It was still possible at the Farnborough air show in 2014 to speculate whether the Lockheed Martin F-35 programme would survive the decade.
That time has passed. Not only is a global fleet of F-35s now inevitable, the single-engined strike fighter is finally maturing before our eyes into the warplane that will soon be – for better, or worse – the world’s go-to aircraft to answer almost any crisis.
The long-belated viewing of a UK-owned F-35B in the Hampshire skies confirmed a great deal of progress. This variant is technically operational, although the US Marine Corps has no plan to deploy it until next year.
But there is still much work to do. The F-35’s sensors remain frozen at technical specifications developed early in the last decade, and a comprehensive refresh is necessary as soon as possible. A global fleet must perform coalition operations, but the US government still has not found a way to easily share information between an international F-35 formation in-flight. The logistics and maintenance systems are badly dysfunctional and late, and Lockheed must deliver on time as the production rate roughly quadruples by 2019.
The programme’s management also could be undone, with Senator John McCain keen to eliminate the Joint Programme Office and divide authority for management and upgrades between three services. The F-35 is at risk of losing a unified leadership structure.