On July 31, Gen. Joe Dunford—the soon-to-be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs—announced that the Marine Core variant of the F-35, the F-35B, has achieved Initial Operational Capability. The designation of IOC means that the Marines believe the F-35 to be an active plane that can perform in operations the same way any other active aircraft in its arsenal can. Lockheed Martin has emphasized the multi-purpose advantages of the F-35 with exceptional air-to-air combat, air-to-ground strikes, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance abilities. But are all the abilities of the F-35 truly exceptional or do all the gadgets and gizmos hinder the newest fighter plane from being ready to go to combat in the real world?
The F-35 has been touted for its expected air-to-air combat advantages since Lockheed Martin earned the contracts for the Marines, Navy, and Air Force variants of the F-35 in 2001. In January 2015, the Air Force tested their version of the F-35 for its dogfighting abilities. The leaked report from the pilot who tested the F-35 was shocking. When the F-35 was put to the test against an aging F-15E, the maneuverability to attack of the F-35 was “substantially inferior” to the F-15 and F-16. Throughout the test, the F-35 was constantly on the defensive, as it lacked the energy ability to institute successful offensive maneuvers.
After the pilot’s report was released, Lockheed Martin argued that the planes used to test maneuverability were not equipped with the software, weapons system or stealth coating of the final plane to be produced. But regardless, the absent software, weapons system, and stealth coating do not enhance the maneuverability of the plane, which is needed in order to maintain aerial superiority. The software left off the planes was a sensor program designed to see enemy planes over long distances—not helpful for close-range aerial fighting. The weapons systems installed on the F-35 carry only two to four missiles, which would not serve well when combatting many enemy planes. The stealth coating applies only for evading radar technology of other countries for when the planes are sent for reconnaissance and surveillance missions, not to enhance energy deficiencies. In the end, even if technology operates smoothly, the F-35 does not have the maneuverability or the energy capacity to hold its own in close-quarter fighting.
The current gadgets and software of the F-35 are theoretically supposed to enhance the pilot’s ability to see and combat enemy planes and advances, but both fall short and in fact endanger the lives of pilots. The helmet specially produced for the pilots of the F-35 has major defects: if the helmet fails or malfunctions, the pilots are unable to land at night or in bad weather, and unable to fire weapons or defend themselves. The software absent from the F-35 during its January testing is used to sense enemy planes beyond visual range. But if the plan has issues with sensing planes beyond visual range becomes, how can pilots know if the plane on their radar is friend or foe? With the reliance on software instead of pilot’s instinctual knowledge, the dangers of shooting a friendly plane greatly increase. Since the 1950s only 4% of “kills” were achieved beyond visual range, resulting in the addition of this expensive software as wasteful and excessive. The F-35 should not be deemed operational for the sake of advanced technology and never-before-seen software and gadgets.
Furthermore, the program is plagued with cost overruns and schedule delays. The cost for the purchase order of 2,457 planes reached $400 billion (twice the original estimate), as of July 2015. But why spend that much money on a weapons program that’s not equipped to address current threats and endangers the lives of pilots? The lifetime cost estimate of the F-35 is $1.45 trillion, but while the plane’s technology may be state-of-the-art, the latest tech is not always the safest or most reliable. It can fail with the slightest glitch, wasting taxpayer money and costing American lives. Given the current fiscal climate, the current security threats we face today and the plethora of problems the F-35 has exhibited, the Defense Department should reevaluate whether 2,457 F-35s it plans to buy are truly worth it. While the term “operational” may be subjective, the F-35 is clearly nowhere near ready for combat.