Canada, for example, is hoping to buy just 65 of these stealth light attack bombers. A paltry 65 of these short-range, single-engine warplanes for the second biggest country in the world. On a good day we might be able to muster up thirty or thirty five of the things. A good number will be in storage (we have to make them last 50-years we're told). Some will be in maintenance and, judging by the reliability of the 35's stealth Big Brother, the F-22, that could be substantial. So having half the fleet serviceable and ready to go might be a reasonable goal.
Britain's Financial Times concludes that the F-35's supposed stealth advantage comes at a whopping price. It warns that the aircraft's cost-overruns now threaten to reduce customer fighter forces to "numerically ineffective levels."
Built by Lockheed Martin of the US with the UK’s BAE Systems as a prime contractor, the F-35 was created to fulfil every task – attacking well-defended targets, supporting ground troops and matching opposing jets in air to air combat.
But the aircraft has become a victim of its own broad remit. Its radical stealth characteristics play well with politicians and the public who relish the idea of an “invisible” jet. However, stealth comes at a price way beyond the expense it adds to design and construction.
A stealthy fighter is slower and less manoeuvrable than conventional rivals, and needs to conceal weapons in an internal bay to maintain a sleek, radar-evading profile. Contrary to popular opinion, a stealth aircraft is not invisible, but is much harder to detect on existing radars, thus giving the pilot more time to attack a well-defended target.
Energetic radar development in both Russia and China may see this advantage watered down by the 2020s, as ever more sophisticated radars enter the export market.
The internal weapons carriage of the F-35 is limited, meaning that for many of the missions flown by Nato jets over Libya or Afghanistan the aircraft would need to carry bombs and missiles on external pylons. Because these weapons and their pylons protrude under the wing they eliminate the vastly expensive stealth aspect of the airframe, while the manoeuvrability penalties of stealth design remain to hamper the jet’s combat agility.
Squeezing stealth and other leading-edge digital capabilities into one airframe has pushed the F-35’s costs up and killed off the notion of an affordable jet for all-comers. The US still has a nominal 2,443 F-35s on order. Whether this number will survive US budget restraints is doubtful. Economic pressures elsewhere have seen orders trimmed back amid mounting criticism.
A Dutch order for 85 F-35s has been slashed to just 37 aircraft costing €4.5bn. How these are supposed to replace an existing force of 68 F-16s plus 20 spares is anybody’s guess. This relentless downward curve in the size of Nato fighter fleets is worrying planners tasked with deploying jets to crisis zones.
Canada has put a planned purchase on hold, while it considers more cost-effective alternatives. And with each reduction in orders, the economics of the entire programme come under question. A huge order book is essential to keep the unit cost down. Some Washington critics have spoken of a “death spiral”, whereby each cut in orders adds to the unit price and ultimately brings the whole programme crashing to earth.
Lockheed Martin says that technical problems, a protracted development schedule and soaring costs are all now under control. And F-35 design and assembly is spread across US industry, creating a significant political momentum. Douglas Barrie, senior analyst at The International Institute for Strategic Studies, thinks the death spiral outcome is unlikely, but admits that significant US cutbacks could change the entire picture.
“Retrospectively, you’d not try to design one aircraft to do so many different jobs,” says Mr Barrie. The programme will probably survive because of economic rather than military logic. But it is clear that we will not see an attempt to shoehorn such radically different requirements into one pricey airframe again.
That's a huge drawback in the F-35. Most customers will be buying an airframe designed for a purpose other than their own. The picture at the top illustrates why I have conjured up a new name for the F-35 - "Fatso". It has a wide fuselage. Think of the 'stubby' beer bottles we used to have in Canada. The reason for that wide fuselage is to accommodate the lift engine configuration needed for the short take off/vertical landing (STOVL) model for the U.S. Marine Corps and the Royal Navy. That's also why the warplane has to give up twin-engine reliability/survivability to mount just one engine.
There's another, even bigger drawback to the Fatso. Its width creates too much drag for it to achieve the Holy Grail of modern aerial combat, Supercruise. Supercruise is the ability to cruise at supersonic speed without reliance on fuel-guzzling afterburner thrust. It allows the pilot to go fast for long distances. The F-35 can reach supersonic speeds but only on afterburner which means it can only go fast for short distances before it runs out of fuel. This is a serious issue for a warplane designed to operate deep inside hostile airspace. It's one thing to sneak in but there's no sneaking back out again and if you can't outrun your pursuers because you haven't got enough fuel to feed your afterburner then you're - oh, what's the term - dead meat.