Is The F-35 Irrelevant?


There must be something about spring that inspires new initiatives and confident moves to the future and U.S. military leaders are in fine fettle, designing their dream fleets of the latest and greatest to protect the country and many others.

The Air Force and Navy have trotted out billions in plans for new aircraft to replace some designs that, despite numerous upgrades over the years, are due for a rest.

The two arms of the military generally go their own way on these sorts of things and these latest announcements continue that tradition with a strange twist. 

The Air Force’s big idea is to replace the F-16 with an all-new platform. The Viper (don’t ever call it a Fighting Falcon in the presence of an F-16 pilot) is the most numerous type in the fleet with more than 1,000 in service and it’s still in production, a remarkable feat for a design that first took three dimensional form almost 50 years ago. It’s a pilot’s airplane and its extensive upgrades over the years have kept it a reliably relevant tool for the Air Force. It’s also popular with U.S. allies and the latest variants are still attracting orders that could push production into the next decade.

But, it’s yesterday’s airplane according to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown and he doesn’t want yet another upgrade. “Actually, I want to build something new and different that’s not the F-16; that has some of those capabilities, but gets there faster, using our digital approach.” That sounds like the Air Force definition of a blank cheque but I digress. 

What’s interesting about Brown’s announcement is that there is no mention of unmanned aircraft or whether the replacement aircraft will need human guidance. Over at the Navy, it’s all about drones.

Rear Adm. Gregory Harris told a Navy League breakfast that he sees a 60/40 split on unmanned and manned aircraft on his ships and bases and the new manned plane will be a replacement for the F/A-18 Super Hornet and its electronic warfare version, the Growler. He also wants all-new hardware and he’s also musing about it being capable of unmanned operation. Whatever it is, it will fly with a “Little Buddy” drone that will accompany it on missions.

While the two military commands appear to be going in opposite directions there is a common thread to their approaches and that is the F-35.

You might recall that the F-35 was supposed to be the bread-and-butter platform for both the Navy and the Air Force and do everything needed in a modern fighter.

According to the Air Force’s Brown, the Lightning II is a $100 million piece of fine china to be brought out on special occasions to wow the neighbors. It does have some spectacular capabilities but it’s so buggy that it can’t be trusted to carry out the trench work. Brown wants something he can actually use but he put it more delicately than I. “This is our ‘high end’ [fighter], we want to make sure we don’t use it all for the low-end fight … We don’t want to burn up capability now and wish we had it later.”

The Navy’s Harris was harder on the F-35. He didn’t even acknowledge a role for it. His only reference to the aircraft was that he didn’t want the procurement process for his new airplanes to be the drawn out affair that has dogged the F-35s tortured introduction to active service, limited though it is.

The F-35 was a bold new concept in military procurement: a common type to be used by allies as a capable and efficient fighting force. It’s ballooned into the most expensive military project ever undertaken and despite its breathtaking cost the final result gets mixed reviews at best.

These latest developments are far worse for the Joint Strike Fighter concept.

The top brass of the U.S. military are no longer just saying the F-35 is bad. They’re saying it’s irrelevant.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. As a person who spent 27+ years involved with USAF flight test and 7 more with Navy flight test, I have a lot to say about this subject. In fact, it incenses me SO much I’ll go a step further and be brutal. The F-35 is a POS and a National embarrassment.

    Yeah … it can do a few things well but as the scrappy utilitarian adjunct airplane the current (new) USAF Chief of Staff desires … fuhgetaboutit. As the F-22’s cheaper little buddy it was supposed to be, it missed the mark. If you judge what it can do vs. the amount of time it’s been in development, it’s a failure. If you judge what it can do vs. its cost, it’s a disgrace. The Chief can’t say that and keep his job so he’s soft-shoeing the situation. The pilots who fly it can’t say that or they’ll be flying a desk. Besides, right now, they’re members of a very expensive Aero Club yanking and banking with it.

    More than five years ago at Airventure, I confronted two young officers sent there from Eglin AFB to do a dog and pony PR show with the thing. At a forum they were presenting, I asked them specific and poignant flight test questions. You shoulda seen the stammering and stuttering as they tried to figure out how to answer me and save face. And here we are years later and they’re STILL trying to figure out what they’re going to do with it other than enjoy flying it in mock battles. In the real and dirty world of air warfare, it’s going to be a lot like the F-4’s trying to perform air combat without a gun and F-111’s that couldn’t do their job in Viet Nam. And some moron wanted to replace the A-10 and its GAU-8 (w/ 1100 rounds of 30mm) with the F-35 !! Ask any Army grunt what they think of that idea and you’ll get an earful.

