by Roger Näbig (Twitter). He works as a lawyer and freelance journalist in Berlin with a focus on global conflicts, defense, security, military policy, armaments technology, and international law. He also gives lectures on defense policy issues. For a German version of the article see here.
It is the most expensive military aircraft procurement program in the world: the F-35 Lightning II. Lockheed Martin is developing it for the US Air Force (USAF), US Navy (USN) and US Marine Corps (USMC) as part of the Joint Strike Fighter program to develop a 5th generation jet fighter to replace the F-16 Falcon, F-18 Hornet, AV-8B Harrier II and A-10 Warthog in the US Air Force. While the “A” version for the USAF takes off and lands conventionally (CTOL: Conventional Take-Off and Landing), the “B” is a short take-off and vertical landing variant specially developed for the USMC and its amphibious attack ships (STOVL: Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing). There is also a “C” version, which will be used on USN aircraft carriers (CV: Carrier Variant). By 2070, the procurement, operation, and maintenance of the approximately 2,400 combat aircraft will cost about $1.5 trillion.
The F-35 is to become a leading export
In contrast to the F-22 Raptor, the stealth air superiority fighter, the F-35 has always been intended for export from the very beginning. Eight other countries are not only purchasing the F-35 but are also actively involved in the overall financing of the project and the construction of the combat aircraft: Great Britain, Italy, Australia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Turkey. Israel has a unique position in the project because it is the only country that is allowed to equip the F-35 with its avionics and software and is in charge of its maintenance. Finally, Japan and Korea are purely purchasing countries. Despite this international cooperation, the project is seven years behind schedule and $163 billion over its original budget. Each “A” version jet currently costs about $95 million; the “B” and “C” version cost around $120 million. While at the beginning of the development phase, the planners had still provided for an 80% part compatibility for the “A”, “B” and “C” to reduce maintenance costs, depending on the version, that currently stands at only 27% to 43%. Reasons for this included the USMC’s desire for STOVL capability to replace the old VTOL AV-8B fighter jets and the USN’s need for larger, foldable wings with more fuel load and reinforced landing gear for the use on aircraft carriers. The USAF was a bit more frugal at the beginning. It only wanted to replace its F-16s and A-10s, although it was planned to purchase a more significant number of F-22s, which could not be realized later for cost reasons. The F-35 closes now this resulting gap in air superiority fighters.
The German Air Force wants the F-35 to replace the Tornado
At the end of last year, former German Air Force inspector Karl Müllner indirectly pleaded for the F-35 to replace the outdated 85 German Tornado multi-purpose combat aircraft. According to Müllner, the Air Force needs a combat aircraft that can engage enemy targets from a far distance with a low radar signature. It is already too late for entirely new development. The Ministry of Defense, on the other hand, declared to prefer an advanced Eurofighter Typhoon as a replacement for the Tornado and is probably only second to the procurement of the F-35, F-15 or F/A-18 (“‘F-35’ für die Bundeswehr?: Luftwaffe benennt Anforderungen an ‘Tornado’-Nachfolger“, Spiegel Online, November 08, 2017). General Müllner was sent into early retirement on May 29, 2018. Procurement is politically and militarily sensitive because the German Tornadoes are intended for so-called “nuclear sharing“. While the US fighter planes (F-15, F-18) all have or will soon have (F-35 probably in 2020) a certification for the dropping of the corresponding B61 atomic bombs, the Eurofighter, apart from the still to be created technical conditions, would have to get a corresponding certification from the US government at all. For this, the US would require an insight into the technical specifications and documents of the Eurofighter, which is hardly acceptable to the European partners of the project for competitive reasons alone.
Is the F-35 the right aircraft for the German Air Force?
