Since Trump Appears Dead-Set On Cancelling The F-35, What Should Replace It?

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It appears Trump isn’t going to stop with one tweet about the F-35, because last night, he again tweeted about the defense project.

And, as covered by Zerohedge, the market for both Lockheed and Boeing shares reacted accordingly, as can be seen below:

Lockheed’s shares, which had regained some ground since the market had reacted to Trump’s initial tweet, quickly fell back to ~247, very close to the low they had reached after Trump’s initial tweet on 12/12/16.  And, the share price of Boeing, who builds the F-18, reacted positively, though not nearly as strongly.

So, if this isn’t all just a negotiating ploy by Trump, and he truly is dead-set on finding a replacement for the F-35, what should replace it?  More importantly… what can replace it?

For starters, its worth noting that the entire program should not be scrapped.  As I covered in my original article about the F-35, the program was split into three variants; the Air Force’s “A” variant (70%), the Marines’ “B” variant (14%), and the Navy’s “C” variant (16%).  The “B” variant, which can take off and land vertically (STOVL), is perhaps the only variant worth building, as it more than adequately replaces the AV-8B Harrier it was designed to replace.  If anything, more “B” models should be built at the expense of the other two, and the Navy in particular can work on finding other aircraft to fill the gap from the remaining “C” models, as the branch clearly prefers to spend the funds elsewhere.  In the short term for the Navy, the F-18 is actually a viable replacement, as it already operates the aircraft and is very aware what it is capable of.

Which once again brings us to the biggest problem with the program, the Air Force’s “A” variant, which was designed to replace the F-16 and A-10.  Originally designed to be a jack of all trades, master of none, its really just a jack of no trades, reliant on its stealth and avionics to beat out the competition.  Once the aircraft is forced into a low-tech role where its low-observable features don’t help it, it is far inferior to cheaper-priced, purpose built aircraft, like the A-10 and F-16.  And, as Tyler Rogoway notes, while the Navy can use more F-18s, the Super Hornet is not really a viable replacement for the F-16.  It will never have the low observable stealth features that the F-35 has, and advanced avionics will also bring up the price of the aircraft, making it an unrealistic option for the Air Force.

So, what can be done to actually replace the “A” variant?

For starters, the Air Force must keep the existing A-10s flying.  As previously stated, it is one of the best available platforms for fighting the low-tech enemies in the war on terror, one that is extremely in demand by the armed forces today, and has proven itself in combat for over 25 years.  If anything, this cheap, effective platform should be expanded upon, and not cancelled, as the Air Force has tried to do for decades, in spite of its effectiveness.

The Air Force could easily use funds from the F-35 program to upgrade the technology in the A-10.  If you wanted to go a step further, you could (and should) scrap the low-observable requirement, and redevelop the A-10 with newer technology and other features that could improve its combat capabilities.  If the focus was on redeveloping the existing proven airframe, the cost savings would likely be considerable.  If anything, our armed services need more purpose-built flying tanks on today’s battlefield, and not overpriced stealth fighters that are inferior to the competition in almost every way.

As for the fighters… well, the easiest solution would have been to never build the F-35, and just build more F-22s.  I previously noted that Robert Gates, as well as many others, were and are responsible for cancelling F-22 production far too early, and going all-in on an F-35, citing lower costs as their primary reasoning behind the F-35.  Again, as I noted, had F-22 production stayed active, the aircraft would have ended up being cheaper per unit to procure than new F-35s, because of the excessive R&D cost associated with building one aircraft for three branches of the military.  If the F-35A was built just for the Air Force, as the F-16 was, it wouldn’t have the ugly lift fan bulge that ruins its performance, and likely could have been better value than the F-22.

We can all wail and gnash our teeth about not building enough F-22s, or the DoD completely screwing up the F-35 program altogether, but that doesn’t solve the problem of what can be done to replace the multi-role capability of the F-16.  I know, you’re already yelling it to yourself, “We should just build more F-22s and cancel the F-35!”  The problem with that plan is the cost of restarting F-22 production, as just restarting the line has been estimated to cost around $3 billion dollars.  If you were to price the per-aircraft cost at an already-high $300 million, you are losing 10 airframes just to restart production.  Given the proven nature of the platform, and its superiority to the F-35, it might be worth considering.  The Air Force has protected its F-35 baby for far too long at the cost of the F-22, so it is hard to take them at their word when they say a production restart would be too cost prohibitive.

It should be noted, that while building more F-22s is an option, it might not be necessary.  If the Air Force can keep its current F-15/F-16/F-22 fleet effective for long enough, another (sixth-generation) air-to-air option could be procured.  A laser as an offensive weapon could be an option, replacing missiles and possibly rendering the need for maneuverability unnecessary.  Even if a laser is not an option, if technology advances far enough to permit an unmanned fighter, this would be a significant leg up on the competition.  The human body can only withstand 9g, and even that requires extensive training and cannot be sustained over long periods of time.  Removing the pilot from the cockpit could potentially make an unmanned fighter far superior to anything in the skies today.

A sixth-generation fighter concept

As many have noted, building more unmanned aircraft, even current designs, is a solution that should be implemented as part of an F-35 cancellation.  Unmanned aircraft can loiter over the battlefield for extended periods of time (days/weeks in some cases), which offers unique advantages that cannot be provided by manned aircraft.  Building drones that can carry bigger payloads, giving them more abilities to both observe and attack the battlefield, is an easy solution to a force capability that won’t be provided by the F-35.

The F-35 is obviously a failed platform, and it is one that was designed to replace many existing effective platforms.  Clearly, there is no “one size fits all” solution to replacing the capability that will be lost with an F-35 cancellation.  But, that was the problem with building the aircraft in the first place – not only did Lockheed overstate its capabilities, the Pentagon listed unrealistic requirements for the aircraft.

At least the program has some salvageable element, in the F-35B. Building a different mix of platforms, including drones and existing or new A-10s is a no-brainer.  Keeping existing F-15s and F-16s in service as long as possible is also an option, as well as building new F-18s.  Exploring a sixth-generation design to later replace them all, including the F-22, should be done regardless.  Restarting the F-22 production line should absolutely be considered, as well as upgrading any newly built F-22 airframes.

No matter how the F-35 is ultimately replaced, the DoD needs to learn from its mistakes, and be prepared to be more flexible in replacing the aircraft.  Certainly it makes more sense to buy a limited run of aircraft and test their capabilities in the field, before committing to purchasing 2500+ copies.

At least Lockheed can look on the bright side – even if the F-35 is cancelled, they did manufacture the F-22, and would do so again if the aircraft were brought back into production.  However, if Trump is negotiating the purchase, Lockheed can expect him to hold the failure of the F-35 over their heads when he negotiates the price tag.

In less than a month, Trump will be President, and he won’t be just tweeting about the F-35 – he’ll be prepared to address the program and its possible replacements.  If Trump is truly the deal-maker he claims to be, he should have no problem getting a better deal than the F-35.  Whether that ends up saving money in the long run and/or leads to a lower and more flexible DoD budget is very much up for debate. 

No matter what happens, the market will be watching and reacting, as Trump’s tweets and Lockheed’s share price moves have demonstrated.

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