- President Donald Trump's acting Pentagon chief reportedly hates the F-35, and he joins a long list of prominent people who consider the $1 trillion jet program a waste of money.
- A former US Navy commander, Chris Harmer, told Business Insider what the US could have built beside the F-35: A revamped fleet of legacy fighters with fifth-generation technology delivered at a fraction of the cost.
- F-35 pilots tell Business Insider the combination of stealth and sensor capabilities make the jet indispensable to the US military, and the Pentagon's top brass has placed a big bet on the jet's success.
- But Harmer and others have a different philosophy of modern warfare that gives less credit to expensive stealth jets and seeks to offload some of the F-35's workload onto cruise missiles and radar jammers.
Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, who took over after President Donald Trump accepted the resignation of Jim Mattis, reportedly hates the most expensive weapons system of all time, the F-35.
Shanahan worked for 31 years at Boeing, the F-35 maker Lockheed Martin's main industry rival, and has reportedly said his old firm would have done a better job on the new stealth fighter.
A former senior Defense Department official told Politico that Shanahan described the F-35 stealth fighter as "f---ed up" and said its maker, Lockheed Martin, "doesn't know how to run a program."
While some may suspect Shanahan may be committing an ethical breach by speaking in favor of his former employer, others have also raised concerns with the F-35 program, which will cost taxpayers $1 trillion over the life of the program.
But instead of simply handing over the construction of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, meant as a single stealth fighter/bomber with 3 variants for ground launch, carrier launch, and short or vertical takeoff, others have proposed a radically different approach.
What the US could have built instead
US Navy Lt. j.g. David Babka
US Navy Lt. j.g. David Babka
Former US Navy commander and aviator Chris Harmer gave Business Insider an idea of another such approach in 2016.
"The F-35 is very capable in a very specific way," Harmer said. "The only thing it does that legacy can't do is stealth."
The US's F/A-18, F-15, and F-16 families of fighter aircraft, all Boeing products, bear the name of "legacy" aircraft, as they were designed during the Cold War before in a simpler time for aerial combat.
The F-35's low observability and integrated stealth design are central to the plane's mission and tactics. Throughout its development, the F-35 notoriously lost to older legacy fighters in up-close dogfights.
Defense officials never planned for the F-35 to revolutionize dogfighting, however; they instead wanted to change aerial combat as a whole. The F-35, nearly impossible for enemy aircraft to spot, is designed to shoot down foes from long distance before they're ever close enough to really dogfight.
But Harmer suggested that instead of building the F-35, the US simply should have updated existing aircraft, like the F-15, the F-16, and the F/A-18.
"For a fraction of the cost for F-35 development, we could have updated legacy aircraft and gotten a significant portion of the F-35 capabilities," Harmer said. The F/A-18 carrier-based fighter, for example, has already undergone extensive reworkings, and the F/A-18 Super Hornet, which is 25% larger than the original F/A-18, has a smaller radar cross-section than its predecessor and is one of the US's cheaper planes to buy and operate.
F-35 pilots and military experts have told Business Insider that the F-35's advantages include its advanced array of sensors and ability to network with other platforms. Combined with its stealth design, an F-35 can theoretically achieve a synergy as a sensor/fighter/bomber that operates deep within enemy territory in ways that legacy aircraft never could.
US Air Force/Senior Airman John Linzmeier
But Harmer, and other F-35 detractors including legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager, still think the F-35 was a waste of money. According to Harmer, proven legacy fighters could be retrofit with the advanced avionics and helmet for targeting that fighters out of Russia have long used.
An F-15, the Air Force's air-superiority fighter, with fifth-generation avionics and targeting capability, still lacks the integrated stealth design of an F-35. Stealth must be worked into the geometry of the plane and simply won't do as an afterthought. In today's contested battle spaces, a legacy fighter, no matter how you update it, still lights up brightly and clearly on enemy radar and is therefore less survivable to the pilots - something US military planners have refused to accept.
"The only advantage of the F-35 is to go into highly contested airspace," Harmer said, adding that the US had "literally never done that."
Plus, the US already has another fifth-generation aircraft with even better stealth in its inventory: the F-22. In fact, when the US does discuss operations in the world's most contested airspaces, it's the F-22 it talks about sending.
The Pentagon believes in stealth and wants you to too
"There are other, less expensive ways to address highly contested airspace - cruise missiles, standoff weapons, radar jamming," Harmer said. The F-35 does radar jamming, or electronic warfare, but the same electronic attacks could theoretically be delivered by a cruise missile.
Even Trump publicly weighed abandoning the F-35C, the carrier variant of the jet, for the F/A-18, the US's current naval fighter/bomber. Ultimately, Trump seems to have landed in favor of the stealth jet, which he now routinely claims is invisible.
Harmer's view of an alternate path to the F-35 represents a different military philosophy than what the Pentagon has accepted since 2001, when it launched the F-35 program.
But today the F-35's problems are mostly behind it, and operators of the next-generation aircraft have told Business Insider they're supremely confident in the plane's ability to fight and win wars in the toughest airspaces on earth.
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