Up in the air
In Defense of the F-35

The Times of London has joined the pile-on against the F-35 Lightning II, the embattled Lockheed Martin stealth fighter currently being tested by the U.S. military:

America’s most advanced fighter jet performs worse in a dogfight than the ageing aircraft it is designed to replace, according to one of its test pilots.

The F-35 joint strike fighter, the most expensive weapon system developed by the Pentagon at $400 billion for the whole programme, has already suffered from technical hitches. Now a debriefing report by a pilot has claimed that the F-35 cannot match the F-16, which it is replacing, in aerial combat.

Saying the F-35 can’t beat the F-16 in a dogfight is a little like complaining that a tank can’t beat a horse at a fence jump and calling for a return to the age of cavalry charges. Tanks aren’t built to jump fences; they are built to flatten them. Similarly, F-35s aren’t made so much to win dogfights with lesser planes as to blast them out of the sky from afar—before a visual combat situation has begun. Moreover, the press reports do not mention that the F-35’s missile defense systems and ability to suppress enemy radar can enable F-16s and other aircraft, unmanned as well as manned, to get much closer to their targets and strike them much more effectively than would otherwise be possible.

There are lots of problems with any complicated weapons system as it is being developed, and the F-35 is the most complex fighting instrument ever designed. It has had teething pains; it will have more. It represents a series of compromises between the services. In a perfect world, the U.S. military would have enough money to make purpose-built aircraft for every service and every role. But the F-35’s upgradability and adaptability (in an era in which software is going to play an ever increasing role in the effectiveness of combat) is unmatched. If the program were going to be killed, that should have happened years ago. Having come this far, the smartest choice is to go ahead with full deployment, something that will also bring down unit costs, and start thinking about the next platform and the next system as we learn more from this experience.

In a subject like defense spending, where the public has only limited information and interest, high-profile stories hyping or slamming different weapons systems are common and almost always misleading. The F-35 isn’t a miracle weapon that fixes every problem and performs every function flawlessly. But it represents a realistic path to continued air superiority for the United States and our allies in a dangerous world. We would be fools not to learn from the missteps and errors made during the development of this system; we would be greater fools not to deploy the best available all-around air weapon that the world has ever known.

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