The enormous rear door of the KC-10 Extender opens in front of me, and about 30 seconds later, the refueling boom lowers into sight. The Atlantic Ocean lies 26,000 feet below. Just as the thick clouds start to perforate, revealing the shimmering water underneath, an F-35A Lightning II comes into sight on my left, closing on the tanker. Before I know it, the fighter is flying right below me as I stare, mouth agape, and fumble with my camera.
I'd seen this bird about an hour earlier; it was one of the three F-35s flying in formation next to the KC-10, a little fly against the blue sky. But this is my first real look at the fighter, a sleek, matte gray, single-seat, single-engine jet with folded stars and stripes displayed proudly in the cockpit.
This is a historic mission: the first Atlantic crossing of an American F-35A Lightning II, the most advanced fighter jet in the world. After seven aerial refuelings, the Joint Strike Fighter would land at Royal Air Force Fairford to participate in the Royal International Air Tattoo, one of the largest air shows in the world, which ran from July 8 to 10. The F-35 Heritage Flight team flew with an F-22 Raptor and a classic P-51 Mustang, a celebration of American and European aircraft innovation and advances through the years, and a chance to show the public the sexy, stealthy, mean-looking F-35 for the first time.
It was supposed to happen two years ago.
On June 23, 2014, an F-35A assigned to the 58th Fighter Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base caught fire when part of a rotor in the aircraft's Pratt & Whitney F135 afterburning turbofan broke loose and caused a catastrophic engine failure. The mishap prompted a temporary grounding of the F-35 fleet, and the Pentagon had to cancel plans to include the Lightning II in the 2014 Farnborough Air Show in England.
That two-year delay was emblematic of the long, difficult struggle to realize the F-35. It's not just the engine. Virtually every component has had a malfunction of some kind. There have been glitches within the software's millions of lines of code that delayed flights and forced pilots to reboot while in midair. There were structural weaknesses in early models that resulted in , and design issues that have many questioning the F-35's maneuverability and its capacity to dogfight. These compounding problems pushed the projected date for full-scale production back by 11 years, from 2008 to 2019. Estimated total lifetime costs for the program have skyrocketed to more than $1 trillion, making the F-35 the most expensive weapons system ever developed by far.
The Lightning II has been called "," "," and "." But is it as bad as all that? The idea of keeping F-35 costs low by developing an aircraft for three branches of the military simultaneously—just the nuts and bolts for the Air Force, a jet with short takeoff and vertical landing capabilities for the Marines, and a carrier-capable variant for the Navy—turned out to be a pipe dream. But as production finally starts to ramp up, sending for parts and software, perhaps we are finally going to see the culmination of aeronautic sophistication and modern computing that we have heard about. A warplane for the future.
What Makes the F-35 Special?
"This is the one that's going to be fighting wars in ten, twenty years," says Major Will "D-Rail" Andreotta, the F-35A Lightning II Heritage Flight team commander. The former F-16 pilot is standing in front of the three F-35s at RAF Fairford—one of which he just landed. The last light of evening fades from the cloudy sky as we snap photos of Andreotta and his jet.
It's a major milestone for the Joint Strike Fighter program, and a photo op these guys have been waiting for. As delays and cost overruns piled up, the Pentagon and its contractor Lockheed Martin have reiterated that these problems are always to be expected on a project of this magnitude, and in the end, the payoff will be worth the headaches.
Now, at long last, F-35s are being delivered to U.S. partner nations and participating in international air shows. After a smooth demonstration involving 88 sorties, the chief of Air Combat Command, General Herbert Carlisle, said July 7 that —meaning the aircraft is in its minimum deployable form—between August 1 and December 31. (A squadron of the Marines Corps' F-35Bs was declared ready for deployment in July 2015, and that bird is flying at the Farnborough air show in Britain the weekend of July 16).
"The F-35 is a pure 5th generation fighter," Major Andreotta tells me after we stepped away from the rolling cameras, through the hangar where the fighters are stored, and into a conference room on the base. "There are a couple things that encompass a 5th generation fighter: stealth, advanced avionics, and the overall situational awareness that it gives us."
The Lightning II uses six infrared cameras and a myriad of sensors that display information to the pilot on a Helmet Mounted Display System (HMDS). This allows pilots to effectively "see through" the plane itself as images from the cameras are displayed as picture-in-picture video on the LCD screen of the helmet. The helmet also offers digitally enhanced night vision, and it displays icons to pinpoint threats, friendlies, and weapons—both the F-35's own and anything that might be incoming. All of these capabilities make up what is known as the (DAS)—a situational awareness system developed by Northrop Grumman.
"When I was in an F-16, I had two screens up at one time. ... So I had to look at both screens and I had to decide if they were the same thing or not—that was all on the pilot," says Andreotta. "Now in the F-35, I can have up to 12 screens up at one time, and the jet now will basically take all the sensors that I have, and it will combine them together so I don't have to do that thought process anymore."
The F-35 has a top speed of over Mach 1.6, or about 1,200 mph. That speed combines with the software capabilities to make the F-35 the perfect vanguard of a formation of planes, Andreotta says, as it can fly ahead of other aircraft to take out surface-to-air threats. "I can go in there, and I can open up that lane because I can go farther, I can do things, I can find things, I can destroy things, and I can let those 4th generation fighters come in and do their jobs as well."
Besides paving the way for older warplanes, the F-35 can be their data, too. "We're going to be fighting wars with F-16s, with F-15s, with F-22s—I can take the information that this F-35 gives me and I can funnel that out to other aircraft as well."
That's why the Pentagon seemingly wasn't as worried as the public about reports like the one from January 2015 about a mock dogfight between an F-35 and an F-16, which ended in the test pilot of the Lightning II saying that the newer jet was at a "distinct energy disadvantage for every engagement." The Joint Program Office issued a statement shortly after suggesting the F-35 is "designed to engage, shoot, and kill its enemy from long distances, not necessarily in visual 'dogfighting' situations." It's worth noting that a Norwegian Air Force pilot defended the dogfighting abilities of the F-35 after a training sortie, and a recent U.S. Air Force report concluded that . And of course, the United States still has the undisputed king of air superiority in the F-22 Raptor.
The (ALIS) stores all of the data about each F-35 for the entire lifespan of that aircraft, as opposed to the two weeks' worth of paper maintenance forms that are available for older aircraft—"if you're lucky," says Master Sergeant Evelardo "Ed" De Leon, the F-35A Heritage Flight team chief who oversees maintenance operations. "It's extremely significant that we have the capabilities to look all the way back. ... I can look to see if the aircraft has history, and it assists me in troubleshooting. It makes my life better."
There was actually a fourth F-35 in the transatlantic flight formation. It got a sip of fuel from the KC-10 while the other three topped off from the KC-135. After it was clear that all systems on all aircraft were functioning properly, the fourth F-35A peeled off and flew back to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. Had any malfunctions occurred in one of the three primary F-35s, the fourth would have taken its place.
It takes a hell of a lot of complex systems to make a Lightning II fly, and to fly three all the way across the Atlantic is an entire operation. But the dance of aerial refueling was executed without a hitch, the F-35s performed admirably, and from up here, it looks like Lockheed's long project finally coming to fruition.
The Plane We Want, or the Plane We Need?
At the beginning of the Vietnam War, the U.S. realized that fast is not always best. The supersonic jets of the time—the F-100 Super Sabre, F-105 Thunderchief, and F-4 Phantom II—were ultimately ineffective in close air support (CAS) roles because they could not loiter in combat zones to provide supporting fire for ground troops and vehicles. The U.S. used the aging A-1 Skyraider for CAS in Vietnam, but the aircraft lacked conventional attack capabilities, and more than 250 A-1s got shot down by the end of the war.
America learned its lesson. By the time the Gulf War rolled around, the U.S. was ready with the A-10. In service since 1977, the A-10 Thunderbolt II, fondly called the Warthog by airmen, has been protecting United States boots and taking out enemy ground targets since it first saw action in 1991. It is still fighting enemy combatants effectively today, flying CAS missions against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. Troops are known to erupt in cheers when they hear the roar of a Warthog flying toward the battlefield.
The Air Force hoped to retire the Warthog and pump the funds needed to maintain the A-10 fleet into the F-35 program. After all, the do-it-all Lightning II is intended to ultimately replace a number of aging planes across America's fleet, from A-10s to F/A-18 Hornets to AV-8B Harrier IIs. The problem is, that retirement plan presumed America would wind down its combat operations against the small groups of Taliban and ISIS insurgents it's been fighting for the past 15 years, because the F-35 was not designed with counter-insurgency in mind, but rather as an effective weapons system against powerful countries with large amounts of land, sophisticated air defense systems, and advanced radar technologies. The ongoing need for slow, low-flying, heavily armed and armored aircraft has led the Air Force to abandon its immediate plans to retire the A-10.
