Mixed messages on F-35 undermine our allies
In claiming “America is back,” President Biden recommitted to the NATO alliance and encouraged Europe’s “strong investment in the military capabilities that enable our shared defense.” However, recent second-guessing of America’s commitment to the F-35 program by members of the president’s own party undermines these words and erodes the trust of our allies.
Strengthening our relationship with our allies comes at a critical time. China and Russia’s aggression is growing by the day, and misguided policy by the Biden administration, like that toward the Iran nuclear deal, has jeopardized our relationship with allies like Israel. Without trust among our allies, it’s more difficult to work together to deter our shared adversaries.
It seems critics of the F-35 have forgotten — or deliberately ignored — the historical context of how this aircraft came to be. Years ago, America made a commitment with our allies that together, we would develop and build a 5th generation aircraft that would be available to both the U.S. and its allies. In addition to unrivaled 5th generation capabilities, a key aspect of international participation in the F-35 program was cost-sharing, which today has resulted in significantly lower costs compared to other aircraft.
Critics cannot ignore that the F-35 has been popular with America’s allies and friends. Our Pacific allies, Australia, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea are building their air forces around the F-35. Israel, a notable airpower, has praised the aircraft. Our European allies, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, and the United Kingdom, have all signed up for the F-35 and are in various stages of delivery or deploying the aircraft. Even more nations, like Finland, are considering it.
Our allies invested in the F-35 because they relied on American assurances that we would adopt it in numbers that mattered. Unfortunately, this is not the only Pentagon program of concern to our friends targeted by skeptics.
With our support, the United Kingdom has maintained a purely sea-based nuclear deterrent consisting of nuclear-powered, ballistic missile submarines. Initiated with the Polaris Sales Agreement, the U.K. procured U.S.’ Trident missiles to be paired with their nuclear warheads and fitted to their submarines. To hedge against aging systems, the U.K., in parallel with U.S. efforts on the W93 warhead, is developing a new warhead to be housed on a delivery system shared between our two nations. However, despite the vitality to the U.K.’s role in NATO’s deterrence, the program has been challenged with Democrat-proposed budget cuts. Such positions only serve to harm U.S. credibility when seeking international partners for the purposes of our shared defense.
Intended to replace 4th generation fighters designed in the 1970s, the Joint Strike Fighter was built to serve as a powerful deterrent to aggression from adversaries by being more lethal and survivable in any future conflict.
What’s lost on critics is when the United States and its allies use the same platform, they achieve an unprecedented level of interoperability, creating dilemmas for our adversaries. In the case of 5th generation fighters, we’d have an allied air force of F-35s more powerful and capable than the sum of its parts — a goal we’ve been steadily building toward, with more jets built, more squadrons declared mission-ready and more allies having achieved operational capability.
The F-35 is modern and capable now and will be for decades — a stark contrast with so many of our current weapons platforms, which are often aging legacy programs. Conversely, we do ourselves no favors by holding out for programs still in their infancy, typically with ever-moving timelines from development to readiness.
Providing greater validation for the program, Pilots love the F-35, and it’s no wonder why — the aircraft provides unprecedented situational awareness and stealth, ensuring survivability and mission success. In fact, the only nations who don’t want the U.S. and our allies to have the F-35 are China and Russia.
Early program challenges are being addressed, and now the cost of an F-35 is lower than 4th generation aircraft while readiness rates increase. The Joint Strike Fighter is more than the “cornerstone” of the fleet, as Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown recently remarked. It’s also a world-class force multiplier, connecting America to our allies and making our alliances that much more powerful.
We must stop with these harmful mixed messages and be clear that America is staying the course with the F-35. To do otherwise is to weaken our allies’ resolve toward this program and place our military and those alongside us at a disadvantage in tomorrow’s fight.
Mike Turner serves as ranking member of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces and co-chair of the Joint Strike Fighter Caucus (F-35 Caucus).
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