It is a magnificent but somewhat ugly flying machine called the “Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, the Joint Strike Fighter,” a U.S.-built “fifth generation” stealth jet with super-advanced avionics, which has been under development for over 20 years at a cost of many billions of dollars. Over the lifetime of the project the U.S. is expected to spend $1.5 trillion on building and maintaining 2,500 planes for its own use, enough to forgive the entire nation’s student debts, or pay for the health care of every low-income American for the next three years, or build a border wall that encircles the earth four times.
The aim of the program, launched in the mid-1990s, was to develop an aircraft that could be adapted for use by three separate branches of the military—the Air Force, the Navy and Marines. It would be undetectable by radar, be able to bomb targets on the ground 500 miles away from the base, operate from the deck of a warship, and hover and land like a helicopter. The design of the F-35 made possible all those things.
The F-35 program involves more than 1,200 suppliers in 45 U.S. states, accounting for 40,000 jobs in Texas alone. A large number of allied nations have been involved in its development and production. The United Kingdom was a major partner and committed to buying 138 planes; Australia was committed to buying 72 planes. F-35 customers today include Turkey, Italy, Canada, Norway, Japan, South Korea, the Netherlands and Denmark. Parts are built and assembled in various nations. There are electronic modules from Billingstad in the UK; hydraulics from Melbourne, Australia; circuit boards from Ankara, Turkey; manifolds from Adelaide, Australia; wing parts from Turin, Italy, and acuators from New York.
Pilots report that the F-35 performs very creditably. At the annual Red Flag, war games exercise, it achieved a kill ratio of 20:1 which means that for every 20 enemy aircraft downed, only one F-35 was lost. According to a pilot from the Norwegian Air Force it had excellent braking performance, good agility in high angles of attack, and was very difficult for the defender to escape.
Pilots were especially impressed with the helmet provided for use with each plane. At a cost of $400,000, each was custom-fitted for the pilot. It beams in the pictures gathered by six infra-red cameras mounted on the outside of the airframe. Just by turning his head, the wearer could see what’s behind him and even below the aircraft’s floor. From his point of view he was effectively flying an invisible plane. In front of him was a series of further touchscreen displays, which could be refigured with a swipe of the glove to show any amount of radar and targeting information he might need. The active radar array would scan a high-resolution image of the area of interest. Then all the pilot needed to do was touch a point on the map and the selected weapon would take it out in seconds.
The F-35 is likely to be around for a long time—40 years at least. Machines, once built, are here to stay and fighter planes are no different. The business of the arms industry is to build and spend—all part of the weaponry system. And that system has to be funded by a Congress most of whose members are wined and dined by readily available corporate representatives, some well-versed in the superiority of the F-35.
(The above material was excerpted from an article written by Daniel Soar and published in the March 30, 2017 edition of the London Review of Books.)
It’s a good thing the plane was not intended to fly passengers or they would still be buckling their seat belts as it cruised around and around the airport. The plane would be the F-35 that the manufacturer promised would be the darling of the Pentagon. It should have been. It cost slightly over $100 million per plane and $1.5 trillion for the entire project. The plane was supposed to be adaptable to different branches of the military. Lockheed Martin had promised it would be “four times more effective” in air-to-air combat and “eight times more effective” in air-to-ground combat and “three times more effective” in recognizing or suppressing an enemy’s air defenses.
However, it was less maneuverable and markedly inferior to other planes in several areas and didn’t live up to its promises. For example, the plane was designed foremost to be undetected by enemy radar. However the heat it generates makes it vulnerable to detection. One Pentagon designer called it an “inherently terrible airplane,” the product of “an exceptionally dumb piece of Air Force public relations spin.” Dr. Michael P. Hughes of the University of Florida, an aircraft and engineering specialist, says the program was the “result of combining several separate and diverse projects into a set of requirements for an airplane that is trying to be everything to everyone.”
Someone somewhere talked about turning weapons into plowshares. Wonder how many plowshares could be bought for $1.5 trillion?