    The USAF’s preoccupation with stealth is fine but if you can’t carry enough weaponry to carry out a sustained fight without RTB to rearm or have to fly them “dirty” to make them useful, what good are they? If you don’t have enough of them and are afraid to risk their use except in extreme situations, what was the point? These things were supposed to be a lower cost adjunct to the F-22 and wound up becoming an expensive boondoggle. In the early days of the B-2, there was going to be 132 of them. In the end, only 21 (-1) were built and over half are always in maintenance, upgrade and otherwise not usable. It’s all about sheer numbers, not just high technology. In a conflict with a REAL adversary … it’s about numbers.

    As I said in another article here, the USAF has two F-16XL’s — which were actually two of the original eight F-16 full scale development (FSD) airplanes remanufactured — in storage at Edwards AFB. Those things can carry as much as a WWII B-17 and have nearly double the range of a standard F-16. NASA proved they could be made to supercruise. Why not update that design and make a bunch of them? We don’t need another long development gestation … we need something useful NOW. Having an airplane that is filled with ‘bits and bytes’ is fine but in the end, it’s all about carrying ordnance, firing bullets and having lots of them. That the USAF is now ordering modernized F-15EX is the right thing to do. Now do it with the F-16XL, too.

    At an EAA Chapter meeting, I re-met a test pilot who rose up in the USAF to a very high rank. He’s the real deal. I asked him what the difference between the F-22 and the F-35 was. His answer — as he looked me right in the eye with obvious anger — “One engine.” THAT says it all.

    As far as I am concerned, all F-35A’s and F-35C’s should be remanufactured into F-35B’s and given to the USMC who has a mission for such a machine. THAT is the only mission the F-35 is good for. Then, the USAF needs hoardes of new updated F-16XL’s and the Navy needs hoardes of updated F-18 Rhinos. Problem solved.

    • I mean the problem isn’t really solved when your upgraded 4th gens you are proposing run into an SU 57 or J 20 and get their asses kicked. The F-16 and F-15 have served well and for a long time but it is long past time to make the transition to the next generation of fighters and the F-35 gives us the best shot at making that transition. The Russians and the Chinese are investing in 5th gen fighters and we need to stay ahead of them and just procuring upgraded F-16s is not going to help us in that regard.

    • Larry – I could not agree more. If you read the book Top Gun – Dan Pedersen author, he discusses that very thing. We need a nimble rugged fighter that does not cost billions to develop. The F-16 is one of the best planes produced and with the enhancements, makes no sense to replace it with this electronic POS.

  2. It seemed to me from the start that the “one plane to rule them all” concept of the F35 was doomed to failure. In retrospect, it seems the F35 became the Comanche of the fixed wing world: too many changing and conflicting requirements leading to an impossible design goal for the manufacturer. The only difference is that the F35 actually got built. It also seemed like a bad idea because one design fault would mean taking out planes for all 3 branches of the military. A jack-of-all-trades aircraft usually ends up being bad at everything because aircraft are inherently a compromise from the start.

    • Gary … when you’re spending “Other People’s Money,” it’s easy to go ordering all the nifty stuff you think you need and the Contractors convince you that they can build. When you hang up your blue suit and a desk is waiting for you at the Contractor’s place of business, it’s an incestuous relationship, too. You know what they say about History repeating itself, too.

      IF the people at the top who come up with and then pick these crazy ideas would have their paychecks or the retirements taken away if the idea failed, things would be different. The AV-8B Harrier was a relative success because it was a dedicated Service airplane with one Mission. The F-35 … not so much.

      • To be frank I don’t think the AV-8B is going to be a more successful aircraft than the F-35B since the latter aircraft is just straight up more capable and is likely to have a much longer service life. Give the aircraft some time it will more than prove its worth in the next few decades.

        • By this comment, I can tell that you don’t know what you’re talking about, Jinyong. Hate to be so candid BUT … the AV-8B is being phased out in favor of the F-35B for the Marine Corps. I have no problem with that, hence why I said all “A” and “C” airplanes ought to be turned into “B” airplanes and given to them.

          How many years did you serve in the USAF ?

          • Considering how the Harrier is just a subsonic attack plane I don’t think it is that far fetched to say that the F 35B is a more capable aircraft since it can go supersonic and has a low RCS.

  3. The jump jet was designed to be jet support for a Marine assault group when a full size aircraft carrier isn’t around. Yes, this did and still does happen. Yes, these are needed, just not all the time. Full size aircraft carriers are not usually with a Marine landing assault group. They have LHAs designed for helicopter and landing craft assaults. These ships can handle Harriers, and now the F35 in jump jet configuration.

