The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Program achieved an important milestone yesterday, with the inaugural flight of the Navy’s carrier-based variant. The F-35C Lightning II is due to replace the Navy and Marine Corps’ F/A-18 Hornet.
According to Lockheed Martin, the first F-35C Lightning II carrier variant took off from Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base at 11:46 a.m. and logged a 57 min flight. Flown by retired Naval Aviator and Test Pilot Jeff Knowles (an F-14A and F-14D vet), the 5th Generation Fighter encountered no serious errors—operationally that is.
While Vice Adm. Thomas J. Kilcline, Commander of Naval Air Forces, believes the flight marks “the beginning of a new chapter in Naval Aviation,” the JSF has been a lightning rod for controversy. With the F-35 serving so many roles (and replacing so many aircraft), you knew it’d ruffle a few feathers. From the beginning, some critics alleged that the F-22 Raptor’s superior dog-fighting capabilities (especially when matched against the forthcoming PAK-FA) made the F-35 obsolete. Supporters of the JSF counter that the future portends further asymmetric, “fourth generation” warfare, which makes the F-22’s capabilities superfluous. Dog fights, according to this reasoning, are a relic of conventional, state-on-state warfare.
The JSF program has also been plagued with cost overruns. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, originally claimed the F-35 would be “less than half the total cost of the F-22.” Since then, costs have creeped up…and up…and up. It got bad enough that Sec. Gates was forced to fire the JSF program manager. Major cost overruns recently passed “critical” thresholds, triggering a “Nunn–McCurdy Review.” The Nunn–McCurdy Amendment relates to cost growth in defense systems, and requires congressional notification for cost increases of greater than 15%.
The latest figures saddle the F-35 with a $92.5 million cradle-to-grave estimate; that’s the per-plane cost. The program is expected to cost as much as $382.4 billion.