The F-35 doesn’t have a lot of fans these days, and one of her biggest critics is actually the co-designer of the F-16, Pierre Sprey.
Calling the Joint Strike Fighter the product of “an exceptionally dumb piece of Air Force PR spin”, Sprey issues a scathing indictment of the F-35 in a viral Internet video that is gaining a ton of traction in the aerospace community.
Even for an F-35 critic — and there’s plenty of those — Sprey makes some pretty bold claims. When you call the most expensive weapons acquisition program in the history of the world “inherently a terrible airplane” and systematically condemn every bolt and screw in the plane, you’re sure to ruffle a few feathers — and win the prize for the most hyperbolic — if potentially true — statements in a 10-minute span.
Sprey runs down the long list of F-35 sins, stopping along the way to call stealth a “scam” and 5th-gen a “silly, mindless cliché”. But fundamentally, Sprey hates the F-35 for being the Swiss Army Knife of fighter aircraft — a jack of all trades and master of none.
“As soon as you go to do a multi-mission airplane, you’re sunk,” Sprey claims.
He takes special umbrage with the Marine Corps’ vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) F-35B variant, and Sprey describes in great detail while VTOL aircraft are fundamentally flawed and ill-suited for most missions.
Any prospective VTOL plane must be fat so it can integrate the lift fan in the center to blow air vertically. It has too much drag, and the craft must then have smaller wings, so it can take off vertically, which makes it less maneuverable in combat.
In dogfighting, the F-35 is “hopeless.” Legacy fighters like the French Mirage would destroy it. And the Joint Strike Fighter uses too much gas, so the plane can’t loiter to provide close-air support for ground troops. And the VTOL variant has even less fuel than its cousins.
Of course, when you sling this mud at such a prominent — and highly political — defense program, you’re bound to attract your own critics. And an influential defense journalist, writing for Foxtrot Alpha, has penned a long, detailed rebuttal, concluding that “half of what [Sprey] says is totally relevant, the other half is totally bull****.”
While Tyler Rogoway is no fan of the Joint Strike Figher, he accuses Sprey of oversimplifying the program, equating the co-designer of the F-16 to a used car salesman who “only shows you what he wants you to see.”
Rogoway runs down nearly every single “superficial” statement in Sprey’s video, and while the defense journalist makes some reasonable points — and I’m no aerospace engineer — I do believe he confuses the “multi-mission” capabilities of the F-14, F-15, and F-16 with the sheer conceit of the F-35. The F-35 is meant as the definitive “jack of all trades” — the most expensive weapons program of all time and the “backbone of America’s tactical aviation fleet for decades to come.” In time, it will be the only member of America’s tactical aviation fleet, expected to fill every conceivable defense-related role. So a fighter that exceeds its original design — like the F-16 — is a different animal than basing your entire defense strategy on one plane.
Watch Sprey’s video, read Rogoway’s rebuttal, and let us know where you stand in the comments below.