Can the F-35 get off the ground?

UPDATE: Today, the MoD released a press release quietly revealing, in an article about carrier engines, that they did not expect the F-35 to be at operational strike capability until 2020 after trials beginning in 2018. As of course predicted by this site weeks ago.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, otherwise known as the American defence industry’s unwanted pregnancy, had its first test takeoff from a ski jump earlier this week. The success of the takeoff highlighted not only the aircraft’s ability to get some sweet air from a £2m ramp, but also that it would be able to launch from the Royal Navy’s Queen Elizabeth class-carriers. The test had originally been scheduled for late last year, but Lockheed/BAe cancelled it without giving a reason, and nothing was heard again about it until this video suddenly appeared, because concurrency is a fantastic way of developing military assets.

The Royal Navy, and to a lesser extent the Royal Air Force, have hedged all their bets on this aircraft. With the lack of catapults on the carriers, this is perhaps besides an OV-10 Bronco, the only attack plane they could hope to operate. However, given that the fate of the F-35 lies in a foreign government, the sea lords do not necessarily have a sure thing on their hands. To understand, it’s important to look at the jet’s less disappointing cousin, the F-22 Raptor.

In the 90s the US Air Force planned to buy 750 Raptors, but over the proceeding years, this number was continually cut. As the price of the air superiority fighter ballooned and ended up with the acquisition of only 183 F-22s, at an eventual calculated cost of $412m per aircraft. The project was cancelled entirely in 2011 with an assumption that the F-35 could take up the slack.

Unfortunately the situation has now been entirely replicated in the form of the Joint Strike Fighter, and for a nation with defence spending like the U.S., there is no such phrase as “too big to cancel.” The lifetime cost of the plane is set to be $1.6 trillion, which is equivalent to 25 years of the British defence budget at current levels. Canada has dropped out of the project due to costs, and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has heavily scaled down its orders to barely a few dozen, leaving the Americans to pick up the slack. If those numbers continue to drop, as could happen in this year’s Strategic Defence and Security Review, the American legislators faced with budget cuts could be left with little choice but to abort the entire project, or at the very least produce the very minimum needed.

If development does continue, the MoD in this country will still have a number of awkward questions to answer. Given the F-35s love of burning through carrier decks like a hot torch, could we see another set of delays to the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers to protect its extremely expensive components? There are also concerns over the expected operational capability in the U.K., as the MoD continue to promise on a 2018 date, and refusing to consider any contingencies as was exposed in a recent parliamentary question by Labour MP and leading defence inquistor Andrew Gwynne.

The F-35, besides its ability to melt billion dollar warship decks, has the capacity to be a highly capable strike aircraft, but its genesis has been horrific.


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