F-35 Problems Mean the U.S. Needs to Upgrade Now gnewsplus24

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As the war in Ukraine trudges on, the Pentagon no longer has to worry too much about Russia’s ability to compete militarily with the United States. Moscow’s new pact with North Korea, a reliance on Iranian drones, its inability to establish air superiority over Ukraine well after two years into the war, and the lack of vital components such as computer chips all signal Russian weakness. Russia claiming to be at the forefront of aircraft technology with the MiG-41, capable of firing “laser weaponry,” comes off more as an unhinged fantasy than a credible threat. Despite its boasts, and because its war in Ukraine has taken a toll on its aircraft industry, Moscow will be struggling to keep up with Washington in developing a sixth generation fighter jet. (The “generation” of a fighter aircraft refers to its technological capabilities. The fifth generation currently in operation emerged in the 2000s.)

As the war in Ukraine trudges on, the Pentagon no longer has to worry too much about Russia’s ability to compete militarily with the United States. Moscow’s new pact with North Korea, a reliance on Iranian drones, its inability to establish air superiority over Ukraine well after two years into the war, and the lack of vital components such as computer chips all signal Russian weakness. Russia claiming to be at the forefront of aircraft technology with the MiG-41, capable of firing “laser weaponry,” comes off more as an unhinged fantasy than a credible threat. Despite its boasts, and because its war in Ukraine has taken a toll on its aircraft industry, Moscow will be struggling to keep up with Washington in developing a sixth generation fighter jet. (The “generation” of a fighter aircraft refers to its technological capabilities. The fifth generation currently in operation emerged in the 2000s.)

On the other hand, China—which for decades copied the Russian aircraft industry—cannot be dismissed as easily. In fact, given its financial resources, its status as the world’s biggest manufacturer, and the technological advances it is making, China has the capacity to pose a serious challenge to America’s dominance in the military aerospace sector. Just last month, China demonstrated a feat of engineering by making a second unmanned landing on the far side of the Moon—which no other country has been able to accomplish—for the second time in five years.

Now, a sixth generation fighter is currently in various stages of development in several countries and the U.S. and China are the principal competitors in this race. Fighter jets continue to play a major role in defense strategies. Long range force projection against enemy targets would not be possible without warplanes, and in more proximate battlespaces they allow for close air support to ground troops and interdiction of enemy forces. Washington cannot allow Beijing to gain an advantage in this competition. In order to maintain its edge when it comes to military aviation technology, especially in the age of artificial intelligence, it is imperative that the United States go full throttle in producing its sixth generation system, so as to maintain its air superiority.


The Chengdu J-20 “Mighty Dragon” is Beijing’s already-developed fifth-generation warplane. With advanced avionics and data-processing capabilities, and as China’s first stealth aircraft, it rivals both the American F-22 Raptor, jointly produced by Boeing and Lockheed Martin in 2005, and Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II rolled out in 2015. It has limitations in terms of the munitions it carries, but in a first for China, it can serve as a long-range supersonic strike plane or an interceptor.

In 2017, six years after its maiden flight, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force inducted the J-20 into service. As many as 150 J-20s could already be in service, and the PLAAF reportedly could be getting one of these jets every month. The seven years since the J-20 entered into service is ample time for the Chinese to upgrade the warplane. More importantly, producing it at scale means that they can make up for any qualitative deficiencies with quantity. By deploying enough of them, Chinese warplanes could overwhelm U.S. forces in East Asia. In addition to benefiting from stolen F-35 plans, China has enjoyed a longtime collaboration with Pakistan, with which it developed the 4th generation multirole combat JF-17 Thunder. This joint project helped the Chinese to indirectly gain from the expertise of their Pakistani partners, who have decades of experience with American platforms.

Experts believe that while the J-20 is no match for the F-22, it could be a serious competitor to the F-35. The Chinese have been doing upgrades to the J-20 at a time when the United States has been struggling with the F-35, which helps bridge the capability gaps between the two competing fighters. The F-35 has been widely criticized as a boondoggle because of delays and cost overruns. Priced around $100 million per frame, the F-35 program is expected to cost taxpayers $1.3 trillion over the platform’s lifetime. However, the real issue is that the ongoing problems with the F-35 could get in the way of the U.S. developing its successor sixth generation aircraft.

The sixth generation is a huge leap forward because it integrates manned and unmanned aircraft technologies. Unlike the previous five generations of aircraft, it will not simply constitute a singular state-of-the-art manned fighter. The Next Generation Air Dominance program, conceived of by DARPA in 2014 to develop the sixth generation fighter, envisions the pairing up of pilots with drone systems. This would include advanced manned fighters as well as a fleet of around 1,000 autonomous “loyal wingman”drones which would autonomously assist a pilot in combat. In this way, it will not be anything like a traditional fighter jet. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has described the NGAD fighter as a “vital element” of the “family of systems.”

But it appears budgetary constraints are a driving factor in whether the United States can develop a robust sixth generation fighter aircraft capability. The disproportionately high cost of maintaining the F-35 is getting in the way of investing in the NGAD. Last month in response to a question about plans for NGAD, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Allvin was evasive, noting that “we’re looking at many very difficult options that we must consider.”

NGAD is likely to be several times the cost of an F-35, and the Air Force Chief of Staff said it was one of several “choices” the service had to consider for its mandatory fiscal 2026 budget cuts. Gen. Allvin added that another factor informing the potential rethink of NGAD is the growing role of unmanned systems in future air operations—meaning that there is potentially no need for a manned sixth generation fighter. Unmanned aerial vehicles, even those driven by AI, can complement piloted fighter aircraft but they cannot be a substitute for them. The processing of data and the derivative analysis and moves that a human pilot is inimitable. With the USAF leadership apparently leaning towards not building a manned sixth generation fighter, the expectation is that the focus will be on improving the F-35, which remains the most advanced fighter. But it makes no sense to downgrade efforts to develop NGAD as the cutting-edge air dominance system while expending resources to continue to upgrade its predecessor system. Not when China is on the tail.

It was in 2019 that Wang Haifeng, chief designer for the Chengdu Aerospace Corporation, divulged that China had embarked upon developing its own version of NGAD. Three years later, in 2022, Gen. Mark D. Kelly, the Commander of Air Combat Command, warned that the Chinese were well on their way to developing sixth-generation fighter capability. Beijing expects to bring it online by 2035, but the American NGAD “family of systems” can be ready by 2030, if the Pentagon and Congress continue to allocate the necessary funding. The issue of cost is not impossible. Given the will from within the Pentagon, it can be brought down through innovations in design and streamlining of acquisition strategies.

The United States military should not be a victim of the sunk cost fallacy when it comes to the F-35. The nation’s decades-long technological superiority in state-of-the-art fighter aircraft is at risk.

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