A new report titled “Thunder without Lightning,” (PDF) authored by Bill French and Daniel Edgren for the National Security Network (NSN), argues that the United States’ fifth-generation fighter, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), has major shortcomings that will leave it particularly ill-suited to project air power in the Asia-Pacific region. The F-35 has come under wide-ranging criticism, primarily for the considerable expansion of the costs associated with the program but also for its perceived operational shortcomings. The NSN report is the latest salvo against the United States’ flagship fighter program, the costs of which continue to balloon, inching toward half-a-trillion dollars.
In short, the F-35 just doesn’t have the right feature set to thrive in the geographically expansive war-fighting scenarios foreseen in the Asia-Pacific.
Specifically, the authors write that “The F-35’s short range means that it will be of limited use in geographically expansive theaters like the Asia-Pacific or against so-called anti-access threats whereby adversaries can target forward airbases.” In recent years, U.S. strategic thought has fixated on counter anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) challenges from possible adversaries in the Asia-Pacific. Specifically, the U.S. Department of Defense has planned for contingencies involving a potential war with China, which is heavily investing in these sorts of technologies to make intervention costly for U.S. conventional forces.
The NSN report emphasizing the F-35’s shortcomings comes amid increasing criticism of the fighter’s capabilities. As War is Boring‘s David Axe reported some weeks ago, a leaked memo from a test pilot showed that the F-35 actually came out short of the previous generation F-16 in dogfighting. The report added to a litany of criticisms regarding the jet’s aerodynamic performance. The F-35, while not optimized for dogfighting, is primarily intended to excel in beyond-visual-range engagements. The authors of the NSN report contend that even here, the fighter falls short of its promised performance. (The full test pilot memo is available here.)
This shortcoming in particular makes the F-35 ill-suited for sorts of air war scenarios envisioned in the Asia-pacific. The authors write that the F-35 won’t be able to adequately protect U.S. forward airbases and even surface warfare units in wartime. Indeed, given Asia’s immense geography and the fact that, per the U.S. Department of Defense, 60 percent of U.S. air power will be deployed in the region by decade’s end, the F-35’s shortcomings could jeopardize U.S. readiness for conflict in the region.
What’s more troubling, despite the F-35’s advanced avionics, stealth, and sensors, the more rudimentary, fourth generation fighters operated by the Russian Air Force and Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Air Force (PLAAF)–specifically the Sukhoi Su-27 and Shenyang J-11, fighters comparable to the much older F-15–outshine the F-35 where it might matter the most in the Asia-Pacific: combat range. The F-35 boasts a modest combat range radius of 600 nmi which, while better than the 340 nmi of the F-16, falls just short of the Su-27 and J-11’s ranges (650 nmi and 755 nmi respectively).
Particularly, in a future conflict in the Taiwan Strait–the warfighting scenario for which the PLA is most prepared–China has a considered edge:
China also enjoys the advantage of considerable strategic depth that allows it to mass fighter aircraft in areas of interest to project power into nearby spaces. Moreover, this depth is well developed. For example, China operates 41 military and dual-use airfields within unrefueled combat radius of the Taiwan Strait.
The full NSN report on the F-35 is available here (PDF).