  4. The F-35 sounds too much like the F-111. What made the F-16 such a good aircraft were the lessons learned from the F-111. The F-111 lessons, trying to do everything, have been forgotten.

    • I’ve flown in the F-15 and the F-16. They compliment each other nicely and we have sufficient numbers of each to afford the loss of a few of either in air combat. Both are awesome airplanes … still … almost 50 years after their first flights. No F-15 has never been lost in battle. Somebody thought they could build a Tri-Service airplane and supplant the F-22 Raptor for less money and fell on their “sword” in the process with the F-35. They shoulda kept the Raptor line open and skipped the F-35 altogether. At THAT point, an F-15 or an F-15EX coulda been the Raptor’s “Little Helper.”

      Now that I think about it … did the USAF ever even give the F-35 a name ?? Doing a little more research on it, I find that Lockheed Martin has nicknamed a third day loadout of it as “Beast Mode” — aka flying ‘dirty.’ So much for needing a Stealth mode … as I commented above. We could do Beast Mode with old F-4’s !! And if we loaded some of those nifty new systems it carries onto — say — an F-15EX or F-16XL, it’d be just as good at half the cost or less OR twice as many airplanes could be built. We shoulda kept the F-117A, too.

      Geesh … this ain’t hard !!

      • Wasn’t the F-22 supposed to replace the F-15 as an “easier-to-maintain” aircraft? Funny how all of these “replacement” planes never seem to actually fully replace the old equipment, because things like the F-15 and F-16 were so well-built for their singular purpose (though both have been used for purposes other than their original intent).

        • Considering how both the F-22 and the F-35 are 5th gen aircraft I honestly can’t see how people thought that those two aircraft would be cheaper to procure or maintain. Just the sheer level of technological sophistication demands more maintenance support and this is just an inevitable consequence of operating 5th gen fighters.

  5. Come on Larry, I hate it when you sugar coat things.
    Also remember what happened to the USAF officers who recommended the adoption of the (navy) F-4 Phantom as the best choice for the AF.

    • Dale. et al … if I “disappear,” you’ll know they sent men in black to escort me to the Promised Land for being too outspoken AND right!! Kinda like that guy from Area 51 who blabbed about UnUnPentium can’t be found anymore. Alternately, sure wish the Chief of Staff would call me … I’d set him on the right path. 🙂

      • Larry, unfortunately the military brass is only half the problem. The other half is Lockheed and Congress. Lockheed put subcontractors in as many Congressional districts as possible, so that Senators and Congress People will fight any attempt to can the F-35, lest they lose those jobs in their districts. I knew the F-35 was a failure the first time I heard someone say that it was intended to replace the A-10 as a close ground support plane. As you said, ask any Army grunt what they think of that idea and you had better stand back. Not sure how you fix this problem. Not sure it is even fixable as long as you have military brass that gets all googly eyed whenever they see another high-tech weapon system in a Power Point presentation.

        • I mean the F-35 was never designed to replace the A-10 in the close ground support role and we currently have no aircraft being designed to replace that specific aircraft and its role since the efficacy of building an aircraft designed for low-altitude strafing attacks can be called into question considering such an attack profile is highly vulnerable to MANPADS. In any case the F-35 is more than capable of performing CAS missions in support of ground forces.

          • And yet that is exactly what the Air Force intended to do; retire the A-10 and give that ground support role over to the F-35. If you think that low level ground strafing missions are obsolete and no longer necessary, then you might want to talk to the Army fighting insurgents in the Middle East. And, if you think that the F-35’s 20 mm gun is equal to the A-10’s 30 mm, then think again. Close ground support is not obsolete. It is an essential part of the Air Force’s mission.

            I’m not suggesting that we use A-10’s for air superiority. It has its niche to fill and it does so very well. The problem I have with the F-35 is that people keep thinking that it is flexible enough and capable enough to do all things well. No aircraft in history has been able to do that.

          • Jinyong … AGAIN … you don’t know what you’re talking about. They sure as heck were planning on replacing the A-10 (which carries as much as 1100 rounds of 30 mm ammo) with an F-35 which carries only around 200 rounds of 20mm. What kind of moron would think the F-35 is an equivalent airplane. Furthermore, the A-10 is a tank with wings. You could probably shoot an F-35 down with an electron?

