As more F-35 stealth fighters enter service their database of effective tactics and operating techniques is rapidly expanding. One thing the F-35 does extremely well is use automated flight controls that allow the pilot to carry out maneuvers that would require a lot more experience in older (F-15. Su-30) aircraft but are much easier for an F-35 pilot. The more experienced pilots know a lot more useful maneuvers than new pilots but because of the adaptive F-35 flight control software, it is much easier for new pilots to master an unfamiliar maneuver. The best way to explain this is the experience of British carrier pilots who formerly flew Harrier vertical takeoff and landing aircraft and were now using the F-35B (the vertical takeoff and landing version). The British pilots say difficult carrier landings that could be terrifying in a Harrier (which U.S. Marine Corps pilots also used on small carriers) were surprisingly easy with an F-35B. As British pilots began carrying out landings on the new British carrier they were pleasantly surprised. The F-35B flight control automatically adapted to all the rapidly changing wind and carrier movement variables and allowed you to land without a lot of stress. Handling the F-35B, in general, was much easier, and safer, than the Harrier. Hovering, for example, required a lot of continuous effort and attention from a Harrier pilot. In the F-35B the pilot could fly the aircraft to a position and hover and the aircraft would remain where it was flown to without additional effort by the pilots no matter how much the weather changed.
All this ease of flying enables F-35 pilots to concentrate on something that does still require a lot of decision making by the pilot; stealth management and threat management. The stealth characteristics of the F-35 make it more difficult for radar to detect it. How the pilots fly in a combat zone can improve the effectiveness of stealth. That is done by learning to manage the flood of “threat management” data that F-35 pilots have access to. By being able to concentrate on stealth and threat management F-35 pilots achieve what has been the key element in air combat since 1914; getting in the first shot. From 2014 into the 1940s the key to success in air-to-air combat was knowing how to fly into a position where you would see the enemy first and carry out a surprise attack. The earliest of these tricks was the World War I tactics of trying to have the sun behind you to make it more difficult for the enemy to see you coming. Another tactic was trying to get higher and out of sight (for as long as possible) until you could dive on the enemy aircraft in a high speed and unexpected attack. In effect, “stealth” and the resulting surprise was always the key to victory. The F-35 was designed with that in mind. The radar stealth and maneuverability isn’t as good as the F-22, but the F-35 “situational awareness” is much better. Pilots who have flown the F-22 and F-35 always note that and point out that, in the hands of an experienced pilot, it makes the F-35 a more effective aircraft than the older and more expensive F-22.
The F-35 was designed to have “affordable stealth” and much more effective sensors and electronics. The F-35 stealth is much less expensive than that in the F-22 and initial Israeli combat experience over Lebanon and Syria indicates that the stealth and internal electronic countermeasures more than make up to for that. The passive sensors and “sensor fusion” software of the F-35 also appear to be working as advertised. In the cockpit, the pilot has one large (20 inch diagonal) LCD showing all needed aircraft data with more showing on the pilots JHMDS helmet visor. That is all very well, but as with the very capable F-22, it wasn’t performance that limited procurement but excessive cost.
What the F-35 flight management software and situational awareness demonstrate is that the usual measures of a superior fighter aircraft (speed, maneuverability) no longer matter as much. An F-35 is more likely to see the other aircraft first, fire first and be more aware of the changing battle situation than enemy pilots in, on paper, faster and more maneuverable aircraft.
Even when the F-35 is hit and damaged the flight control software senses the damage and automatically flies differently to compensate for the damage. That takes a lot of stress off the pilot who can concentrate on threat and stealth management to complete the mission and get the aircraft back to base. Another important aspect of the F-35 is that its flight control and threat management software is built to be constantly updated by pilot experience. As more pilots fly the F-35 and experiment with different techniques, its software is updated to become more capable. Those updates require more attention to post-change testing. That’s because there are so many interconnections within the flight control software. Those have to be tested to prevent unexpected results when the pilot is most vulnerable to that sort of thing.
All these positive reviews from F-35 pilots have made it more likely sales will increase. In 2001 the U.S. believed 5,100 F-35s would be sold but the rising costs and increasing delays drove that down to 3,100 by 2013 and 2,500 by 2018. Now that some F-35s are actually in service (F-35As and 35Bs) and getting good reviews from users, existing and potential customers are increasing their orders. That may not last, because there is a lot still to be discovered about how well the F-35 will do in comparison to the many F-16s, F-15s, F-18s and AV-8s it will replace. The F-35C was supposed to enter service in 2018 but now it looks like 2019 is more likely and that will not have an impact on foreign sales because few, if any, were ever expected.
Currently, the F-35 is, at $405 billion, one of the most expensive defense procurement projects ever. Total development cost is now put at $70 billion, which comes to nearly $30 million per aircraft if only 2,500 are built. Development costs for the new U.S. F-35 fighter-bomber have grown more than a third over the last few years as the aircraft finally entered service. The additional development costs were accompanied by additional delays.
The 31 ton F-35 is mainly defined by the land-based F-35A which is armed with an internal 25mm cannon and four internal air-to-air missiles (or two missiles and two smart bombs) plus four external smart bombs and two missiles. All sensors are carried internally and max weapon load is 6.8 tons. The aircraft is very stealthy when just carrying internal weapons. The F-35B and C do not have the internal cannon and the B model has less internal space for weapons.
Like the F-22, which had production capped at less than 200 aircraft, the capabilities, as superior as they are, may not justify the much higher costs. The F-22 fighter is stealthier than the F-35, especially from the side and rear. The F-22 is more maneuverable and has two engines instead of one in the F-35. Both are stuffed with a lot of new technology. Obviously, the F-35 tech is more recent and more powerful. For example, the stealth coatings in the F-35 are far easier (and cheaper) to maintain than those in the F-22. But time will tell (and soon) just how much cheaper the F-35 is to maintain as an operational aircraft.
Initially, it was believed that most (about 60 percent) of the F-35s built would be used by foreign nations. The rising cost of the F-35 brought with it a reluctance to buy as many aircraft as customers originally planned. The success of smart bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan has also made it clear that fewer aircraft will be needed in the future. In any event, it's likely that F-35s will end up costing more than $100 million each and many current and potential customers realized they could upgrade some of their F-16s and get along just fine until it was clear that the F-35 was effective and affordable. That means the F-35 has to prove it is affordable to maintain. For most modern fighters operations and maintenance are 65 percent of the lifetime cost of the aircraft. Currently, the F-35A is 40 percent more expensive to maintain per flight hour than the F-16s most it will replace. The F-35 manufacturer says they can reduce that gap but potential buyers will want to see that in action first. Another deal breaker is the long time it takes to modify the F-35 software and certify non-U.S. weapons for use. This is proving to be another obstacle to foreign sales. So is the U.S. policy of allowing little foreign user access to the source code of the software. That’s a security measure and the only way around it (to help sales) is to make software changes requested by foreign users in a timely and affordable fashion. Same with construction costs, which are said to be falling to under $100 million per F-35A over the next few years but that goal seems out of reach and $110 million is more likely.