Referred to as the most expensive weapons programme in United States history, the $1.4 trillion Joint Strike Fighter programme, widely known as the F-35, has been arousing a fervency in defence circles in the U.S. and abroad. Yet, a dispassionate analysis of the programme is now more blatantly needed than ever before.


General Case

The unabated programme’s ambitious objective was to provide U.S. and NATO air forces with a state of the art fighter jet capable of overriding any kind of air or land opposition, which would deny western forces air supremacy over a battlefield. Designed in the aftermath of the Cold War, the F-35 programme answers to a couple of priorities with its cutting-edge capabilities crafted under the guidance of Lockheed Martin (prime contractor), Pratt & Whitney (for the engines), and thousands of subcontractors.

The first priority is the optimisation of a wide array of new electronic potentialities to dramatically extend the range of its missions whilst reducing the probability of losses during engagement against a fair nuclear adversary. The stealth airframe purposefully allows F-35 pilots to sneak into enemy airspace and strike Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) defences while constantly remaining out of reach to any air or ground retaliation thanks to its low radar signature and exceptionally wide missile range. Besides this, the F-35 also engages new century technologies by setting up an extended digitalisation of the battlefield. The pilot’s understanding of the battle space is improved due to six optronic sensors placed at the edges of the aircraft, which collect 360° visuals displayed on the helmet to provide a sharper view of the battlefield. The connected helmet also offers enhancement of the squadron’s operating efficiency by matching targets identified by one aircraft onto another’s pilot’s helmet display system. The Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL) system also allows the pilot to embrace an extended view of the battlefield aggregating data from allied planes, ships, or satellite devices. The battle space digital mapping tremendously enhances the interoperability of the fighter jet (theoretically with all 5th generation aircraft and NATO standard communication devices) and its combat capabilities, strengthening F-35 squadrons efficiency in completing missions.

The second developmental axis of the JSF programme, aims at obtaining an “all in one”, omnirole fighter jet, designed to achieve a broad scope of missions from Close Air Support (CAS), homeland protection, battle space aerial supremacy, in-depth strikes on SAM defences to carrying nuclear missiles to ensure U.S. deterrence. These full scope aircraft capabilities and the operational leeway they represent for the U.S. Air Force (USAF) hastened the adoption of the F-35 to replace legacy fighters now deemed obsolete. In other words, the JSF programme was designed to retire the Air Force’s F-16 and A-10, the Navy’s F/A-18, and the Marine Corps Harriers to be replaced by three dedicated dedicated variants:

• F-35A: Designed for the sole use of the USAF and allied air forces, the A version is a conventional take-off and landing aircraft with extended range, speed, and weapon carrying capacity allowing it to more efficiently fulfil a broader range of missions. It is the only variant with an internal Gatling canon and the smallest of the three F-35 variants. The F-35A is by far the most common as 1,763 have been ordered by the USAF so far, not including multiple orders from foreign partners.
• F-35B: The short take-off and vertical landing variant aims at providing the Marine Corps with a stealth aircraft capable of operating from amphibious assault ships with a shorter deck than conventional carriers. Due to the high fuel consumption of its engines, the F-35B can carry fewer weapons and fly a shorter range than the other variants, limiting its tactical use to surgical strikes on ground targets. 340 F-35B’s will equip the Marine Corps and 138 for the new United Kingdom aircraft carriers.
• F-35C: The version features larger wings with foldable wingtip sections, enhanced landing gear, and other modifications designed to match carrier requirements. 260 of this variant will replace the older F/A-18 equipping U.S. Navy carriers and 80 will be dedicated to the Marine Corps.

There was to be a high standardisation rate (around 80%) between the three variants to limit developmental, procurement, and overhauling costs and thus provide an affordable aircraft at a cost that would not have exceeded the price of the legacy fighters it was meant to replace.
U.S. international partners are ranked on a cooperation level scale depending on their financial and technical involvement in the programme. The U.K. is the sole level one partner, Italy and the Netherlands are level two, and Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark, and Norway are level three. These nations contributed funds for system development and all, but Canada and Denmark, have signed agreements to procure the aircraft. Although Lockheed Martin is the lead contractor, the programme heavily relies on subcontractors from these foreign partners, which has the advantage of tightening the links between all associated countries and deter any political turnabout. In addition, Israel, Japan, and South Korea have signed on as foreign military sales (FMS) customers. Procurement amounts for international partners and FMS are still subject to fluctuations, but the current estimation lays around 612 units (mostly F-35A’s).
As for U.S. aircraft orders forecast, the 1996 programme totalled the F-35 order at 3,000 aircraft. In 2001, the overall procurement programme amounted to 2,866 units, but in 2012 it was reduced to 2,457 including 14 R&D aircraft and others dispatched to the three armies according to the above-mentioned figures.

Download our Case Study #01 (16 pages)

2017-06-06_OIDASI_JSF 2017


Written by Julien Brugnetti (Senior Analyst) & Nicolas Charrié (Junior Analyst) for OIDA Strategic Intelligence

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