The United States Air Force announced the need for a new multi-use fighter jet to replace its aging F-16 fleet, while stressing that it would not feature the same high-price tag and technological prowess of the F-35.
The announcement, made by Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Brown came as a surprise to defence analysts, given that the F-35 was pegged as the modern fifth generation aircraft that would replace the F-16.
Instead, Air Force Chief Brown suggested they would develop a “fifth-generation-minus” fighter jet.
Nearly twenty years ago, the USAF set out to develop a replacement to the F-16’s successor, but the program only continued to grow prohibitively expensive as more cutting edge technology was poured into it. When it grew too expensive, other nations were brought in as partners to offset the runaway costs.
In an ironic twist, the F-35 has become the kind of dilemma it was initially supposed to resolve. Now, a new fighter jet is needed to meet the needs of the US Air Force.
Running the F-35 for 66 years is expected to cost $1.182 trillion, on top of its already hefty development cost of $397.8 billion. The F-35 costs slightly less than $100 million per plane. But cost is the least of its concerns.
Bugs and flaws
In spite of its advanced technology and cutting-edge capabilities, the latest stealth fighter suffers from structural flaws and slew of challenges.
Most recent among them is a structural engine flaw and shortage in its production.
The F-35’s engine problem is partly based in not being able to deliver them for maintenance as fast as needed, in addition to a problem with the heat coating on its rotor blades which shortens engine lifespan considerably.
Defense News described it as a “serious readiness problem”, suggesting that as soon as 2022, nearly 5 to 6 per ent of the F-35 fleet could be effectively grounded as it waits for engine replacements.
Another challenge is the plane’s software. Most modern fighter jets have between 1 to 2 million lines of code in their software. The F-35 averages 8 million lines of code in its software, and it’s suffering from a bug problem.
To fix this, the US Department of Defense is asking three American universities to help figure it out.
The fighter jet also suffers from a slightly embarrassing touchscreen problem. After making the switch from hard flipped switches to touch screens, pilots report that unlike a physical switch that you’re confident has been activated, touch screens in the plane don’t work 20 percent of the time says one F-35 pilot.
Aging fleet, modern enemies
Amid all these challenges, To justify his decision, Air Force Chief Brown compared the F-35 to a Ferrari.
“You don’t drive your Ferrari to work every day, you only drive it on Sundays. This is our ‘high end’ fighter, we want to make sure we don’t use it all for the low-end fight,” he said in a press conference on February 17.
In a nutshell, Brown wants to limit how often the F-35 is being used, as then develop a less advanced replacement.
The current fleet of F-16’s are old. Even the newest variants among them were bought in 2001. To replace the thousand F-16’s the USAF uses as a workhorse fighter jet will be a tall order. Ordering more F-16’s isn’t an option either, if only because they’re falling behind the technological curve.
Russia is already fielding its considerably cheaper Sukhoi-57 5th generation fighter jet. While it does not boast the technological prowess of the F-35, there’s considerable doubt that the F-35 could stand up to the Su-57 in a one-on-one dogfight.
This is mainly given the F-35 excels in fighting from a distance. China is also fielding it’s twin-seater J-20 fighter jet, which promises considerable offensive capabilities.
In essence, the F-35 was designed to have ultimate technological superiority. But doing too much means compromises in design.
To adapt to different demands, the F-35 has multiple, costly versions. Lockheed Martin provides a regular version suited to land operations, one specifically designed for aircraft carrier take-off, a smaller naval variant, not to mention a vertical take-off variant.
But having so many versions of the F-35 leads to a much more complex design. Resolving issues in one variant, doesn’t mean they’re resolved in the rest.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing to prevent the next fifth generation ‘minus’ plane from encountering the same challenges that brought the F-35 to its current predicament.
More dangerously, developing a new jet could take decades. Two decades by the F-35’s benchmark. By then, the F-16’s will be nearly 60 years old.