Half a decade of austerity and budget cuts, especially those in defence budgets, makes the need to acquire a new generation of fighter jets the most contested bid for NATO-members and regional allies. The F16 fighter jet, proven to be a first class Cold War fighter, has reached its retirement age long after the enemy it was purposed to fight collapsed and never really recovered. Governments and parliaments in Europe, the US and elsewhere – notably those in South-Asia – are discussing the pro’s and con’s on what to do. When flying with outdated planes gets more expansive due rising maintenance costs, replacing the old fleet with a new generation becomes more viable. The F35 Joint Strike Fighter is the obvious choice for the armed forces. The policymakers, however, beg to differ.
The most counted and easy to make complaint by politicians has to be the Joint Strike Fighter being freaking expensive, and already has surpassed estimated and re-estimated design and production costs (currently, the price tag
is about 1 trillion dollars to design, build and operate 2.400 jets). Then there are the lists of malfunctions, long lists indeed, which recorded design faults sum up to numbers in triple digits. The critiques of the homegrown American opposition groups arguing against the development of the F35 are increasingly shared by their European NATO counterparts. One begins to wonder if this plane is ever going to fly, when governments are delaying and weighting their decisions.
Then what makes this plane the most advanced fighting system ever designed? It are not just the newest stealth-evading technologies used, but foremost the information processing capabilities that permits situational decision making rather than mere situational awareness what makes the F35 a C5ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Combat Systems, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) fighter jet. Practically, this means that three aircraft, including an Electronic Warfare Aircraft (which is necessary to conduct modern day air operations by processing and subsequently providing the information needed for the air fleet) can be replaced by just one F35 in the operational warzone. What about cost-effective now.
This is also linked with another advantage. F35’s have the unique capability to operate in 360 degrees operational space, and operate with different units flying miles away by sharing information through the network. The by network processed operational distance has such a wide scope that the current available missiles operate in half or less of the space of which an individual F35 is aware. Designers built in the opportunity to facilitate new technological advancements, which contributes to a prolonged operational time span. In addition, the information technology can be used not only to facilitate cooperation between solely F35-squadrons, but also with surface ships, identifying potential targets and subsequently strengthen the unity-of-effort. Complementary, the F35C can take off from carrier ships, making the criticized US Air-Sea Battle Plan more credible.
All this is not limited to military strategy, but can and should be expanded to the level of geopolitics. A single quote illustrates this proposition: “These F35-Aegis offense and defense bubbles can be networked throughout the Pacific to enhance the capacity of individual nations. They represent a prime example of how one country’s assets can contribute to the reach others, together establishing a scalable capability for a honeycombed force. Overall, the enterprise lays a foundation for a global capability in sea-based missile defenses and for protecting deployed forces as well as projecting force. Power such as this is increasingly central to the freedom of action necessary for the worldwide operation of the U.S. military and our coalition partners”. These capabilities make a strategy of international cooperation between allied armed forces possible to an extend needed to deal with increasing unstable regions. Additionally, since parts of the F35 are produced in companies all over the world, these locations can function as maintenance, repair and operations supporting facilities, which makes and keeps the freedom of action of US and allied military forces possible.
The strength of the F35 comes in its numbers, based on its networked fighting capabilities. Additionally, the huge costs of production can be reduced when more allied states decide to acquire the JSF as the next generation fighter jet, establishing economies-of-scale production levels. The Joint Strike Fighter is designed as a do-it-all strike jet able to evade enemy radars, bomb ground targets and shoot down rival fighters along the way. For policymakers, though, the F35-issue tends to become a foolishly zero-sum decision. The criticizers should focus on what the JSF actually can do and what its contesters cannot, whilst those in favor should acknowledge the limits which is inherently brought by a cutting edge piece of technology. Nevertheless, this means the JSF is the game changer of the next war.