When Defense Secretary Robert Gates “rebalanced” the Pentagon budget recently he put the future of fighter aviation in America on the shoulders of the F-35. The US Navy will probably buy more F/A-18s and Congress may do right by the Air Force and fund 60 more F-22s, but after that, it’s all F-35. And Washington probably won’t be able to resist putting the mammoth program through an intense round of scrutiny. Can F-35 deliver?
Back in the 1990s, the Clinton Administration scrapped several other new aircraft to pool money and research for a born-joint tactical aircraft program. Great Britain joined in, and later so did several other allied partners. The F-35 picked up innovations from the F-22 program but also cleared hurdles of its own, such as development of a revolutionary lift-fan engine for the short take-off and vertical landing version requested by the Marines. The result was joint and global. Three close-cousin variants of F-35 will deliver to the Marines, allies, the Air Force and the Navy.
Three things stand out about F-35. First is its production line. In an era when US manufacturing is under pressure, the F-35 line in Fort Worth, Texas, is one that will make you feel good about America. The line is a marvel of sophisticated automation, laser-guided assembly and precision tolerances. The F-35’s exterior stealth materials are light years beyond previous coatings. They go on more evenly, and are so durable that factory officials let visitors literally walk on samples of the radar-absorbing material.
Second, F-35 is a good value. Yes, it will be expensive overall due to its sheer magnitude. What makes it good value is its efficiency. Ramping up to production of over 100 aircraft per year will create momentum and help keep unit costs in line. Third, F-35 is a hard power weapon but a soft power partnership. Achieving true interoperability with NATO and other allies will be doubly important as air forces shrink due to decreased defense spending.
A few clouds are gathering on F-35s horizon, of course. Intensive flight testing of the F-35 is getting underway and flight tests usually do yield change orders. Expect F-35 to have fewer changes than normal because so many of the systems have been pre-tested in labs or on other flying aircraft.
The bigger risk by far will come if the Pentagon slows production or cuts the total buy. The so-called acceleration of F-35 briefed by Gates sped up parts of the test program but was dwarfed by the much bigger decision to cap peak yearly production for the Air Force at 80 F-35s per year, instead of the 110 per year budgeted by the service. The Gates budget will actually leave the US Air Force with almost 80 fewer F-35s in this five-year budget cycle. If this is a sign of more cuts to come, that’s a problem.
Understand that the Air Force has no other advanced fighter, bomber or unmanned combat aircraft in development in the wake of the Gates decisions. On the F-35 program’s broad shoulders rest significant hard and soft power options for years to come.
By Rebecca L. Grant, Ph.D.