Why "suddenly" is everyone buying F-35s?

By Loren Thompson

If the F-35s were a… normal Pentagon program, this July would look like a milestone of impressive numbers. Instead, it’s shaping up to be an ordinary month in the recent history of the world’s largest weapons program.

Greece asked the US to freeze 20 fighters and another 20 conditional. The Czech Republic has revealed it wants to buy 24. The South Korean government has announced it will increase its F-35 fleet by 50% to 60 aircraft.

In addition, the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin have reached an agreement on the next three batches of F-35s, with the goal of buying 375 fighters in three versions for the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and various overseas partners.

In the meantime, F-35 pilots have continued to fly training and operational missions, having logged more than 500,000 flight hours.

In the Baltic, US F-35s – based in Estonia – supported regional air defense. In the Mediterranean, with the “base” of Souda Bay in Crete, they participated in training exercises together with the Greek Air Force, while they did the same with South Korea’s F-35s.

In the Pacific zone, F-35s participated in military exercises off Hawaii, while Australia announced that it has established the first F-35 engine maintenance depot in the Pacific-Indian region, which will support the 100 F-35 fighters that Canberra is buying Japanese and South Korean F-35s, as well as US services operating in the region.

All this in just July – and the month isn’t over yet.

The F-35 is rapidly evolving into the “ubiquitous” fighter of the era – the fighter that every ally wants and every enemy fears.

With 830 fighters delivered so far and thousands more on the way – the US plan calls for an additional 2,456 aircraft – the F-35 will dominate the airwaves by mid-century. The Pentagon aims to use them by 2070 and is already testing technology upgrades to ensure the F-35s will always outperform adversaries.

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Even without upgrades, the F-35 is superior to other fighters in the US Air Force. In exercises they beat other aircraft 19 out of 20 times. Their capabilities cover a wider operational range and moreover their maintenance is easier. By some metrics, it is the most reliable fighter in the fleet.

But there was a time, not in the very distant past, when the future of the F-35 was uncertain. The F-35 program was drawn up in the early years of the Clinton administration, when the collapse of the Soviet Union had undermined any sense of urgency to invest in military technology.

Determined to capitalize on a “peace dividend” from the collapse of communism, US officials loaded the then-Joint Strike Fighter with a raft of requirements to avoid further purchases.

The fighter had to be almost invisible to enemy radars. It had to provide the pilots with full awareness of the situation in which they were involved. He had to collect and process a huge amount of data. It had to have secure communication with the other military aircraft. It had to meet the distinctly different needs of three different military Corps. And, on top of that, it had to be affordable.

No one had tried to combine all these features in a fighter until then. And when the F-35 program was starting, it seemed unlikely that anyone would be able to do it. But Lockheed Martin led an industry team that met all “key performance parameters,” delivering each new batch at a lower cost per plane than the Pentagon had predicted.

Pratt & Whitney, the company that won the F-35 engine contract, delivered a system that combined unprecedented thrust and flexibility.

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Lawmakers in Congress were skeptical about the program’s progress — and rightly so. The technical demands were so high as to make success uncertain.

But in the end the two companies delivered an advanced product. After 9,000 test flights, the data confirmed that Lockheed and Pratt had hit their performance targets, and they then focused on refining maintenance practices to keep the fighters affordable – economically – throughout their 50-year lifespan.

The maintenance issue continues to be worked on. But once one realizes the functionality of the F-35, one realizes that it is a bargain, even if it is more expensive to maintain than an older military aircraft. After all, what is worth more to the US than defeating Chinese pilots 19 out of 20 times it faces them in a future conflict?

So today the F-35 is ready to be found and operate everywhere: from Finland, Italy and Poland to Israel, Australia and Japan. Sixteen countries are buying it or have expressed their intention to do so and, according to reports, other states will soon join the group of buyers.

By any measure, the F-35 is one of the greatest technological achievements of this generation. Its rapid spread is not only sudden. It took two decades to get that demand and a domestic political system willing to sideline minor parties in favor of national security.

If anyone argues that Washington can no longer do big things, just remind them of the F-35: a program that Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump and Biden agreed should be kept “alive.”

Today the F-35 stands as the most telling example of what discipline and innovation can achieve in the face of naysayers and the friction of a contentious political culture.

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