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    Fifteen Years and $380 Billion Later, Do We Really Need a New Super Fighter Jet?

    Written by

    Jonathan Liu

    At the Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base last week, Lockheed Martin announced that it test-flew the first two production F-35 Lightning IIs, which came off a special “Low Rate Production lot.”

    In development since 1996 for a projected delivery date of 2016, the legendary Joint Strike Fighter, as it’s known, is slated to replace nearly all fighters and attack aircraft currently used by the U.S. Navy, Air Force, and Marines.

    This means there’ll be at least three F-35 variants: a model for conventional land-based runways, a model strengthened for carrier operations, and a Harrier-esque short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) model. The planes flown last week were all conventional F-35As.

    In all, the U.S. plans to purchase 2,443 aircraft for at least $382 billion, making it the single costliest defense program in history. And unlike Lockheed’s earlier F-22 Raptor—a larger, even more robust stealth fighter—the F-35 has been cleared for export. Initial development partners include the U.K., the Netherlands, Canada, Turkey, Australia, Norway, and Denmark.

    With that much international pork to go around, the JSF is in a league of its own as military-industrial contract, and represents perhaps the last great orgy of spending in the age of manned, armed flight.

    GE, for one, has vowed to fight the House’s decision to cut GE’s alternate F-35 engine out of its budget—a $450 million cut replicated in this week’s Senate version of the budget.

    Meanwhile, as the program drags on into its second decade, some of the buyers are starting to get cold feet; the last few weeks have seen a furious row break out in Canada between the Harper government and critics who question the cost and doubt the necessity of a Canadian stealth fighter.

    An expensive drone (plus pilot)

    So are the tests going on in Fort Worth a heroic reenactment of Chuck Yeager brawn and Wright Brothers physical ingenuity? Hardly: we’ve long known the plane can fly, and even do its fancy short take-offs and vertical descents; according to Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz, the annoyingly intractable bugs are almost all about software.

    Which is to say, no one’s willing to strap a fighter jock in there with just a stick and hydraulic controls: with the F-35’s complexity, he needs instrumentation and situational awareness as intuitive as an iPhone app.

    This begs the question: if there’s going to be a whole ARPANET of code between pilot and plane anyway, why not keep the former on the ground? The F-35 may be so advanced—and the U.S. defense budget so colossally outsized—that the only time it’ll see real action is against itself. (If it seems unlikely now that the U.S. would ever go to war with Turkey, or Canada, with Norway, consider that the one remaining user of the iconic F-14 Tomcat, of Top Gun fame, is the Iranian Air Force. The Shah was hand-picked as Grumman’s first export customer for the jets less than three years before the Revolution.)

    Meanwhile, the “asymmetrical” threats in safehouses and on camels we’ll deal with like civilized human beings: with cheap, expendable drones.