F-35 JSF – perception versus reality

Australia’s first F-35A Lightning II flies in formation with a US Air Force F-35A and an F-16 Fighting Falcon of the type to be replaced by the F-35 in US Air Force sqn's

The F-35A Lightning II (Joint Strike Fighter) has been the most controversial combat aircraft acquisition Australia has entered into, since the heady days of the F-111 strike/reconnaissance platform 50 years ago. The F-35 has been accused of being an over-expensive, over-weight but under-performing combat jet that can’t manoeuvre in a dog fight and can’t get the jump on other 5th generation East European jets. Is this reality or is it perception not privy to insider knowledge of the F-35’s capabilities?

Some of the criticism has been levelled by people who just don’t know, but there has also been criticism by others who do know, but may not be privy to the super-secret stuff that pilots who are flying the F-35 know about.

Whatever is the truth about the F-35’s combat capability, Lockheed Martin is now engaged in a very different government/industry relationship with President Donald Trump.

Immediately upon taking office at the end of January, President Trump set his sights on the JSF, demanding cost reductions and a fly-off comparison between the naval F-35C and an advanced version of the Super Hornet.

The President’s ultimatum has obviously been taken seriously, with Lockheed Martin releasing a statement recently that the Low-Rate Initial Production Lot 10 (LRIP-10) contract for 90 stealth fighters has been agreed at $94.6M per aircraft, as the program works towards $85M in 2019.

This represents more than a 60 per cent price reduction for the F-35A variant since the first (LRIP-1)contract.

This is good news for Australia, as the fear was that the unit flyaway cost (per aircraft) would escalate towards $200 million, which would be unaffordable for the Defence budget.

While this in itself may not appease the naysayers, visitors to the Australian International Air Show will at least get their first glimpse of the future of air combat in Australia in early-March when two of Australia’s F-35s will participate in the airshow.

These first deliveries have been a long time coming. Australia joined the International Joint Strike Fighter programme back in 2002 and project delays have resulted in the ‘bridging’ purchase of Super Hornet strike fighters in 2009, to ‘de-risk’ the RAAF’s transition from the Classic Hornet to the 5th generation F-35A.

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