily available, there is no reason why the United States needs the F-35 to replace a technology that has been retired for decades.

A-10: The Air Force’s A-10 Thunderbolt does its job extremely well. F-35 supporters may argue that it is too old – production began in 1975 – but the Thunderbolt has undergone multiple upgrades since then (the most recent in 2007). The plane is a relative steal at a unit cost only $18.8 million. Even James Winnefeld, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, conceded, “Is the F-35 going to be as good a close-air support platform as an A-10? I don’t think anybody believes that.”

Whereas the A-10 can fly with up to 13 tons of arms and withstand an incredible amount of damage, all F-35’s were grounded in February 2013 because the plane was too heavy for the already weak engine.

AV-8B: Also known as the Harrier II, the AV-8B was to be replaced by the F-35, but after production was substantially delayed, the Marine Corps has decided to keep the Harriers in service until 2030. The Harrier has been successfully deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, and it is being upgraded for further use. Moreover, because the UK recently abandoned their program, there are currently many unused parts that the US can use to make the upgrades and repairs even cheaper.

One of the Harrier’s distinguishing features is its VSTOL (vertical/short take-off and landing) capabilities. The F-35, though proposed as a suitable replacement, only has STOVL (short take-off and vertical landing) capabilities, which alone is a downgrade from the Harrier. Even worse, the F-35B has yet to show consistent success in short take-offs and vertical landings.


Despite all the rhetoric, any rational comparison of the F-35 and the planes it is scheduled to replace reveals a sober reality – we simply don’t need the F-35. The United States’ maintains a global air supremacy with its current mix of air power, and indeed we have many planes in our existing force that are more “capable of countering current and future threats” than Lockheed’s newest hunk of metal. So, cutting (or eliminating) production of the F-35 will not weaken America.

In fact, moving forward with the F-35 may be the path to diminishing American air power. Using the F-35 as a replacement for many of our current planes would actually be disadvantageous to our military because it is a significant step down from status quo on many fronts. Our military already has planes that outperform the F-35 in almost every capability. Moreover, each of those planes has been proven to function properly in combat – that is much more than can be said about the F-35. Not to mention, refurbishing all of these planes (or even purchasing new variants) would cost significantly less than purchasing new F-35s.

Upon closer inspection, the F-35 is hardly the replacement for America’s air fleet that its supporters claim. The Pentagon can – and should – immediately rethink its plans to replace so many affordable, capable planes with the F-35, a jet that has proven to be neither.


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