The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is finally set to become operational this month.
The fifth-generation stealth fighter plane was originally conceived in 2001 to upgrade the U.S. military's aging tactical fleet.
The price tag for the F-35 program, however, is nearly $400 billion for 2,457 planes -- almost twice the initial estimate.
Three years behind schedule and some $200 billion over its original budget, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is finally set to become operational this month.
The fighter jet has been in development for nearly 15 years, weathered half a dozen years of testing and experienced myriad hardware malfunctions and software glitches along the way. Once it’s declared ready for combat, it will be the most expensive weapons system in world history.
It will also be the most advanced in the sky. The F-35, also referred to as the Joint Strike Fighter, is touted as the most lethal and versatile aircraft of the modern era. It combines advanced stealth capabilities, radar-jamming abilities, supersonic speed, extreme agility and state-of-the-art sensor fusion technology.
But after all that time and money, supporters are no closer to quelling the detractors who blast the F-35 as a waste.
The fifth-generation stealth fighter plane was originally conceived in 2001 to upgrade the U.S. military’s aging tactical fleet to ensure that rivals couldn’t challenge the United States in the air.
“Air superiority is an essential tenet in our national defense strategy,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican whose district is home to the nation’s primary F-35 training facility. “We have a whole host of aging air platforms, some with technology dating back to the ‘60s and ‘70s.”
He singled out Russia and China as the key reasons the U.S. has been trying to advance its air power while it retires old platforms.
“Air superiority was not an issue in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Miller noted. “But with the President’s strategy to rebalance our forces back to the Pacific, and given China’s territorial aggression in the South China Sea and Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, having this air superiority proves to be a strategic deterrent against near-peer threats.”
In place of the specialized roles performed by older aircraft, the single-seat F-35 can conduct air-to-air combat, air-to-ground strikes, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, according to Lockheed Martin, the JSF’s primary contractor. The military this month is expected to declare the Marine Corps’ version of the F-35 “ready for combat,” meaning it is developed enough and has past the proper tests to be flown on combat missions. While the Marines don’t expect to actually deploy the plane for another year, the declaration is a major milestone for the program in that it technically is ready for deployment.
And it has a host of other innovative features: The F-35 is uniquely designed to allow pilots to immediately share data with one another and their commanders; it can penetrate enemy territory without being detected by radar; and its specialized helmet display gives pilots a 360-degree view of their surroundings.
“The F-35 will deliver revolutionary capability to the U.S. and its allies for decades to come,” said Michael Rein, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin.