For years, the news about the most expensive conventional weapons system in US history, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, has been driven by its soaring costs, technical problems and schedule screw-ups. The government and Congress and the public rarely speak about what the F-35 will do, how effectively it could destroy an enemy’s air defenses, shoot down an enemy plane, or find and strike other high value targets.
As the first variant to be ready for combat, the Marine Corps F-35B, approaches what is known as its Initial Operating Capability and prepares to make its first flights outside the United States in the UK this July, Air Force Gen. Mike Hostage, who will command the largest group of F-35s in the world, sat down in his office at Langley Air Force Base to discuss what the F-35 can do in the first 10 days of war — within the constraints of what is classified — and in the case of this weapon, much of what it does remains highly classified.
I spoke with dozens of experts in the government, the defense industry and academia about likely scenarios for the F-35 and to flesh out some of its capabilities. This is the main piece we’re running this week about the F-35, based on my interview with Gen. Hostage and those other experts. The second piece deals with the cyber and electronic warfare capabilities of the F-35.
The issue of how effective the F-35 would be in a classic dogfight often arises. Gen. Hostage noted during our interview that the F-35 pilot who engages in a dogfight has either made a mistake or been very unlucky. Shooting down other planes using kinetics is only one role of the F-35. Perhaps air forces around the world are going to have to come up with a new honor other than ace to define those who fly the F-35. What should a pilot be awarded for outsmarting the best air defense systems in the world or injecting something like Stuxnet into the enemy’s command and control system? So much of what this aircraft will do has nothing to do with shooting down another pilot that we may need a new term.
LANGLEY AFB: After months of name-calling and increasingly aggressive sea and air patrols around the Senkaku and Spratly islands, a Chinese frigate rams and sinks a Japanese Aegis ship patrolling near Uotsuri Jima on Christmas Eve 2021. Is it accidental? Irrelevant. After repeated provocations and increasingly shrill pronouncements by Chinese leaders, the Japanese people have had enough. Japan scrambles fighters and bombers to protect the Senkaku Islands, Okinawa, and the rest of its southern and western flanks. In response, China’s most capable aircraft carrier deploys fighters from just outside Japanese territorial waters.
After decades of sporadic but increasingly violent confrontations, these actions finally prompt Japan to invoke its mutual defense treaty with the United States. As several hundred Chinese J-20s are scrambled and streak toward the Japanese islands, more than 500 F-35s from the US, Korea and Japan join 70 F-22s roaring off flight lines from across the Pacific. US Air Force F-35As take off from hardened air bases in Japan and a now-unified Korea. Roughly half the F-35B fleet in the region zoom off from ships and locations scattered across the Pacific where they have been moved far from hardened facilities as tensions rose. A small force of F-35Cs join Growlers and F/A-18 Super Hornets fly picket for the three US carrier groups operating in the region. The bulk of the F-35C force sits ready on the three flight decks, ready as a reserve force, along with the half of the allied force’s F-35Bs poised on highways and ships scattered across the Pacific theater.