However, would the F-35A, which experts also like to sneer at as a “flying computer”, really be a suitable successor to the German Tornado? Shouldn’t the Ministry of Defense rely more on a Eurofighter modified for “nuclear sharing” or, better yet, on the tried and tested F-18 Super Hornet? In an armaments project of this magnitude, the critics immediately speak up. With the F-35, opinions are particularly kindled by Lockheed Martin’s attempt not only to develop a combat aircraft for three different branches of the armed forces and their specific requirements, but also to replace a large number of older aircraft types for the tasks of air superiority (F-15), multipurpose (F-16), close air support (A-10), vertical take-off aircraft (AV-8B) as well as bomber and electronic warfare fighter (F/A-18). A project doomed to failure right from the start because of its complexity, but has now become too big and too expensive to let it fail? It is unusual that Lockheed Martin was allowed to produce a large number of “pre-production models” during the test and trial phase (so-called “Concurrency“) and to deliver them to the U.S. armed forces (as of July 2018: 305+ units) instead of starting production only after a small number of prototypes were ready for series production (“fly before you buy”).
Sobering Pentagon internal audit report on the F-35
The Director Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E – internal audit authority) in the US Department of Defense monitors compliance with the contractually stipulated technical and security-related requirements for weapon systems of all kinds for procurement measures by the U.S. Army. Its reports and assessments on the progress and current status of the F-35 project by the Joint Program Office (JPO) development department for the fiscal years 2016 and 2017 are – to put it mildly – very sobering. In the current audit report for 2017, DOT&E states that the operational suitability of the F-35 falls short of the requirements and does not yet meet the expectations of the armed forces. In some cases, missions could only be flown through technically unplanned workarounds. The procurement program is currently shipping F-35s with missing capabilities that are needed in the fight against current threats. The nationwide availability rate of the F-35 fleet has remained at an unacceptable 50% since October 2014, although more and more machines have been put into service since then. The technical reliability of delivered aircraft is also stagnating, so that an acceptable threshold for the average flight time until a critical error occurs can only be reached through completely reworking faulty aircraft components in the future.
In its report, DOT&E found a total of 301 serious (software) errors in areas such as target engagement, weapons integration, survivability, mission planning, cybersecurity, ALIS software, and maintainability. At least 88 of these are in “processing”, the remaining 213 errors remain unresolved for the time being. These serious deficiencies do not allow DOT&E to confirm the conditional or fundamental operational readiness necessary for the start of series production of the F-35. However, to be able to continue the construction of further F-35s that are not fully operational, the JPO now wants to officially complete the development phase and move into a “continuous capability development and delivery phase”. In its 2017 report, however, the internal audit department has serious concerns about this approach — probably also because a considerable number of F-35s with different equipment exist through simultaneous development, prototype tests, and pre-series production. The field test already mentioned for the start of series production will probably only be possible at the end of 2019. By then, however, more than 600 aircraft will have been built and delivered. These all have to be retrofitted later on, which in turn will result in considerable costs. The USAF had therefore already seriously considered not updating 108 fully paid F-35A pre-production models (so-called “Concurrency Orphans”), which has now been rejected.
Software is the F-35’s “Achilles’ heel”
The capabilities of the F-35 are determined on the one hand by its technical equipment and built-in electronics (including 31 PowerPC processors from IBM with 75,000 MIPS). On the other hand, the underlying software for control and operation is an essential capability feature. Individual development stages are grouped into blocks, which can also have subdivisions, depending on the military branch. Block 1 describes “first-hour” aircraft built for training and testing purposes. Block 2 is already provided with essential weapon functions, while Block 3F represents the current software version. The internal programming of the F-35 includes more than 8 million lines of code, more than four times as much as the F-22. Considering the general rule of thumb that, even with sensitive armaments orders, one programming error occurs per 1,000 lines of code, it is no surprise that the current software version, after the 31st update, is only declared as conditionally usable — more updates will follow for sure. Initially, the Block 3F software was even considered too unreliable for initial test flights.
