When it comes to the F-35, numbers count

Because it is a large international program with a large price tag, the first to be dragged through the door by critics is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.  For example, some respected analysts suggest cutting the program in half, from 2,450 F-35s for the U.S. to about 1,200 F-35s.  Others propose ending the F-35 program entirely.
 
This is scary and wrong.  Deep cuts to F-35 will leave the U.S. (and allies) ill-prepared for future contingencies.
 
“Whether you are competing against a single airplane or competing against a system on the ground, [the F-35] allows us to operate in places we could not before and complete the mission we’ve been assigned,” says General Mark Welsh, who should know.  He flew combat missions in Operation Desert Storm and is now Chief of Staff of the Air Force.  Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, says of the F-35: “we need its stealth, we need the advanced electronic warfare sensors, the weapons and perhaps more importantly, the command and control capability that this aircraft brings.”
 

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They’re right.  Yet chatter about deep cuts to the F-35 continues even as the program has stabilized and production costs are coming down.  It’s alarming because it suggests Pentagon leaders still have not fully connected with taxpayers and lawmakers as to why and how the F-35 is vital to national security.
 
Picture this.  You are flying combat air patrol near the South China Sea in the 2020s.  Suddenly your GPS goes out.  Your favorite datalink to other aircraft and ships floods with confusing signals.  Your cockpit radar is a grey blur.  The air operations center drops offline in a cyber attack.
 
You are experiencing a first-wave information attack, probably by China.
 
A RAND report warned China’s military is on track to be far more sophisticated than the Soviet Union ever was.  Chinese military doctrine promotes a broad information warfare assault that could yank away traditional American advantages.  Cyberspace attacks are part of that, but expect megawatt power jamming, fried satellite communications and disruption of sensors, networks and command and control also.  China’s information warfare strategy aims to blind and confuse, stripping U.S. forces of the tremendous information advantage they’ve enjoyed for so long.
 
Only the F-35 can deal with all of this.
 
F-16s and F-18s and all the other 1970s-design fighters are marvelous aircraft, but they don’t bring enough advantages to cope with the problems from here on out.  Back to you, in the future cockpit.  What you need is the F-35’s mix of electronic warfare capability, sensors in the infrared, protected communications and in-flight data links  that can’t be hijacked, and other tools to comb through the haze that adversaries will throw at you.
 
The F-35 has them, plus room to grow.  Down the road it might even host laser weapons.  That’s why it is a top priority and should not be cut.
 
And yes, numbers matter.
 
China today has over 1,300 fighters capable of carrying advanced weapons.  The total aircraft inventory is much higher.  A one-for-one match won’t hack it.  The U.S. and allies need a superior ratio in the Pacific, probably more like three-to-one.  Then consider air defenses, like the long-range surface-to-air missiles that can be deployed by Chinese naval ships ranging the Pacific.  The fact is that U.S. forces must prepare to operate in a hostile, contested environment whether in the Pacific or elsewhere.
 
Add to that other commitments around the world; stability in the Middle East.  partnership in Europe, homeland defense.  Aircraft are also set aside for training, testing, and a reserve for the inevitable crashes and accidents.  Long-term, the number of F-35s needed probably is about 2,450.
 
What’s clear right now is the F-35 is not a short-term fix for deficit reduction or the  sequester impasse.  As most experts know, even deep cuts over 20 years won’t save much upfront.  But what is equally clear is that if the U.S hopes to prevail on the battlefield of the not-too-distant future, the F-35 should be fully funded.
 
Grant is president of IRIS Independent Research, a public-policy research organization in Washington, D.C. She is the author of numerous articles on defense and national security strategy and an aerospace consultant. She is not a consultant on the F-35.