            MY first project airplane in the mid-70’s WAS the A-10. I stood right next to it INSIDE the McKinley Climatic hangar at Eglin AFB when we fired the GAU-8 into a bullet catcher at -60 degrees. I’m here to tell you that the GAU-8 is an awesome and fearful weapon. The F-35 is a pea shooter with not enough ammo to do anything. That’s why Lockheed has named “Beast Mode.” Once they do that, it’s no longer stealth.

            If you’re going to comment … make sure you know what you’re talking about, please.

          • Look I have great respect for what the A-10 can do with its 30 millimeter cannon in support of ground troops but to be frank if I want to kill a bunch of tanks I’m going to prefer using Mavericks or CBU-105’s over the 30 millimeter. And to be frank the A-10 works great in a permissive air environment where there are no enemy aircraft or SAM’s around but it is going to struggle when it goes up against near peer adversaries and their IADS networks. Heck it’s even questionable if the A-10 could survive an encounter with modern MANPADS.

  6. These hyper networked planes will be easy prey in the next great power battle. Kinetic weapons and their delivery systems won’t even get close to the fight if the networks they rely on are hacked.

    The next conflict will be all about controlling networks to propagate information and dis-information. Current potential aggressors are incredibly adept hacking networks, harvesting, manipulating and propagating information/dis-information. Uncle Sam’s dollars are better spent on this threat.

    • Exactly right. Modern warfare is conducted by electrons and hackers. And, it has been that way longer than most people realize. During the first Gulf War, the U.S. hacked Sadaam Hussein’s air defense computers and shut them down during our air assaults. It is no small coincidence that the Russians, Chinese and North Koreans are concentrating so much effort hacking into American computer systems. And, unfortunately, they seem to be winning.

  7. And yet they still tell the Belgians and the Swiss and the Brits — buy this or you will not buy anything else from us ever again.
    Or has that changed now the orange one has gone?
    The Royal Navy’s ridiculous looking new carriers (sail for a week then need a gas station pit stop) are designed for them.

    • Problem is its not just a few countries buying the aircraft its more than a dozen. And several more countries are interested in buying the F-35 which calls into question the assertion that it is a bad aircraft. Most of these nations purchased the fighter due to its quality and effectiveness as well as the fact that it is actually quite cheap to procure compared to other 5th gen aircraft.

  8. Unfortunately, when briefing the general public on complex systems/platforms there often is not enough detail, and if there were, often the terms and principals are not something we all understand in that instance. Statements are misinterpreted in addition to all we have been hearing about Russian interference and disinformation…yes, that is for real.

    No 4th generation aircraft would survive a peer adversary. Up until now, we have done battle in non-peer environments. And in these circumstances, upgraded F15s and F16s are appropriate. We would not bring in firebombing tankers to put out a campfire.

    Times have been changing for years, and the gap between our peer adversaries, namely China and Russia have been closing fast. Both countries, have agendas, and they don’t include the US being a dominant force. We cannot only have 4th generation aircraft with “mosaic warfare”. It would not be survivable with an upgraded F15 or F16… not that environment. We have already flown a 6th generation aircraft, and we must continue to move forward, as we face a possible sobering space-based warfare….multi-domain with all involved….and if it is in space, it will happen very far away and very quickly. Please take a look at these sites with Gen. Dave Deptula (Ret.) Dean of Mitchell Institute, a Washington think tank. And I ask AvWeb and Russ Niles to please interview him and/or our current AF Chief, Gen. Brown. I am sure we can arrange it with at least one of them.

    I am a long time reader, and occasionally contribute, and would like to share more updated details going on. Yes, the F35, LIGHTNING II (after P38 Lightning) a very complex system, has issues to iron out, and yes, it was designed to compliment the F22, which Gates cancelled numbers…but it has been in the battle field, and it will be capable of leading a swarm of drones, among other things, as we bring on the B21 Raider and the 6th gen. fighter. Again, I hope we can arrange an interview.
    Susan Loricchio, Air Force Association, Air Power Advocate

    • Agree, I think the fighter will more than prove its worth in the next 50 years and we will look back and consider that program to be pretty successful. Besides I am pretty sure by that time we will be far more focused on how the 6th gen fighter being produced is a supposedly terrible aircraft.

        • Lol no I’m just a college kid, but even I could figure out that not replacing our 4th gen fleets with 5th gen aircraft would only mean we would be falling behind our adversaries when it comes to gaining air superiority. There is only so much you can extract out of the worn out airframes of the F 16, F18, and F 15’s currently in our fleet. We made the transition from 3rd gen aircraft to 4th gen aircraft successfully and we need to make the transition from 4th gen to 5th gen as quickly as possible.