After years of justifying the F-35s enormous price tag with claims that it is the most advanced and capable air platform on the planet, Lockheed Martin is now reportedly pitching a new fifth generation fighter to Japan. This new jet would combine elements from both the F-35 Lighting II and the export-banned F-22 Raptor and, according to Lockheed, be “superior to both.”
Lockheed Martin’s F-35 program is widely seen as the future of U.S. military aviation. It was designed to replace a wide variety of different aircraft, originally touted as both a close air support (CAS) aircraft that could outshoot the legendary A-10 as well as an air superiority fighter that could take on the best the world had to offer, including the Russian built Su-35, forthcoming Su-57, and Chinese J-20. In reality, however, the F-35 has demonstrated competence at many of these tasks, but claims regarding the aircraft have been tempered through years of delays, setbacks, and technical issues.
In fact, the U.S. military is currently not even accepting F-35s from Lockheed Martin as a result of a pending dispute about who should bear the cost of repairing yet another nearly fleet wide issue with the platform. A problem with where panels meet the aluminum hull of the airframe has left the majority of the F-35s that have already been delivered with corrosion issues that will likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars to address. To make matters worse, the Air Force recently announced that, because of the massive cost associated with maintaining the F-35, the branch’s entire order of advanced jets may have to be reduced by as much as a third simply to be able to afford operations, and force wide, only about half of all delivered F-35s are even considered operational.
Even with so many issues associated with the $1.5 trillion dollar F-35 program, often referred to as the “most expensive weapons system ever built,” the reputation of aircraft remains it’s primary selling point. America has shared the massive cost of developing the jet with allied nations that are also receiving deliveries of their own F-35s based on the promise that it will eventually achieve full operational status and dominate the globe… that is, until now. After years touting the platform as the “best in the world,” it’s a bold move to begin advertising a “superior” aircraft based on the F-35s design to an American ally.
However, that doesn’t change the fact that building a new aircraft that would combine the successful elements of the F-35 with the incredible capabilities of the now-dead F-22 program may be an excellent idea.
Despite the claims made over the years regarding the F-35s dog fighting capabilities, it’s no secret that it’s slower and less maneuverable than its Lockheed cousin, the F-22. In fact, the F-22 is still widely considered to be the better air superiority fighter in the comparison, leaving America’s fleet of Raptors atop the global fighter heap. Rumors have swirled that Russia’s Su-35 may match it speed and maneuverability, but it lacks the F-22’s stealth.
China’s J-20, which was based on stolen F-22 plans, also appears to fall short of the F-22’s stealth capabilities and is currently equipped with an underpowered engine system that would leave it struggling to keep pace with the American fighter. While both nations may make bold claims, America’s F-22 still appears to the be the fighter to beat, when it comes to air to air combat.
The thing is, America has fewer than 200 F-22s in all, and because the program was canceled under the Obama administration, the infrastructure required to build new ones is gone. That means America’s most capable air superiority fighter is a non-renewable resource: every F-22 lost in the fight, is one fewer F-22 for all time.
Japan, who currently employs a fleet of F-15 based F-15Js and F-16 based F-2s, is on the market for a new air superiority fighter than can counter the threat posed by China’s 5th generation J-20 and forthcoming J-31 (reportedly based on stolen F-35 plans). Although Japan already has an order of F-35s on the way, they appear to be uncertain about its capabilities as a deterrent for China’s F-22 ripoff, and are now on the market for a separate dog fighting-focused platform.
For Lockheed’s pitch to move forward, they would need approval from the U.S. government, who permits the export of the F-35 but has banned export of the F-22 and related technologies. It could be surmised that American approval would likely only come if Uncle Sam was also on the customer list for this new platform – and although that would mean adding another lofty Lockheed Martin program to the defense budget, it may be necessary for America to maintain superiority in what is sure to become increasingly competitive airspace over the Pacific in the coming years.
“We look forward to exploring options for Japan’s F-2 replacement fighter in cooperation with both the Japanese and U.S. governments. Our leadership and experience in 5th generation aircraft can be leveraged to cost-effectively provide capabilities to meet Japan’s future security needs,” a Lockheed Martin spokeswoman said.
Image courtesy of the Department of Defense