By Ian Keddie, Research Analyst, Defence and Military Analysis Programme
The latest figures released by Lockheed Martin confirm that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is now the most numerous fifth-generation aircraft in existence, overtaking the F-22 Raptor as it moves closer to becoming the ubiquitous twenty-first century airframe. At the end of 2015, 154 Low Rate Initial Production aircraft had been produced in addition to 20 System Development and Demonstration (SDD) models. A total of 53 F-35s are due to be built in 2016 and second quarter earnings information, released by Lockheed Martin on 19 July, revealed that 20 of those 53 aircraft had been delivered by the mid-point of the year.
When the last F-22 was delivered to the United States Air Force (USAF) in May 2012 it marked the 197th (189 plus eight SDD) fifth-generation aircraft to be built. Three Raptors have been lost in crashes since it was introduced, leaving 194 in existence. At 2016 production rates, a new F-35 is completed in Fort Worth, Texas, or at Cameri, Italy, in less than seven days. The figures revealed to Lockheed Martin investors brings the total number of F-35s to 194 (174 plus 20 SDD airframes) as of 26 June and marks a major landmark for the much-maligned programme.
Though its primary role is air-to-surface, the F-35 was always envisioned to be a multi-role platform, designed to be integrated into a variety of armed forces and nations. In contrast, the F-22 was developed as a specialist air-superiority fighter for the USAF. As such, a direct comparison of the two aircraft is not possible as both fulfil very different roles and will ultimately work together on US operations. Nevertheless, this remains the most significant milestone to date as F-35 numbers will continue to increase in comparison to its fifth-generation peers over the coming decade.
With F-35 production accelerating, falling unit costs and aircraft achieving initial operating capability (IOC) it appears that the JSF is entering a new phase. This is some distance from 2011, when the entire programme was perceived to be on the edge of a 'death spiral’. Rising costs and delays brought deserved criticism and eventually led to the appointment of Lieutenant-General Christopher C. Bogdan, drafted in to reform the programme in December 2012.
The US Congress has called for a new assessment over the possible procurement of more F-22s, in order to meet a perceived gap in air-superiority, and some critics continue to compare F-35 unit costs to current platforms such as the F/A-18 or F-16. What must also be taken into account, however, are the costs of restarting a production line from scratch or the rising maintenance costs and increasingly limited capabilities of legacy platforms.
If there was ever an opportunity to rethink F-35 and F-22 numbers, it was in the troubled years of 2010 and 2011: a time when the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform suggested cancelling the F-35B and halving orders for F-35A/Cs; and when the F-22 production line was still active. That time has passed: the USAF will declare IOC for the F-35A later this year, while the US Marine Corps will deploy F-35Bs to Japan in 2017. The JSF programme has suffered problems and has been justifiably scrutinised as the most expensive military weapons system in history.
There remain some serious challenges to be addressed as the aircraft is brought in to service but these should be seen as problems to be ironed out in due course, not as the catastrophic failures as some would have. The F-35 has now become the most common fifth-generation aircraft and will likely be twice as numerous as the combined total of all current competitor platforms. Over 3,000 airframes will be built over the course of its lifetime, and it will become the workhorse for many military forces’ air combat capability for decades.