More serious is the lack of mission data loads (MDL). They contain extensive information, e.g., about potential targets, enemy combat aircraft and other possible threats, such as air defense positions, each with its electronic and/or infrared signatures. The MDL has to be loaded into the F-35’s onboard computer before each mission and has to be updated after each mission. Without this MDL, the F-35 cannot find its targets or escape possible threats. Its stealth capability largely depends on the MDL to calculate optimal flight routes around enemy air defense and interceptors. A separate MDL with application-specific information must be created for each theatre of operations. A total of at least six such MDLs are needed for worldwide deployment and the completion of the test and trial phase. At least the first MDL for the upcoming series production readiness tests in the US should be completed in this year. Only one location in the US is currently capable of programming the MDL for all F-35s: the US Reprogramming Laboratory (USRL) at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. However, this “laboratory” needs 15 months for one MDL alone. Accordingly, the preparation of the required six MDLs would theoretically take seven and a half years. This does not include the necessary updates to the already existing MDLs. These updates are required because each time an F-35 is deployed, new information about existing or additional targets and threats is captured. Due to poor software and outdated or incomplete hardware, the USRL is not yet able to perform these updates. To be able to test the MDLs in detail, the USRL additionally requires special electronics, so-called threat emitters, which generate identical signals as the expected enemy interceptors, radar sites and anti-aircraft missiles in the potential combat zone. However, according to the DOT&E report, the USRL lacks the necessary number of emitters to create a sufficiently equipped electronic test environment that would even approximately correspond to the currently prevailing global threat scenarios.
Another major weakness of the F-35 project is the “Autonomic Logistics Information System” (ALIS), which remains the property of the manufacturer Lockheed Martin and is operated by them worldwide. ALIS is a complex computer system consisting of 65 individual programs with 16 million lines of code that continuously collects and analyzes aircraft data. It is used, among other things, for resource planning, threat analyses, maintenance diagnoses, and planning, and for ordering spare parts. All F-35s, including those from partner countries or buyers outside the US, must update their mission files and ALIS profiles before and after each flight. For this purpose, the data from each F-35 is downloaded, then it is first electronically sent to the ALIS mainframe in Fort Worth, Texas, which then forwards it to the USRL and Lockheed Martin. From there, the updated data on the mainframe will be transferred back to all F-35s, even overseas. If the Internet connection from the US to Europe, for example, is interrupted by cyber attacks on network nodes or sabotage to the underwater cables, the F-35s cut off from ALIS, e.g., in Great Britain, Italy, and Turkey, will remain on the ground until further notice (Giovanni de Briganti, “US Software Stranglehold Threatens F-35 Foreign Operations“, Defense-Aerospace.com, 11/04/2015). Data transmission via satellite is hardly possible due to the high data volume requirements of only one F-35 squadron, as tests on board the aircraft carrier USS George Washington in August 2016 demonstrated. It took two whole days, among other things due to tactical radio silence, limited bandwidth, and poor satellite connections, to send a 200 MB ALIS file. It remains to be seen how these transmission problems will be solved in the future when stationing entire squadrons of F-35 “B”/”C” models on carriers and amphibious attack vehicles. The DOT&E called on the USN to further investigate this matter.
However, the DOT&E also points out further ALIS deficiencies in its audit report. After the last software update the USMC Air Station Yuma in Arizona had to stop all F-35 flight operations in June 2017, because, among other things, the engine data was not recorded properly. Besides, ALIS continuously reports false values about the need for maintenance or repair of components, which then lead to aircraft shutdowns, orders for unneeded spare parts and time-consuming but pointless technician deployments. Manual workarounds and interventions by ALIS administrators, which are now part of the daily maintenance routine for mechanics, are required for processes that should have been automated long ago. In earlier reports, the DOT&E also criticized the inadequate cybersecurity of the software and hardware against cyber attacks, which affect both ALIS and the F-35 themselves. These long-known weaknesses were not eliminated in the 2017 reporting year either. In view of current cyber threats, the auditor now recommends, for example, that ALIS be switched off entirely for the permitted period of up to 30 days during test flights, which, however, does not correspond in principle to the necessary interaction between ALIS and the F-35 in order to fly effective (combat) missions. Probably also for these reasons Israel has contractually stipulated the right, as already mentioned, to take over the maintenance of its F-35I Adir itself. Israel has a legitimate concern that an F-35 will become inoperable in the middle of a conflict because cyber attacks compromised ALIS. It remains an understandable secret whether Israel is staying outside the global network with ALIS or has installed its maintenance software.
