Mixed messages abound on the Lockheed Martin F-35 program today.
Overall it should be a good week for the F-35, with the first test aircraft back in the air after a seven-month hiatus and the second test aircraft due to be rolled out of the factory very soon.
But two articles appear in the press this morning that may darken the mood a bit in Fort Worth.
First, The Washington Post writes an article that strongly suggests the US Air Force and international customers should dump the F-35 and buy more F-16s.
Some skeptics have wondered why U.S. officials are investing nearly $300 billion to develop and buy the F-35 when the F-16, which costs about $40 million per jet, has proven so popular and easily upgradeable that 24 countries have bought them, many as repeat customers.
"There's a pretty good argument to keep building new F-16s forever," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow and military analyst at the Brookings Institution. "It's hard to say you can get a better bang for your buck."
It is an argument that could be made by a new administration in coming years, particularly if there is a recession.
Second, our worthy competitors at Aviation Week & Space Technology, quoted an unnamed retired Israeli general, who says:
Moreover, an influential retired IAF general says total sales will be limited by the JSF’s disadvantages. He points to its overdependence on stealth, a single crewman and what could be proprietary U.S. avionics.
“Eventually somebody will come up with a way to detect it,” he says. “A stealthy configuration also means you can’t carry additional weaponry on the exterior. The weapons system is more important than stealth. Israel will have F-35s, but not as many as we once thought.”
Smaller numbers won’t detract from the aircraft’s deterrence value, he concedes. Even a small fleet will ensure a first-day-of-war, surprise-strike capability. But once daily combat operations escalate, nonstealthy aircraft aided by standoff weapons, escort jammers and information operations will sustain air operations.
Nonetheless, he worries that the JSF will start showing its limitations within five years. Among the drawbacks will be its one-person crew. As a result, “we can’t operate the F-35 by itself,” the retired general says. “We really need two-seaters, with one person concentrating on flying and someone else focused on the strike mission. One man can’t take advantage of all the options,” particularly since JSF capabilities will include jamming, information warfare and network attack.