How The F-35B Will Lead The British Navy Into The 21st Century
The Times, one of the U.K.’s premier newspapers, recently published a series of articles on an investigation into British procurement of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). The Times’ reporting levied three basic criticisms of the F-35B. First, the JSF costs more than the figures provided by the program office. Second, the aircraft is technically flawed. Third, the British Navy is unprepared to take full advantage of the JSF’s game changing potential. I would respectfully observe that only the third point is accurate and that none of these constitutes a reason not to proceed with the plan to acquire some 138 fifth generation aircraft.
The issue of cost is the easiest to address. In claiming that the U.K. Ministry of Defense is paying about $180 million per aircraft and not the $95 to $120 million promised, The Times is comparing apples to oranges. The lower numbers are the almost universally used Unit Procurement Cost (UPC). This figure is for the basic aircraft. The higher figure cited by The Times includes spare parts, upgrades, weapons, training and long-term support. None of these are part of the F-35’s UPC. Moreover, the lower numbers are the target once the F-35 is in full rate production, which has yet to occur.
Even though the JSF is still in low rate production, the cost per aircraft has been declining steadily. The price of the F-35A is already below $100 million per aircraft and that of the short-takeoff/vertical landing F-35B has fallen from more than $260 million in 2008 to approximately $145 million today. Compare this to the $140 million price tag per aircraft that Kuwait recently agreed to for some 28 Typhoon Tranche 3 fighters. While a capable aircraft, the Typhoon is not stealthy and lacks the advanced avionics and electronic systems of the F-35.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Defense has proposed a block buy of some 450 F-35s, primarily for international customers such as the U.K. A block buy allows Lockheed Martin, Pratt & Whitney and other suppliers to achieve major cost reductions by procuring materials at economical prices and better employing their work force. This could shave $5 million off the average price of an F-35.
With respect to technical issues with the F-35, The Times criticisms are based on outdated information and do not reflect the current program. Early problems with the JSF’s engines, helmets and software have been overcome. For the past several years, the F-35 has achieved every one of its test objectives. The U.S. Marine Corps has stood up several operational F-35B squadrons and even deployed one to the Western Pacific. These aircraft have operated both on shore and from large amphibious warships.
While the JSF has yet to prove itself in combat, its performance in large-scale exercises has been nothing short of stellar. At this year’s U.S. Red Flag exercises, the F-35A achieved an overall kill ratio of 20:1 against a variety of opposing fighters. In many of these simulated flights, the F-35s were outnumbered 2 or even 3 to 1. Moreover, it achieved this kill ratio while also maintaining a 90 percent mission capable rate. In a separate exercise run by the Marine Corps, the F-35B’s score was 24:1.
Pilots who have flown the F-35 extol its virtues. The Heritage Foundation interviewed 31 experienced pilots currently flying the F-35A and found that they preferred it over other fighters “100 percent of the time in beyond-visual-range situations and over 80 percent in dogfighting situations where energy and maneuverability are critical to success.” A Norwegian Air Force pilot with experience in the F-16 flew the F-35 and declared in a report to his government that "for now my conclusion is that this is an airplane that allows me to be more forward and aggressive than I could ever be in an F-16."
What is often underappreciated and rarely reported is the impact of the F-35s on the overall performance of a nation’s air force. The F-35 is a fighter unlike any other in existence. It is as much an aerial sensor system as a warplane. As repeated exercises have shown, with its combination of stealth, sensors, electronic warfare and cyber capabilities, the F-35 is particularly well-suited for defeating advanced integrated air defenses that are the greatest threat to current fourth generation aircraft. The words of a former A-10 pilot who flew the F-35A at Red Flag should settle the issue:
“After almost every mission, we shake our heads and smile, saying ‘we can’t believe we just did that.’ We flew right into the heart of the threat and were able to bring all of our jets back out with successful strikes. It’s like we hit the ‘I Believe’ button again after every sortie.’”
The failure of the British Navy to invest in modern communications systems that would allow it to fully exploit the advanced features of the F-35B should not be a black mark against this remarkable fighter. The U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps are investing serious money in linking their F-35s to other platforms including ships and ground stations as well as aircraft. The British Navy needs to do the same. The deployment of the F-35B should be seen as a forcing function that will compel the British Navy to enter the 21st century.