The Power of a Growing International F-35 Community
The United States is rapidly building an international community based around the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The military value of such a community is indisputable. The F-35 will be one of the pillars supporting the creation of a new, sensor-rich way of warfare. But as the negotiations that led to the opening of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) demonstrated, potential international sales of the F-35 can provide significant diplomatic leverage as well. Moreover, experience has shown that operating the same platform and training together can bring militaries closer together.
From the very beginning, the F-35 program was designed to be international. Eight foreign partners – Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey and the United Kingdom – invested their own funds in the program in return for participation in R&D and the promise of future work shares. Each of these countries was allowed input into the aircraft's design, and several have provided unique technologies. Turkey, now formally banned from the program over its decision to acquire a Russian air defense system, produced specialized aircraft parts.
Other countries are acquiring the F-35 through the foreign military sales process. Israel, Japan, South Korea, Belgium, Poland and Singapore all are purchasing the F-35 this way, and the UAE looks to be next. There have been reports that the U.S. and India have discussed the possibility of the latter joining the JSF community.
The military value of the F-35 to air operations is beyond question. Fifth-generation aircraft, the F-22 and F-35, dominate in air-to-air warfare. In recent exercises, U.S. F-35s achieved kill ratios in air-to-air combat of 15 to 1. As a strike aircraft, the F-35 will employ a combination of stealth, maneuvers, electronic warfare, and smart weapons to penetrate and degrade enemy air defenses and strike a range of fixed and mobile targets.
There are tremendous advantages for the U.S. and its allies from the growing international F-35 community. Currently, twelve countries have ordered the F-35, either as members of the consortium or through the foreign military sales process. In a number of these countries, the aircraft is already operational; at least one, Israel, has acknowledged its use in combat. The gains in interoperability that go along with the operation of a common platform are important in coalition warfare. In addition, the creation of a multi-national network of F-35 bases, repair facilities and depots, as well as a global supply chain, will support the ability of U.S. and coalition forces to project power rapidly.
The JSF has a tremendous capacity for customization. Periodic upgrades to the aircraft’s software result in major improvements to its capabilities. This same ability to customize any given F-35 sale also provides the U.S. with the ability to manage the balance of capabilities between countries flying the F-35. Control over access to software and particular electronic systems can vary the amount and quality of information the aircraft can take in and process as well as the types of weapons it can operate. As part of its agreement to acquire the F-35, Israel was given permission to integrate its own electronic systems and weapons aboard its JSFs. It is reported that Washington is working to identify changes to the F-35s software and systems that would make the aircraft sellable to the UAE while ensuring Israel’s qualitative military edge.
The sale of the F-35 to close friends and allies has an impact on the cost of the aircraft for all recipients. Some 500 aircraft have already been delivered. The next lots will produce nearly as many: 476 aircraft over the next few years. Foreign buyers have committed to some 800 aircraft or almost 25 percent of the total number expected to be produced. There are projections of potential foreign sales for the JSF, reaching 1,700 aircraft.
The JSF price is coming down as production reaches economic ordering quantities, due in part to strong international demand. The benchmark variant's price, the conventional takeoff/landing F-35A, is now down to $80 million per copy, less than the most advanced variant of the F-16. As the unit price declines, more nations will be in a position to acquire the F-35.
There also is a tremendous value for a nation’s economy and industrial base in acquiring the F-35 and participating in its global manufacturing and sustainment system. Israel, for example, is producing wings for some F-35s. Japan is one of two countries outside the U.S (the other is Italy) to have a Final Assembly and Checkout Facility. Participation in the engineering and manufacturing aspect of the JSF program will assist some countries in their efforts to develop indigenous capacity for building fifth-generation aircraft. The interconnectedness of the F-35 support network also makes it difficult for member countries to engage in conflicts with one another.
The F-35 is both a high-performance combat aircraft and an advanced airborne sensor platform. In the hands of militaries with the capabilities and know-how to exploit its data-gathering potential, the F-35 can enable information domination operations. This will be particularly useful in enhancing joint operations. The U.S. Army and Navy have demonstrated that the F-35 can act as a passive aerial sensor in support of both long-range strike systems and missile defenses. In the near future, the joint force commander will likely team the F-35 with long-range fire systems, such as the Precision Strike Missile. The F-35 also could serve as a forward sensor for air and missile defense systems, such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System and the Aegis Missile Defense system, both of which are in the hands of selected U.S. friends and allies.
Once nations enter the program, some have discovered that they like and need the F-35 so much that they decide to buy additional aircraft. Japan upped its requirement from just 42 aircraft to 147, adding both F-35As and the short takeoff/vertical landing F-35B. Israel appears ready to ask to increase by 25 its planned purchase of 50 F-35s. As Russia and China continue to build up their militaries and act more belligerently, other nations may add to the number of F-35s they acquire as well.
Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Gouré has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.