The F-35: Sales to Allied Countries Don’t Mean It’s A Great Airplane

Photograph Source: Airman 1st Class Christopher Callaway – Public Domain

In a recent article for Forbes, pundit Loren Thompson brags of the success of the controversial F-35 and claims that the block 4 upgrades will make the troubled aircraft even better. He also points out that so far 16 countries have placed orders for the fighter, and that proves how great it is (1) , but it’s worth pointing out that is not necessarily true, as the US has sold deeply flawed aircraft to foreign counties in the past, with horrendous results. More on that in a few minutes.

Firstly, let’s dissect the F-35. The late world famous aircraft designer and originator Pierre Sprey, who made huge contributions to the successful design of the F-16 and A-10 – among other aircraft — called it a “turkey” on Canadian TV in 2012 and said that it would lose against contemporary European fighters. He also said old low frequency radar, which the Russians and the rest of the world have in excess, can easily detect the aircraft, therefore making its so-called “stealth” an expensive and unnecessary feature that might make little difference in combat. For example, in the Kosovo Air War in 1999, the Serbs used ancient low frequency radars to detect the “stealthy” F-117 and direct missiles close enough to shoot one down and damage another. (2)

More recently, Dan Grazier of the Project on Government Oversight has basically described the aircraft as a disaster with many defects even now after more than a decade in the service. He also points out that some new defects and failures have been hidden by the Director, Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E). He says “The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program appears to be in a state of suspended development, with little progress made in 2021 toward improving its lackluster performance. The latest report by the Pentagon’s Director, Operational Test & Evaluation reveals stagnation and even backsliding in some fleet reliability measures. And that’s just the public DOT&E report. In an unprecedented move, DOT&E is concealing many of the key details of the F-35’s poor performance. For the first time ever, the testing office created a non-public “controlled unclassified information” version of its report, and although there is much overlap between the two versions, the meaningful details about the ever-troubled program are only included in the non-public one.”(3)

He then proceeds to describe numerous deficiencies, far too many to be described here, but the one that concerns me the most is the lack of fully mission capable aircraft in the fleet. “The GAO found that the entire F-35 fleet averaged a full mission capable rate of 39% in 2020, which was an improvement from the 32% the year before. The Air Force’s F-35A variant performed the best with a fleet average of 54% that year, a rate of performance that is still far below the 80% mission capable rate needed for an effective aircraft fleet (and even significantly below the program’s low 65% availability standard). The Marine Corps’ fleet of short takeoff and landing F-35Bs and the Navy’s fleet of F-35Cs, which are tailored for use on aircraft carriers, lag far behind. The F-35B fleet’s full mission capable rate got worse between 2019 and 2020, dropping from 23% to 15%. The F-35C fleet showed some improvement during that period, but that is not saying much. That fleet’s rate went from 6.4% to 6.8%.” (4)

Grazier’s analysis of a myriad of other serious problems makes compelling reading. He argues that “F-35 boosters enjoy telling people that the program is more than just a fighter jet. ‘A computer that happens to fly,’ ‘The Most Advanced Node in the 21st Century Warfare,’ and ‘The Most Lethal, Survivable, And Connected Fighter Jet Ever Built’ are just a few of the hyperbolic marketing slogans used to sell and protect the F-35 program. While these slogans may look good on a brochure or splashed across the pages of trade publications, the connected nature of the F-35 aircraft and support networks on the ground may ultimately prove to be the program’s biggest conceptual flaw. The entire F-35 enterprise remains dangerously vulnerable to cyberattacks despite years of warnings.” (5)

Finally, Grazier concludes that “More than twenty years into the F-35’s development, the aircraft remains in every practical and legal sense nothing more than a very expensive prototype. The simple fact that the contractors and the program office haven’t been able to deliver an aircraft whose effectiveness has been proven through a full operational testing program suggests the original Joint Strike Fighter concept was flawed and beyond any practical technological reality. With little progress and significant regression in 2021, it seems that the F-35 program will remain in its current stagnant state for the foreseeable future.” (6)

Despite these breathtaking and very expensive shortcomings, it’s not the first turkey that the US has sold to allied countries. I am reminded of the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, an aircraft that was operated by the US, Canada, Norway, Italy, Japan, and ten other countries (7) despite being seriously flawed and downright dangerous to fly as proven by the number of deadly accidents, particularly for the pilots of the Luftwaffe. According to Dario Leone, “its wings were so small they could hold neither the landing gear nor fuel, which all had to be stowed in the fuselage. However the small wings were necessary to give the Starfighter its excellent acceleration, rate of climb and top speed. By contrast the small wings gave the F-104 also a poor sustained turn performance and since they could not carry fuel, the aircraft had a very limited range. Moreover the aircraft did not feature a useful radar, and its loadout was made only by a cannon and heat-seeking missiles, making it a day, clear weather-only fighter. It quickly became obvious that it was not really what the U.S. Air Force (USAF) wanted, and it was quietly shunted to the sidelines.” (8) This was the right decision by the USAF, but other air forces continued using the Starfighter in a frontline role for decades.

Many German pilots lost their lives in accidents due to the unforgiving nature of the F-104, especially when flying low in bad weather. Leone continued: “Gen. Wernher Panitzki, the then Commander of the Luftwaffe, was forced to resign when he said that the Starfighter purchase was politically motivated. His successor was the Luftwaffe World War II-ace Lt. Gen. Johannes Steinhoff, who… immediately grounded the F-104Gs, at least partially (and wisely) to install a new ejection seat. To add to the Starfighters’ problems, it was learned that, in fact, Lockheed had bribed officials in Germany and other countries in the process of selling the F-104, though the German Starfighter purchase documents had been destroyed in 1962 by the Ministry of Defence.” (9)

So it appears that Lockheed bribed German officials and those of other countries to buy the F-104, which is very telling. Could it be that this sort of thing still goes on today? I have no proof of this, but if so, it would help explain why the F-35 is so popular with allied air forces despite its poor performance. Another form of bribery may be in the form of “offsets” in which Lockheed Martin gives foreign purchasers a piece of the F-35 research and production action. Finally, there is also the matter of Lockheed Martin and its boosters in and out of the US successfully implanting the idea in buyers’ heads that they are not doing their duty as American allies if they reject the F-35. The F-104 was a turkey and so is the F-35, but that didn’t and doesn’t prevent them from being accepted and sold to allied countries. To sum up, while some excellent US aircraft like the F-16 sold well abroad, that does not always happen, especially in the case of the F-104 and F-35. We need more officers like General Panitzki to resist accepting poorly designed aircraft to support allied defense and deter potential adversaries.

NOTES

Loren Thompson, “Inside Block 4 – The Mostly Secret Plan For Making the F-35 Fighter Even More LethalForbes, November 24, 2022,

“Defence Analyst Pierre Sprey on the F-35 (2012) The Fifth Estate” www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1Z_DuF87Sc&list=WL

Dan Grazier,”F-35 Program Stagnated in 2021 but DOD Testing Office Hiding Full Extent of Problem”, Project on Government Oversight.

F-104 Operators”,

Dario Leone, “The Horrific Reason Germany’s Air Force Called The F-104 Starfighter ‘Widow Maker’” The National Interest, August 22, 2019.

Roger Thompson is a research fellow at Dalhousie University’s Centre for the Study or Security and Development, the author of Lessons Not Learned: The US Navy’s Status Quo Culture, and a former researcher at Canada’s National Defence Headquarters.