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    F-35 Lightning II: The Price of Air Superiority and the Balance of Global Power

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    An F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, marked AA-1, lands Oct. 23 at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The F-35 Integrated Test Force staff concluded an air-start test. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Julius Delos Reyes)

    The F-35 Lightning II has been a subject of intense debate within defense circles, balancing its soaring costs against the backdrop of strategic military necessity.

    An F-35 Lightning II completes a flyover of USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000).” by Official U.S. Navy Imagery is licensed under CC BY 2.0

    As tensions mount in the geopolitical arena, particularly with China’s growing stealth capabilities, the F-35 stands as the United States’ only active stealth fighter jet in production, a cornerstone of maintaining air superiority.

    The program, despite facing criticism for its staggering expected lifetime cost—now projected to exceed $2 trillion—continues to be an indispensable asset for the U.S. military and its allies.

    The crux of the debate surrounding the F-35 is the juxtaposition of its escalating costs against the strategic advantage it provides. According to the Government Accountability Office, the lifetime expense of the program has ballooned to a 44% increase since 2018, now including about $442 billion in acquisition costs.

    A Sailor signals an F-35B Lightning to take off from the flight deck of USS America (LHA 6).” by Official U.S. Navy Imagery is licensed under CC BY 2.0

    The Air Force’s development of the Next Generation Air Dominance fighter, expected to enter service in the next decade, has sparked discussions on reallocating the F-35’s budget towards its successor.

    Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II over Florida” by aeroman3 is licensed under CC PDM 1.0

    However, a cancellation of the F-35 would be a “massive unforced error,” not only for the U.S. but also for the numerous international players who rely on the Lightning II for their defense strategies. “

    The F-35 is the spine of the U.S. military, and if it were somehow cancelled it would be disaster of epic proportions,” warned defense analysts.

    Australia F-35s leave in historic launch” by aeroman3 is licensed under CC PDM 1.0

    With its advanced stealth features and versatility across its three variants—the F-35A for the Air Force, the short takeoff and vertical landing F-35B for the Marine Corps, and the carrier-capable F-35C for the Navy—the jet stands as a pivotal force multiplier.

    Lockheed Martin F-35 ‘Lightning II’ Heritage Flight Team” by aeroman3 is licensed under CC PDM 1.0

    The Lockheed Martin-manufactured F-35 not only caters to the diverse needs of the U.S. military but also enjoys strong international demand, with recent buyers including Germany, Canada, Greece, the Czech Republic, and Singapore.

    An F-35B Lightning II lands on the flight deck of USS America (LHA 6).” by Official U.S. Navy Imagery is licensed under CC BY 2.0

    Greg Ulmer, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, expects a stable production rate of about 156 aircraft per year through 2028. This forecast aligns with the plans of U.S. military services and the anticipated international market.

    Lockheed Martin F-35C ‘Lightning II’” by aeroman3 is licensed under CC PDM 1.0

    Despite this, the F-35 program has faced challenges, particularly with its Block 4 suite of upgrades. Delays and cost overruns have prompted officials to consider restructuring the entire upgrade plan, focusing on delivering “must-have content” and leveraging industry capabilities within the Future Years Defense Program.

    Lockheed Martin F-35 ‘Lightning II’” by aeroman3 is licensed under CC PDM 1.0

    Air Force Lt. Gen. Mike Schmidt emphasized the need for realism, expressing fatigue over “over-promising and under-delivering.”

    F-35B Lightning II Aircraft Conducting a Roll” by Defence Images is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

    Moreover, the Technology Refresh 3 (TR-3) software essential for the F-35’s Block 4 upgrades has experienced its own setbacks. With the Pentagon halting deliveries of newly-built jets due to software validation issues, Lockheed Martin has adjusted its projections, anticipating TR-3 equipped jet deliveries to commence between July and September. Yet, these jets would only contain truncated software, lacking full combat capabilities—a compromise that offers training opportunities while the complete software load is awaited.

    Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II over Florida” by aeroman3 is licensed under CC PDM 1.0

    The F-35’s journey has not been without its critics. Some argue that the program exemplifies the worst of military-industrial complexities, with cost overruns, technological hurdles, and public scrutiny. The jet has faced issues like poor dogfight performance against F-16s and complications with the engine provided by Pratt & Whitney. Despite these challenges, Lockheed Martin has delivered approximately 960 jets, with around 630 going to the U.S. military, and the F-35 has proven effective in combat.

    F-35 Lightning II completes Edwards testing” by MultiplyLeadership is licensed under CC BY 2.0

    Ultimately, the F-35 Lightning II’s saga is a testament to the delicate balance between fiscal prudence and strategic foresight. The need for air dominance in an increasingly complex global security environment presses the U.S. and its allies to continue their investment in this multifaceted platform, despite the high costs and the trials of development. The F-35 remains a controversial yet crucial player in the aerial chessboard of modern warfare, ensuring the U.S. maintains its edge in the skies.

    An F-35B Lightning II aircraft is secured aboard USS Wasp (LHD 1).” by Official U.S. Navy Imagery is licensed under CC BY 2.0

    Relevant articles:
    Could the F-35 Fighter Program Get ‘Terminated’?, The National Interest
    Lockheed Anticipates Stable F-35 Production for Next Five Years, airandspaceforces.com
    3 jets early without full capability, Breaking Defense
    The F-35 Strike Fighter Continues to Be a Massive Waste of Taxpayer Money, Esquire

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