However, ALIS is not only exposed to cyber threats on the internet, but some JSF partner countries also believe that it transmits too much operational data to the U.S. Army and the non-governmental manufacturer Lockheed Martin after each F-35 flight, thereby violating the sovereignty of the countries involved in the project. Italy, Norway, and Australia, for example, have therefore decided to limit the amount of sensitive software data that is to be transferred to the US via ALIS in the future. Besides, Italy and Norway are setting up a joint software laboratory in the US for programming country-specific mission files. The ALIS network also provides the US with active control over the F-35s stationed in partner countries by distributing updates and patches of both internal and external F-35 software. In the future, ALIS could also be used by the US as a “Trojan horse” to import malicious software into F-35s belonging to partner countries that may have become unpopular, and paralyze them on the software side.
The target acquisition and weapons systems function only to a limited extent
The Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS) is based on the Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod already developed for the F-16. An external container was done away with to preserve the stealth characteristics, and the EOTS was integrated into the lower fuselage of the F-35 in a sapphire glass pod in the front of the fuselage. Via the connection to the central computer and with the aid of a video and a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera as well as a distance/target illumination laser, it provides the target acquisition coordinates required for the onboard weapons during air and ground combat. The pilot has this data transferred directly to his helmet visor. A head-up display (HUD – windscreen projector) is no longer available in the F-35 cockpit. According to the 2016 DOT&E report, the test pilots unanimously stated that the integrated EOTS was less powerful than the externally mounted system on older 4th generation fighters. Opponents could not be detected and identified at a tactically reasonable distance, and the laser could not permanently marked targets during an engagement. Environmental influences, such as high humidity, would force pilots to fly closer to potential targets than would be militarily warranted. This strips the F-35 of the element of surprise, unnecessarily warning potential enemies, slowing down the firing process, and exposing the F-35 to additional threats in the target area. The 2017 DOT&E report further states that mobile ground targets cannot be adequately targeted with the EOTS. The pilots have to compensate technical deficits of the EOTS using “rule of thumb”, which is neither effective nor allowed under real combat conditions. Due to the electronics installed so far, these EOTS deficits will no longer be remedied by software improvements alone. It is therefore not surprising that manufacturer Lockheed Martin announced in September 2015 an “Advanced EOTS” with improved technology for the upcoming Block 4 models of the F-35, but this can only be installed after 2020.
The weapons systems don’t necessarily look any better. The F-35A is equipped with an internal, four-stroke 25mm Gatling gun for its intended close air support role. During the weapons tests in 2017, it turned out that it fired too far and also too far to the right. The onboard cannons carried in separate weapon containers on the “B” and “C” models also had hit inaccuracies, although not as striking as the “A” version. The bugs are not fixed in any version yet.
On the AIM-120 long-range air-to-air missile (behind the field of vision), the weapons tests revealed problems with the technical integration and control displays in the F-35, all of which are subject to secrecy. The published protocol of the weapons tests shows, however, that test firing of the AIM-120 AMRAAM failed entirely or partially or the evaluation of the results is still ongoing, whatever that may mean.
During the tests of the air and surface weapons, problems related to the EOTS were detected, which prevent the complete and successful passage of a “combat run”, consisting of finding, fixing, tracking, aiming, firing and evaluating. Thus make weapon employment more difficult, if not impossible. For example, the F-35 pilots were able to check the transmitted target data for precision-guided bombs (JDAM), but not the actual target data stored in the bomb. However, the rules of engagement in combat zones generally require that the pilot expressly confirm the correct target data stored in the precision weapon to the Forward Air Controller on the ground before the weapon is deployed.
