The United States’ “premier air superiority fighter,” the F-22 Raptor, is banned from export. The F-35 (and its fifth generation rival, the PAK-FA) is not. Thus, it’s no surprise that allies have climbed aboard the Joint Strike Fighter program.
For all intents and purposes, the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act killed the F-22 Raptor. The act cut off F-22 funding, capping the Raptor at 187 planes. In its place, the act promoted drones and the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. Was this a wise move? If future conflict trends toward asymmetrical “fourth-generation warfare” (similar to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), then the F-22’s dogfighting capabilities are superfluous. But if we engage in conventional state-on-state conflict (and particularly if the enemy is equipped with PAK-FA’s), the F-35 falls short. As Australian Air Power observes, “the F-35 will no longer be a usable combat aircraft for roles other than Counter Insurgency (COIN).”
The JSF is unique in that it’s an international “co-development program.” In a break from past programs, numerous international partners are contributing to the design, build, and testing of the F-35. With a $2 billion investment, Britain is the only “Level 1” partner in the program. They’ve committed to purchasing 138 F-35’s by 2038. “Level II” partners include Italy and the Netherlands, with $1 billion and $800 million investments, respectfully. Canada ($150 million investment, commitment to purchase 80 aircraft), Denmark ($125 million), Norway ($125 million), and Turkey ($175 million) constitute the “Level III” partners. Israel and Singapore are participating under the Security Cooperation Participation (SCP) designation, and the IAF plans to buy over 100 F-35’s. Australia has also committing to purchasing 100 F-35’s, and numerous countries (Finland, Greece, South Korea, Spain, and Japan, among others) have expressed interest. Obviously, each “partner country” rightly expects preferential terms when it comes to acquisition.
Will the free world regret putting all its eggs in one basket? While the debates will continue, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently declared the PAK-FA “better than the F-22”, it’s chief rival. Many feel the F-22 trumps the F-35 in air-to-air combat, and the reliance on the JSF is predicated on a risky forecast (that the era of conventional warfare is over). State-on-state conflict may be unlikely, but the consequences of falling behind could be devastating.