If you type “F-35” into Google, you’ll find tens of thousands of links to stories and posts that either characterize the F-35 program as the future of military aviation or the poster child for wasteful spending. The truth, as is so often the case, is likely somewhere in between, where ineffectual procurement strategies and Lockheed Martin’s massive political leverage resulted in an extremely capable aircraft for a whole lot more money than the tax payer may have initially signed on for.

With the F-35 just entering into combat operations over this past year, first through the Israeli military and then with the U.S. Marine Corps, we may well have entered into an era where the latest and greatest air frame in the U.S. arsenal begins showing us exactly what makes it so valuable… but even if it is an effective multi-role fighter, that multi-role moniker will always hold it back from doing certain jobs as well as some older aircraft can.

Even in this video of an F-35 pilot arguing the economic benefit of the F-35 program, he has to acknowledge that “multi-role” inherently means the F-35 lacks the ability to do a number of tasks as well as more specialized predecessors:

That’s precisely why Boeing has pitched the F-15X to the Defense Department: as a cheap way to keep fourth-gen fighters competitive for decades to come while platforms like the F-35 continue to mature (and until America’s next air superiority fighter can take to the skies in a decade or so).

Legacy platforms like the F/A-18 Super Hornet and the F-15 Strike Eagle are expected to continue flying alongside the F-35 for years (if not decades) to come for a number of reasons. The easiest to quantify is a simple numbers game: there aren’t enough operational F-35s to replace America’s fleets of fourth generation fighters, and because they tend to cost so much more per air frame, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to replace every fourth gen aircraft with a newer, stealthier plane. The other reason also boils down to dollars and cents: there are a lot of operations around the globe that just don’t need F-35s.

Two F-15E Strike eagles fly a mission over Afghanistan (USAF Photo)

While the stealth allotted by the F-35 would be invaluable in heavily contested airspace, much of America’s ongoing combat operations don’t take place in contested air space. In these air support missions, the astronomical hourly cost of operating an F-35 is not only unnecessary, it’s foolish when there are more effective and cheaper air frames available. In a completely different area of fighter operations, aerial combat, the F-35 is slower, less maneuverable, and can carry smaller payloads than the F-15. As a sniper, the F-35 is extremely effective, but in a fight against a large fleet of acrobatic Su-35s and the like, America’s F-15 could close with and destroy the enemy extremely well — and all to the tune of a whole lot less of the tax payer’s money.

For every hour in the air, an F-35 costs the tax payer $42,169 (though that is subject to change thanks to ongoing reduction efforts). America’s dated F-15s run their branch about half that ($23,124/hour), and it’s important to note, brand new F-15X air frames would cost even less. In fact, according to Boeing’s math, sustainment costs will be cut with the new air frames so dramatically that they could pay for themselves through operational savings within the first decade.

The F-35 costs so much to run, the Air Force threatened to reduce their order just to pay for operational costs earlier this year. (DoD)

Whether or not that proves true, there’s no denying that the Air Force can’t field enough F-35s to do away with their F-15s, and even if they could, it wouldn’t be a cost-effective strategy. Of course, none of that discussion even touches upon the very different strategic purpose each of these aircraft fill. The F-35 was never intended to serve as a replacement for the dog fighting F-15 (one could argue that the F-22 was supposed to instead). So really, even Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson’s argument in favor of spending less on 4th-gen planes to procure more 5th-gen ones seems to ignore the different purposes each plane was built to fill.

“We are currently 80 percent fourth-gen aircraft and 20 percent fifth-generation aircraft,” Wilson told Defense News in September. “In any of the fights that we have been asked to plan for, more fifth gen aircraft make a huge difference, and we think that getting to 50-50 means not buying new fourth-gen aircraft, it means continuing to increase the fifth generation.”

The Air Force is considering buying the AT-6 experimental aircraft while Heather Wilson suggests her branch only wants 5th Generation fighters. (USAF Photo)

Wilson, who also made headlines for offering an egregiously exaggerated estimate of the cost of standing up a “Space Force,” seemingly as a part of an effort to keep space funding under her purview, doesn’t seem to be aware of the different roles different aircraft within the branch serve. It’s odd that she’d even make such a statement while the Air Force continues to deliberate on which light attack aircraft (most of which look like they hearken back to World War II) they want to purchase to conduct combat operations in environments Wilson seems to suggest no longer exist.

The media has been accused of having it in for the F-35 on lots of occasions… but it would seem that it’s not the F-35 they have it out for, they just know headlines about fighter jets “the Air Force doesn’t want” will draw some clicks… If only clicks won wars.


Feature image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force