The “DAS” warning system is technically outdated and struggles with production errors
A “Distributed Aperture System” (DAS) consisting of six infrared cameras distributed on the front fuselage is used to monitor the airspace around the F-35 (the picture below shows a DAS camera directly in front of the cockpit on the fuselage). The system provides the pilot with situational information using a spherical panoramic view projected on the helmet visor day and night, even when looking downwards through the fuselage of the F-35. This makes it even possible to navigate in complete darkness with the aid of an additional night vision camera mounted on the helmet. The DAS recognizes/detects/engages enemy air defense/radar sites, approaching enemy aircraft, gives the pilot in close air combat a permanent friend/foe distinction and independently initiates appropriate defense measures against recognized threats (infrared decoys, chaff, electronic interference/defense).
In 2017, damaged glass covers on the DAS cameras were one of the reasons why F-35 fighter jets were repeatedly classified by the USAF as not ready for use, while the USN and USMC considered them still fit for flight. During night landings, the pilots lost situational awareness in complete darkness (new moon, no starlight due to heavy cloud cover, no artificial light) due to the poor image/resolution quality of the installed infrared cameras. Safe operation or landing was no longer possible for the pilots using the external view transmitted from the DAS/helmet camera to the helmet visor.
Several further problems manifest themselves with the F-35. In addition to qualitative defects in production itself (faulty DAS glass covers, technically inadequate night vision camera, tires that wear too fast, insufficient corrosion protection, mechanically unstable tank probe), due to the overlong testing phase and pre-series production, the currently installed DAS has been in use for more than 10 years and is now considered technically obsolete, similar to the EOTS mentioned above. Lockheed Martin announced in June 2018 that they would install a significantly improved, more powerful and cheaper Raytheon DAS from 2023 onwards. However, since series production is likely to have already started by then, the F-35 will be used by the U.S. Forces in significantly different hardware and software configurations from the 2020s onwards, including the installation of the improved EOTS and DAS. In light of the errors that have occurred so far cast doubt on whether the new electronic components can also be seamlessly integrated into the F-35 without additional technical and software-specific problems. In any case, an exchange of old and new generation electronic components will be tough, if not impossible, due to the different software versions within the F-35 fleet.
Operational experience with the F-35 paints an entirely different picture
Regulatory and supervisory authorities in general, but also some of the harshest critics in particular, must be able to be argued against making “armchair” judgments on the basis of comprehensive test protocols, without having gained their own experience with the subject of their examination or criticism. In 2016, Major Morten Hanche, head of the F-35 test/evaluation department of the Royal Norwegian Air Force, published several interesting blog posts about his experiences as a former F-16 and now current F-35 pilot, which lack the usual, either exaggerated positive or negative comments (see “Bibliography”). Based on his own experiences with the F-35A, he thinks that the mostly negative interpretations of the DOT&E reports by the media are exaggerated because they would be entirely based on unrealistic expectations. For him, an imperfect F-35 was not the end of the world. He thinks that compromises always have to be made, especially in the development and testing of such a highly complex aircraft as the F-35. For almost every error that occurs, there is either a workaround under operating conditions or one learns to live with it in everyday mission life. The F-35 works well, even if it doesn’t (yet) meet all the specifications. He is impressed by the F-35, especially regarding speed, service ceiling, range and maneuverability, because unlike other shortcomings, these characteristics could not simply be improved by software updates in the future. Compared to the F/A-18 Hornet one feels as if they’re “flying with four engines”. He could also confirm the stealth capabilities of the F-35, which in contrast to the F-16 could not be located from a distance. A comparison with fully developed 4th generation fighters is not appropriate because they already had a 40-year development and improvement phase behind them even to reach their current level of performance, a “maturity period” that the F-35 currently lacks. The F-16 was continuously plagued by errors and deficits when it was introduced in the 1970s, but it can still be regarded as one of the most effective fighters. Even today, the Norwegian Air Force’s more modern F-16s would struggle with avionics, software and logistics deficiencies that cannot be rectified because it has not yet been possible to determine their cause or do not want to eliminate known problems because of a low-cost/benefit ratio. The F-35 exceeded the expectations placed on it in use and also had a high probability of “surviving” combat missions in an emergency, in contrast to 4th generation fighters, like the F-16.
