One of the most talked about weapons development program ever has been F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, christened Lightning II. A joint multi-national, development program aimed at developing the most advanced 5th generation manned, multi-role combat aircraft, it has attracted both critics and admirers in equal measures. Critics question its utility in the present scenario where the enemy is primarily indulging in irregular warfare operating in small cells from within their target territory. Its admirers on the other hand, quite rightly bring attention to the absolute bleeding edge of technology being used to develop the aircraft, many of which are being developed even as they are being used for the first time. The mind boggling level of precision being followed and the magnitude of co-ordination and co-operation between the different participating entities evokes a sense of awe and admiration among technocrats which can mildly and quite ineffectively be described as orgasmic.
The Joint Strike Fighter [JSF] program is a multi-national development program that aims to develop a multi-role combat aircraft that fulfills the requirements of the participating countries for defending their territorial and strategic interests. The program aims to achieve two seemingly contradictory objectives – to develop the most advanced combat aircraft and also being the most cost-effective aircraft in its class [5th generation aircrafts]. The fulfillment of the second objective is of paramount importance in face of the gradual reduction of the percentage of budgetary allowance being allotted to defense by respective countries. The program is an outcome of collaborative efforts of nine partner countries lead by the United States of America. The other seven countries include – United Kingdom, Netherlands, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Turkey, Australia and Norway. Besides these countries other countries who have evinced interest in acquiring these aircrafts include Israel, Singapore and Japan. The scale of operation of this program is quite simply staggering – 11 partner countries, 1000 suppliers located in 30 countries, 130 development sites situated in 17 time zones where approximately 7000 Engineers and Designers are collaborating to develop the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The Joint Strike Fighter program was initiated by the United States [US] in the early 90s to replace its present fleet of combat aircrafts and last well beyond 2050, into 2060s. As part of the program, two companies – Lockheed Martin and Boeing, were given the go ahead to build a working prototype of the aircraft that would fulfill its requirements. Lockheed Martin teamed up with the British Aerospace Engineering [BAE] company and Northrop Grumman while Boeing acquired McDonnell Douglas to design and build their prototypes. Both the designs were based on engines supplied by the Pratt & Whitney company. Finally in October 2001, after evaluating and testing both the designs, it was decided to award the contract of the JSF to the Lockheed Martin headed team. The aircraft, which till then was referred to as X-35 ['X' for experimental aircraft], was re-christened as the F-35 Lightning II.
As part of the contract, Lockheed Martin is expected to supply in excess of 4500 aircrafts, each of which, according to various estimates, would cost around $35-50 million USD depending upon the variant of aircraft considered.
The program seeks to develop a single aircraft platform having different functional variants. Three variants of the F-35 have been designed :-
It is the conventional takeoff and landing variant of the aircraft. It will comprise the maximum number of F-35 aircrafts to be build.
Aircraft to replace
It has been designed to take over duties from aircrafts like the F-16 and A-10 Thunderbolt II currently being operated by the U.S Air Force.
It is the Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing [STOVL] variant of the aircraft to be built specifically for the U.S and U.K Marine forces.
Aircraft to replace
The STOVL variant is expected to replace the only other operational STOVL combat aircraft – the AV8B Harrier and the conventional take-off F/A 18 Hornet being operated by the Marine forces of US and UK.
The Naval variant of the aircraft is designed to takeoff and land from aircraft carriers of the partner countries.
Aircraft to replace
The aircraft has been designed primarily to replace the US Navy operated F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
Even though each variant has been designed to perform distinctly different tasks, all of them display a high degree of commonality between the designs of the 3 variants – a fact which helps in keeping their production cost down by reducing inventory cost and doing away with the need to set up a dedicated assembly line for each variant. Design commonality would also help reduce the cost of training personals in handling and maintaining these aircrafts. Some estimates show that cost cutting achieved in maintaining these aircrafts would be in the range of $60 billion USD due to commonality of features.