The U.S. Air Force could declare its new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter stealth jet combat-ready as early as Monday.
The so-called initial operational capability announcement means the F-35—the Pentagon’s latest radar-evading warplane and the product of history’s most expensive weapons program—can, in theory, deploy overseas to bomb ISIS or deter Russia or China.
“We have achieved all our milestones,” Lt. Col. Steven Anderson, an officer with the Air Force’s Utah-based 388th Wing, set to be the flying branch’s first operational F-35 unit—told Air Force magazine, a trade publication.
It’s up to Gen. Hawk Carlisle—the head of Air Combat Command, which oversees most of the Air Force’s frontline fighter squadrons—to make the formal declaration. Many observers expect Carlisle to make the call no later than Wednesday.
That will be an event 20 years and $100 billion in the making.
But don’t celebrate quite yet. It could take another 20 years and $300 billion for the Air Force—not to mention the Navy and Marines—to get all 2,400 F-35s they plan on buying. And even though the JSF technically could deploy to a conflict zone as early as August, it’s likely the Pentagon will hold the plane back for a few more years as it continues to work out its many bugs.
For while the F-35 might be officially war-ready, that doesn’t mean the military and plane-maker Lockheed Martin have solved all the F-35’s problems. Even with the Air Force’s endorsement, the Joint Strike Fighter is still less maneuverable, more complex, less reliable, and more expensive than its developers promised.
In many ways, the F-35 the Air Force will receive in 2016 is not the plane it thought it would be getting just a few years ago.
Originally conceived in 1996 as an inexpensive, multi-purpose warplane—one that could replace almost all the other frontline jet types in Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps squadrons—the JSF proved devilishly complex.
The Air Force, Navy, and Marines all wanted different things from the fighter. The only thing they really agreed on was stealth—the ability to avoid detection by radars and other sensors by way of radar-scattering wing- and fuselage-shaping and special, energy-absorbing skin coatings.
The Air Force wanted its F-35s to be simple, cheap, and maneuverable, with one engine, a small wing and a slim fuselage, all striking the best balance between speed, payload, and turning ability. The Navy preferred the redundancy of a twin-engine plane but, at the very least, needed its F-35s to be able to operate from aircraft carriers at sea—meaning a bigger wing generating more lift at the cost of speed.
Most vexingly, the Marines demanded that their own F-35s have the ability to take off and land vertically so they can fly from the small, carrier-like Navy assault ships the Marines use to launch amphibious assaults. Vertical capability meant adding a downward blasting secondary engine behind the cockpit, which in turn meant a wider fuselage generating more drag than the Air Force was happy with.
To satisfy all three main customers, Lockheed devised three versions of the JSF—the F-35A for the Air Force, the F-35B for the Marines, and the Navy’s F-35C. To keep the cost down, the military and Lockheed wanted the three versions to be as similar as possible. That meant compromises—largely dictated by the F-35B’s extraordinary vertical takeoff and landing ability. The F-35A has a fatter fuselage than it really needs. The F-35C possesses just one main engine, even though most Navy fighters have two.
But the compromises failed to keep the cost down. Indeed, the combination of competing requirements added complexity to the JSF that drove up the cost. In October 2001, when the Pentagon chose Lockheed to build the JSF, officials expected the design and production of about 3,000 F-35s to set back U.S. taxpayers around $200 billion.
A few years later that figure had ballooned to $400 billion, plus another $600 billion for fuel, parts, and pilot-training over another 30 or 40 years of flying. And that was after the Pentagon cut hundreds of F-35s from the production plan as a cost-saving measure. Engineers struggled to accommodate all the competing demands on the F-35—and ran into trouble. In 2004, the government and Lockheed admitted the JSF was simply too heavy and needed a costly redesign.
What followed was a drumbeat of bad news lasting more than a decade, as the various versions of the F-35 slowly took shape and, starting in 2006, began a lengthy period of test-flying.
The F-35’s power system and engine frequently failed. Its pilots’ high-tech helmets were bulky and buggy. For a while, it couldn’t fly near thunderstorms because it lacked the equipment for channeling lightning strikes. The new plane’s gun wouldn’t be fully operational until 2019. Its software was taking too long to write. Its radar often had to be rebooted mid-flight. And sometimes the F-35 just caught on fire while on the ground.
Perhaps most damning, in mid-2015 someone inside the JSF program leaked a test pilot’s official account of a mock dogfight pitting an F-35 against an Air Force F-16, one of the older planes the F-35 is supposed to replace. “The F-35 was at a distinct energy disadvantage,” the pilot wrote. In layman’s terms, that means the F-35 couldn’t match the F-16 maneuver for maneuver.
The military and Lockheed claimed the media took the pilot’s report out of context and insisted that, in combat, the F-35 would never need to engage in a close-range dogfight, anyway, as it would either shoot down enemy planes at long range or merely avoid them.
In the aftermath of the dogfight report’s leaking, the F-35’s boosters went on a public-relations counteroffensive, frequently highlighting the plane’s supposed superior performance during war games. And in July 2015, the Marines declared their first F-35B squadron to be combat-ready with 10 planes—but then scheduled the unit’s first deployment for 2017, all but admitting that the combat-readiness declaration was a P.R. ploy.
The Air Force had predicted it would designate its first dozen F-35s (out of 180 that Lockheed had delivered to the flying branch) operational between August and December 2016—and was clearly determined not to miss that self-imposed deadline.
Indeed, with the F-35’s software development falling farther and farther behind schedule, in 2013 Gen. Mike Hostage, then the top officer in Air Combat Command, had to make a choice—either give the developers an extra couple of years to work on the F-35 or water down the official definition of “operational” in order to suit the new plane’s condition.
Hostage chose to water down the F-35’s requirements, limiting the range of missions the plane would be capable of undertaking and reducing the variety of weapons it would be able to carry.
The decision was politically motivated. The general “began to realize the overall negative repercussions associated with waiting,” according to an official Air Force account of the decision-making process.
Feedback from lawmakers reinforced Hostage’s concerns. “The read on Congress…was that there was more support overall for an early declaration,” the Air Force recalled. “These opinions came from the negative connotation with having over 180 F-35A aircraft parked on runways without [initial operational capability] and also being two years behind the Marines.”
So when Carlisle gives the 388th Wing’s first dozen F-35s the official thumbs-up, don’t get too excited. Even if Carlisle expects you to do so. “The minute I declare initial operational capability, if the combatant commander called me up and said, ‘We need F-35s,’ I would send them,” Carlisle told reporters in July.
But in reality, it could be years before F-35s see combat. The Air Force wanted until 2018 to keep refining the JSF—and it might just take that time despite the official war-readiness nod.
There’s certainly precedent for a delay. The Air Force declared the F-22 stealth fighter—the F-35’s bigger, slightly older cousin—operational in 2006, but waited eight years to finally send the jets into combat.