Is the F-35 the right plane for the German Air Force?
Every major defense project in military aircraft construction has had to struggle with technical issues, long delays, significant budget overruns, and harsh public criticism, be it the F-15, F-16, F/A-18 on the American side or the Tornado, A-400 or Eurofighter on the European side. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a highly complex weapon system like the F-35 is not any different. When the F/A-18 was introduced to the USN, it lacked the range, and payload of the A-7 Corsair as well as the acceleration and climb rate of the F-4 Phantom. Today the F/A-18 is the backbone of the USN. If one reads the last DOT&E report from 2017 “between the lines”, even with a very pessimistic prognosis it can be assumed that the F-35 will not only have reached the final production stage by 2025 at the latest, but – thanks to the exchange of entire (electronic) assemblies and further software updates – will also have left a large part of its technical problems behind. Then the US has a 21st Century fighter that turns digital and networked warfare from a buzzword to reality. The F-35 is also the ideal operational platform for control and surveillance given the increased use of (lethal) autonomous weapon systems in combination with manned combat jets. Of course, it is not completely invisible (“stealth”), but probably more difficult to locate (“stealthy”) for integrated Russian air defense than an F/A-18 or a modernized Eurofighter.
As a multi-purpose fighter, the F-35 will have to make compromises in the individual tasks of close air support, superiority, and attack, but this is nothing new since the Tornado. After all, the price for the F-35 will have fallen to under $80 million (US) by 2025, which is indeed not a “bargain”, but still much cheaper than the current $95 million (US) price tag. Since many European NATO states have also acquired or intend to acquire the F-35, a partial harmonization of used military equipment would be recorded for the first time in a long time — at least in the field of NATO air forces and, however, at the expense of Europe’s desired independence from the USA when it comes to defense.
As always with large armament projects, there is no simple “yes” or “no” answer for the procurement of such an expensive, technically complex weapons system. With its decision on this issue, Germany will not want to offend either the US or France in foreign or military policy terms, since they are both important allies within NATO and the EU. France had already announced that when Germany bought the F-35, it would immediately stop planning the future common European fighter aircraft. On the other hand, the planned 5th/6th generation German-French fighter jet would probably reach its operational readiness far too late to replace the Luftwaffe Tornadoes in time by 2025. In turn, the US could postpone the Eurofighter’s nuclear participation clearance for 7-10 years to urge Germany to buy the F-35A, for good reason because even a modified Eurofighter would not be a suitable carrier for American nuclear bombs, as it is not up to the task of facing the modern Russian S-400/S-500 air defense systems. However, the same problem exists with the Tornado. So would it be best to entirely drop nuclear sharing with the USA and build a joint fighter jet with France, which would then carry French atomic bombs to the target for Germany? A variant which, given the European or German dependence on the US nuclear shield, is rather unlikely to provide a credible nuclear deterrent in Europe.
Then is it better to follow the example of the British, Danes, Norwegians, Dutch, and Italians in Europe and buy a technically (not yet) mature F-35, which also comes with high follow-up costs for maintenance and flight operations? Or perhaps instead of a “Solomonic solution” where Germany procures the American F/A-18 Super Hornet for an estimated transition period of about 15 to 20 years until the planned German-French fighter aircraft is ready for production/operation? Indeed not a politically simple decision that the Defense Ministry will have to make soon.
The F-35 is probably not a disaster regarding arms policy, even if it has not yet been able to meet all the expectations placed on it. It is expensive, but a (nearly) ready-to-use stealth multi-purpose 5th generation combat aircraft which should have left its “teething troubles” behind by 2025 and could then provide the Luftwaffe with considerable military added value. For my part, I have to admit that my heart beats more transatlantically for the F-35 than pan-European for a modified Eurofighter or the Future Combat Air System.
Lockheed Martin, “F-35 Lightning II program status and fast facts“, 11.09.2018
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