For some, this is another strike against the F-35. But not to the ever-optimistic Andreotta. "The F-35 can fight the battles that we are fighting today," he says. "It can go out there and do the close air support that the F-16s, the A-10s, and the F-15Es are doing right now. One of the great examples of that is: if we don't want to have stealth capability, we can go ahead and load munitions up on our wings, because we know that there are going to be times when we don't need stealth, we just need firepower, which is really the kind of war we are fighting right now."
The F-35 is no slouch in the firepower department. With both internal bays and external pylons, this fighter can carry up to 18,000 pounds of weapons, including a variety of air-to-air, air-to-surface, and anti-ship missiles, as well as guided bombs. That weapons capacity is 2,000 pounds more than the A-10's (though Warthog devotees will point out that the F-35's internal 25-mm GAU-22/A 4-barrel Gatling gun isn't anything like the Warthog's 30 mm GAU-8/A Avenger rotary cannon, and it only holds 180 rounds compared to the A-10's whopping 1,350).
Maybe the F-35 can fight today's war, albeit in a different way. Make no mistake, though: the Lightning II was built with tomorrow's war in mind.
Will the F-35 be worth the cost? If the advanced fighter helps us win a major war with China or Russia, then yes. But that's the wrong way to look at it. If the F-35 helps prevent a war with China or Russia, than it is undeniably worth the cost. (The Iraq war cost about $1.7 trillion.)
This has been the United States' strategy since the end of World War II—invest so much in defense technologies that no government can keep up, and therefore no state will ever attack the U.S. The Pentagon calls it an "offset strategy." So far, it has worked.
The First Offset Strategy was the development of thermonuclear weapons (specifically hydrogen bombs) in the 1950s to deter the Soviet Union, which was also investing heavily in nuclear technology. The so-called Second Offset Strategy involved the development of advanced warfare technologies in the 1970s such as stealth aircraft, reconnoissance systems, and precision-guided munitions. The Soviet Union couldn't keep up, and a couple decades later, the nation collapsed.
Now, the Pentagon says, we need a Third Offset Strategy. This one will include 5th generation fighters like the F-35, , advanced weapons like the Navy's , cyberwarfare systems, robotics, and other ambitious technologies. The assumption is that if anyone can develop these warfare capabilities, the United States can, and other countries will only lose ground if they try to keep up. The next time you hear about a new warplane suffering delays and cost overruns, remember that overly ambitious military technology is exactly what the Pentagon wants.
"To maintain our warfighting edge, we're trying to address this erosion—our perceived erosion of technological superiority with the Defense Innovation Initiative and the Third Offset Strategy," Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work said in a . "This new initiative is an ambitious department-wide effort to identify and invest in innovative ways to sustain and advance America's military dominance for the 21st century."
China and Russia are certainly trying to keep up with the 5th generation fighters of the United States. The Russian and the Chinese are fighter jets under development that could ultimately have similar capabilities to the F-22. What's more, China is working on an aircraft similar to the F-35, the , which many officials believe was developed with stolen F-35 data acquired in an . It's troubling to imagine a war with either China or Russia, but recent aggressions from the two nations are certainly cause for concern, as China continues to flex it muscles in the South China Sea and the threat of Russia looms over Eastern Europe.
"We are constantly being moved away from a focus on the future because of the problems of the day," Deputy Secretary Work continued in his speech. "But if we can strike a good balance between the two, then I know in the future the United States military and its allies will continue to have a technological over-match against potential adversaries whenever or wherever we encounter them."
The F-35 is thought to be a key part of that over-match. "We can now go places that other aircraft can't go," says Major Andreotta. "We can go into those non-permissive environments and do our job, do what the F-35 is good at, which is finding things, fi those things, and then taking them out."
On the ground at RAF Fairford, a reporter is asking Andreotta about the tiniest design concerns. Specifically: When refueling the F-35 with those big tankers, are you worried the stealth coating on the aircraft could get scratched?
"Those guys, the boomers, what they do, they're good. So them worrying about ruining the special paint that we have because of the LO [low observable] is not even an issue. ... And if something does happen, we have awesome maintainers whose job it is to repair the low observable features."
The F-35 has endured exploding engines, system failures, cracked airframes, criticism from pilots, and headlines declaring it the biggest blunder in Pentagon history. A little scratch in the paint isn't going to stop this jet now.
"It's the Air Force, you know? It's the United States."