The $1 Trillion Question for the F-35: Is the U.S. Buying an Inferior Plane?
Policy + Politics

The $1 Trillion Question for the F-35: Is the U.S. Buying an Inferior Plane?

Lockheed Martin

A new report by a progressive think-tank says the astronomically expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is inferior compared to other “near-peer” competitors and will be mismatched against emerging threats.

The study by the National Security Network states the jet, the most expensive weapons system in U.S. history, will not only be outmaneuvered and outgunned by Russian and Chinese aircraft but will also be limited in range and its stealth capabilities will be easily overcome.

Related: Marine Corps Declares Its Problem-Plagued F-35 Ready for Combat

“The F-35 will find itself outmaneuvered, outgunned, out of range, and visible to enemy sensors,” the report states. “Going forward, full investment in the F-35 would be to place a bad trillion-dollar bet on the future of airpower based on flawed assumptions and an underperforming aircraft.”

Rather than continue with the program, with its already sizeable $400 billion price tag, Congress and the Defense Department “should begin the process of considering alternatives to a large-scale commitment to the F-35,” it adds. The lifetime program cost for the plane is expected to surpass $1 trillion.

Bill French, a policy analyst at NSS and one of the study’s authors, said the report is meant to provide a “full picture” for the F-35 program, both in terms of cost and capabilities.

A veritable cottage industry has grown up around the perennially delayed F-35 effort, and while the Marine Corps recently deemed its version of the jet combat ready, questions about the aircraft’s operational effectiveness remain.

Related: Budget Busting F-35 Could Finally Be Airborne

The NSS study compared all three F-35 variants to foreign fighters -- Russia’s MiG-29 and Su-27 -- and found it came up short in a variety of key areas, including acceleration, combat radius and payload. Such deficiencies would seriously hamper the U.S. jet in a dogfight.

The F-35’s “short range means that it will be of limited use in geographically expansive theaters like the Asia-Pacific or against so-called anti-access threats whereby adversaries can target forward airbases,” according to the report.

The Pentagon in recent years has put great emphasis on what it calls “anti-access/area-denial” from potential adversaries, especially those in the Asia-Pacific. China has invested heavily in such technologies and thus could make the risk, or cost, “too high” for the U.S. to engage with the F-35, Press said.

He added that China and others have the ability to challenge U.S. mid-air refueling efforts, potentially further limiting the jet’s combat range.

Related: After Flight Test Failure, F-35 Could Be Demoted by New Defense Chief

Meanwhile, the F-35’s stealth avionics and sensors might not make much of difference against the fighters operated by Russia and China, since those countries have made strides in radar, computing, and infrared sensor technology, the NSS report states.

Press said “given the scale” of the problems with the F-35, the program requires “careful study” about coming up with an alternative platform.

“That’s a multi-billion dollar question to answer,” he said. “I don’t think people should be throwing spaghetti at the wall for the answer.”