In an age of shrinking budgets and heavy competition over appropriations, debate continues on the value of the F-35 program already subject to delays and costs spiraling $200 billion dollars over budget. Lockheed Martin, the developer of the new and yet to be produced F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, pitches the aircraft as a miracle plane able to fill the roles of close air support, strike, air superiority, and as a networking aircraft combining information and US air elements in the battlefield through its mix of stealth, weaponry, and technology. The military expects the F-35 to eventually phase out the A-10 Warthogs, F-18 Super Hornets, F-15 Eagles, F-16 Fighting Falcons, and the shelved F-22s Raptors, many of which arguably perform better, or nearly as well, in each of these roles as the new F-35 Lightning II. Yet, none of these platforms provides the comprehensive combination of capabilities boasted by the F-35. The result has been a heated and contested debate on the merits of replacing these weapons in the US arsenal. In determining which of these camps is correct, the US should consider a similar multi-role fighter from a galaxy not so far, far away… the X-wing fighter.
Like the F-35, the iconic X-wing is a craft able to fill a variety of mission requirements, including air superiority, fighter-bomber, escort, interceptor, and even provide a stealth strike capability if one extends their consideration into the platform’s later performance in the extended universe. The X-wing is able to fill each of the roles accomplished slightly more effectively by the other aircraft in the Rebel squadrons, yet merges these roles well enough to fare respectively in each. While a versatile fighter, the X-wing itself is not as fast as the A-Wing, nor as heavily armed as the Y-wing. Yet it is ultimately good enough in each role to accomplish its missions, as able to fly toe-to-toe against TIE fighters and interceptors as make attack runs on Star Destroyers and Death Stars.
The F-35 too meets a multitude of mission requirements as a potential strike fighter, air superiority platform, interceptor, and network coordinator in the aerial battlefield. The F-35 presumably offers the ability to fill each of these mission tasks, all of them well, though perhaps not quite to the level of some aircraft currently designed for these roles. For example, while the F-35 can engage in close air support, the A-10 Warthog is a plane specifically built and proven to excel in this task, and at a far lower cost than developing a new plane to fill this role. Similarly, the F-35 is unlikely to match the air superiority of the F-22 Raptor, though the air force has since shelved this program. Yet even the existing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet arguably performs this task well enough that any replacement must significantly exceed its combat potential to merit such a change.
The true value of the F-35 lies in its stealth and networking capability to network US aircraft in the battle, yet even modifying existing platforms like the B-52 can adequately perform this task at a fraction of the cost. Indeed, the redoubtable B-52 has the space and airframe to carry a sophisticated sensor suite to connect information systems and direct US air assets, with the added benefit of a larger payload and immense missile magazine for long-range destruction. Like the F-35, hovering far behind and above the battle at a high ceiling altitude of 40,000 feet, the B-52’s sensor suite could just as easily identify enemy forces and coordinate that information into its outrigger fighter screen, both of which would then launch missiles to eliminate the enemy threat.
The question thus comes down to the cost of this new joint strike fighter. The ability to merge all of these roles successfully may prove economic despite ballooning costs if the transition to this new platform is less costly than the combined price of the aircrafts it replaces. Yet, this is unfortunately where the F-35 deviates from its star fighter counterpart and may well lose the current policy debates on Capitol Hill. Unlike the Lightning II, the X-Wing is relatively low-cost and easily obtainable, with the Rebel Alliance able to field a handful of squadrons in A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, with a substantially larger force by the Battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi. This is no small feat for an organization hunted by the galaxy-spanning Empire, without control of populated worlds, and forced to supply itself with what it can acquire through the limited support in equipment and funds provided by local planetary governments.
In contrast, the F-35 program was large even before extending $200 billion over budget. While an impressive 5th generation aircraft, it is not worth the extra expense if the US can perform each mission better and more cheaply with aircraft that excel in each role, and which already have well-established production. Nor do other air forces of potential rivals surpass Washington’s own capabilities, as the F-18 Super Hornet can likely outmatch the best Russian Su-35 and Mig-31 fighters, and even surpasses the Rafales and Typhoons fielded by France and the EU respectively. Even China’s new Shenyang J-31 fighter, which bears a striking resemblance to the F-35 and confirms that Beijing’s penchant for cyber theft remains strong, would suffer at least a 3 to 1 loss ratio against an air superiority-focused fighter like the F-22. The US air force is thus already well prepared to achieve air superiority against all challengers, and needs neither the Force, nor the F-35, to achieve victory in such a conflict. Rather than focusing immense amounts of its time and resources into a new project combining elements of all of its aircraft, the better policy is to focus on perfecting and increasing the platforms it already possesses that fulfill these individual mission requirements at a cheaper cost, while leaving this panacea fighter to the future and a galaxy far, far away.
Marc DuBuis is a M.A. candidate at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce focusing on International Security and Intelligence and the Editor-in-Chief of ExPatt Magazine. Marc completed his undergraduate degree in 2015 at Oakland University with a B.A. in Political Science with research interests focused on the resource curse and international conflict.
He has presented at multiple research conferences, including regional Phi Alpha Theta history conferences, Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA) Conferences in Chicago, and the International Studies Association Midwest Conference in St. Louis. Published works include “The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization” inSecurity and Intelligence Studies Journal (Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 2015), with electronic versions of “Resource Diversification and the Durability of Autocratic Regimes” (coauthored with Dr. Matthew Fails) and “Swedish Conduct in the Thirty Years’ War” forthcoming in Political Research Quarterly and the Grand Valley Journal of History respectively.