The past few years have witnessed severe competition between fifth-generation stealth fighters jets. While Russia has moved ahead to induct Su-57 Felon, China has inducted the J-20 Might Dragon with new engines as its answer to the American stealth duo, F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II.
Despite the various advanced features boasted by these warplanes, Lockheed Martin F-35 jets are seen to have an edge over the rest of the lot.
F-35 – A Step Ahead of F-22, J-20 & Su-57?
American pride, the F-35 jets, are known to be the “most advanced” warplanes in the world. This hi-tech fighter jet has recently moved a step closer to becoming the first fifth-generation aircraft capable of conducting nuclear strikes.
The F-35 Lightning II is a single-seat aircraft and comes in three variants- the F-35A conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) version for the US Air Force, the F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) version for the US Marine Corps, and the carrier version F-35C for the US Navy.
On September 21, two F-35A fighter jets of the Air Force were equipped with a dummy version of the B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb for conducting the final flight test as part of the fighter jets’ full weapon system demonstration.
“This graduation test has now made the F-35A Lightning II progress from operationally-representative F-35A to a most representative B61-12 test asset”, according to a statement by the Air Force.
This stealth fighter was involved in the exercise for dropping a single unarmed B61-12 Joint Test Assemblies (JTAs). Lt. Col Daniel Jackson, chief of the Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration division at the Air Combat Command (ACC) Headquarters, said, “Adding ‘nuclear capable’ to a 5th-gen fighter that already brings several conventional-level capabilities to the table adds strategic-level implication to this jet”.
To pass the nuclear certification process, the F-35A jets have to undergo two phases. After completing the first on-aircraft testing for the initial nuclear certification, the fighter jet needs to conduct the graduation flight test exercise for passing the nuclear design certification.
The data acquired from these tests is then evaluated by the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy to check if both the F-35A and the B61-12 JTAs performed their roles correctly throughout the two tests.
The F-35 Fleet
The US Air Force at present has a total of 280 F-35A fighter jets in its inventory. The Air Force further plans to acquire another 1,763 F-35A jets in the coming years. Besides, the US Marine Corps has plans to procure a total of 353 F-35Bs and US Navy is eying 273 F-35Cs.
On top of this, a number of US allies are also integrating the F-35 fighter jets into their Air Force. Overall, at least 13 countries currently operate or plan to operate this fifth-generation stealth fighter.
South Korea currently has 16 F-35s in its inventory. In Europe, Denmark and Norway are also in the process of receiving and operating their F-35 fighter jets.
Several other countries such as Switzerland, Israel, Poland, Japan, Australia, Italy, The Netherlands, Belgium, Singapore, as well as the United Kingdom are at various stages of acquiring and operating this advanced fifth-generation warplane.
When compared to its Chinese and Russian counterparts, the F-35s are present in enormous numbers. As of 2021, China is known to have only 150 operational J-20 stealth jets. However, the Chinese have realized this huge gap in their production capacity.
China’s state-owned media outlet Global Times had earlier quoted Wang Haitao, deputy designer of the J-20 aircraft, as saying that any level of demand from the PLA Air Force can be satisfied by China’s aviation industry.
Similarly, Russia has received only 12 Su-57 fighter jets to date. However, state defense conglomerate Rostec claims that the production is moving forward.
According to reports, Russia has placed an order for 76 Su-57 fighter jets. Keeping in mind these numbers, it is very clear that the F-35 stealth fighter jets can easily outnumber the Russian Su-57 and the Chinese J-20 fighter jets.
Funds For F-35 Program
The White House has been urged by a bipartisan group of lawmakers for funding the F-35 Lightning II program in the coming years. However, a Senate committee raised concerns regarding the various maintenance challenges facing this advanced stealth fighter jet.
It also questioned the requirement of buying more F-35 fighter jets at this time. In a letter to President Joe Biden on October 20, 89 lawmakers, including Reps. Marc Veasey, D-Texas, and Mike Turner, R-Ohio, said that the United States needs to continue investing in the F-35s in the Fiscal Year 2023 Defense Department budget request and Future Years Defense Plan.
“The Pentagon needs to buy at least 100 F-35s for the U.S. military each year, invest in advanced capabilities to stay ahead of threats from adversaries and provide enough funding to sustain the aircraft for decades”, the lawmakers wrote in the letter, though they did not specify the exact funding levels.
“It is disappointing that year after year DoD continues to flat-line F-35 production investments, defer needed readiness funding, and underfund advanced capabilities for this critical fleet”, they wrote.
“As you well know, our adversaries continue to advance surface-to-air missile systems and develop their own stealth fighters at an astonishing pace”. They described this situation as “particularly concerning” keeping in mind the average age of Air Force fighter jets nearing almost three decades. “The U.S. must modernize our fighter inventory to ensure we can sustain a strong national defense and maintain an advantage to counter the pacing threat — China”, they wrote.
The lawmakers highlighted the importance of the F-35 to the nation’s manufacturing base, with more than 1800 suppliers and almost 2,54,000 workers playing some role in the manufacturing of the aircraft. “At a time when our economy has suffered the devastating effects of COVID-19, this program has continued to create jobs, foster workforce development and spur economic opportunity”, the letter said.
The Senate Appropriations Committee also released its version of the fiscal 2022 defense appropriations bill on October 18. The bill called for hundreds of millions as additional funding for expanding depot activities, adding more spare engine power modules, and improving the sustainment for the Air Force’s F-35 fighter jets.
In the explanatory statement accompanying the bill, the committee noted delays in fielding the aircraft and asked to halt the calls for procuring new aircraft.
The committee said, “the F-35 program has had significant maintenance challenges primarily resulting from power module failures combined with depot repair capacity issues”.
It called for an additional $175 million for more standing-up Air Force depot activities quickly, $175 million for F135 spare engine power modules and also $185 million in operation and maintenance funding for sustainment.
The committee said that with delays in production, a few of the aircraft deliveries will fall out of schedule. “The F-35 Program Executive Officer is revising the delivery schedule to smooth production through 2025”, it said in a statement.