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Related File Video Above: F-35s to Europe

By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

Conceptual work and flight demos for the Joint Strike Fighter F-35X prototype go all the way back to 2000, and the stealth multi-role jet took flight for production more than 15-years ago in 2006, a set of circumstances which raises an interesting and provocative question. 

Could the F-35 fly for close to 100 years? A century aircraft? This might seem quite beyond the realm, however the matter certainly merits a closer look for a variety of key reasons. 

F-35s Could Fly for 100 Years

Is it possible for the aircraft to remain relevant, effective against threats and potentially even “superior” well into the 2080s and beyond? If not the best stealth fighter aircraft in existence in the year 2090, perhaps the F-35 could still remain extremely impactful, relevant and competitive until 2100?

There are some interesting reference points for this, as both the 1950s and 1960s-era B-52 bomber and CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopter have each been upgraded so much such that they could potentially operate for 100 years. 

Today’s B-52s are nearly an entirely different plane than those which first emerged decades ago, absent a basic external configuration or airframe consistency. The same can be said for the Chinook.

B-52

Boeing, B-52

What about a stealth fighter such as the F-35A? Certainly new innovations in the realm of stealth properties and aerodynamically derived superior fighter-jet configurations, yet much of the changes will likely pertain to software, mission systems, sensors, engine thrust, thermal signature management, weapons and radar absorbent stealth coating materials. 

Essentially, the basic structure of the airframe itself can remain intact, yet the performance specs and technological properties of the aircraft will continuously change to the point of becoming entirely different.

The nature of technological advance is such that paradigm-changing improvements to the F-35 could make the aircraft almost entirely new and different from today’s F-35. How? Even longer-range, higher-fidelity sensors, networked, course correcting precision munitions, RF, datalink and cyber network hardening, new propulsion, heat management and quitting technologies, smart skins with built-in mission systems, greater levels of autonomy and advanced weapons guidance technology. 

Taken individually, each one of these enhancements could themselves help architect an entirely new F-35, without necessarily making large adjustments to the airframe itself. Given this, envision the possible performance impact of there being major innovations and performance-altering enhancements in all of these at one time? 

Wouldn’t that create an F-35 quite different if not transformational when compared with earlier models? This is the conceptual foundation upon which many regard the F-35 as the world’s best multi-role fighter, given that its margin of superiority likely resides in its computing, software, weapons and long-range ISR capacity more than airframe configurations.

F-35 Continuous Capability Development and Delivery (C2D2)

This appears realistic, in part because F-35 engineers, weapons developers and creators intended to build in this possibility at its inception years ago. Roughly 10 years ago, the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Program Office briefed Congress on a Continuous Capability Development and Delivery process.  

F-35

F-35 Luke AFB

The effort, called C2D2 at the time, was intended to build upon, extend and leverage the common technical infrastructure Lockheed engineers built into the aircraft at its inception. 

The concept involves the use of “common standards,” computing, IP protocol and upgradeable software designed to enable the aircraft to quickly integrate and accommodate new technologies as they emerge, without necessarily needing to make hardware changes.

F-35 Block IV Software and Sensor Fusion

This maturation, which primarily relies upon the development and integration of new software “drops” or increments, has already been underway for many years. This is the reason, for example, that with Block IV software, the F-35 will soon fire an entirely new class of weapons such as the long-range, all weather, course correcting Stormbreaker bomb. 

New weapons, avionics performance and mission systems have emerged in recent years with every new software drop. Moving forward, the upgrade process is intended to be more continuous and quick, meaning incremental drops or software improvements will not need to spread apart by many years but rather continually implemented when possible.

Perhaps most of all, the F-35’s well-known “sensor fusion” process, wherein otherwise disparate pools of incoming sensor data, targeting information and navigational specifics are aggregated, analyzed and presented to pilots on a single, integrated screen. 

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Related File Video Above: F-35 maker Lockheed Martin has been engineering F-35s to carry more weapons.

This process, Air Force scientists have explained, represents early iterations of AI. The F-35 is already regarded as a “flying computer,” and its superiority may largely reside in its advantages with computing, sensing and data processing

Therefore, there is certainly an argument that, in addition to the current Pentagon plan to fly the jet into the 2070s, it may be possible to actually fly the F-35 for close to 100 years.

The potential longevity of the aircraft could also be supported by a continued logistics chain, something which will grow in reach and functionality as more countries become F-35 customers. 

F-35 Poland & Finland

The current Russian threat to Ukraine leaves little question as to why Poland is moving quickly to stand up its own fleet of F-35 aircraft, stealth fighters with the reach and combat radius to not only defend the Polish border but also support skies over Ukraine and even reach parts of Russia itself if needed.

F-35 Poland

F-35 Poland LOA Signing Ceremony

Poland shares a large border with Ukraine so it makes sense that the country would want to shore up deterrence efforts and protections for its own borders in the event Ukraine falls under Russian control. 

To the North, Poland borders the Baltic states and could even form a kind of F-35 “net” or “web” with Finland now that it has chosen the F-35 as well.

Certainly Poland, Finland, and other European F-35 countries present a formidable deterrent to any kind of Russian incursion, given that Russia would likely have difficulty securing the skies in support of any kind of large ground assault. 

Given this circumstance, it seems entirely possible that a strong, visible F-35 presence in Poland could offer itself as a sole factor sufficient to deter a potential Russian invasion of the Baltics or Ukraine

This is particularly true when considering the likelihood of Finnish-Polish F-35 collaboration which, simply put, could by itself potentially thwart, stop, destroy or at least prevent a large-scale Russian military invasion.

Su-57 Russia 

Poland also likely seeks the F-35 for defensive purposes as well, given that its borders are within striking distance of 5th-generation, stealthy Russian Su-57s and medium-range ballistic missiles. 

Depending upon the range and resolution of the targeting sensors built into the Russian Su-57, Polish F-35s might be positioned to see and destroy approaching Russian aircraft before they are detected themselves. That is the intent of the F-35 to a large degree, meaning the aircraft has been built and upgraded to leverage a computing, sensing and targeting advantage over potential adversaries such that it can destroy large numbers of enemy fighters with a single aircraft. 

Su-57

Su-57 Stealth Fighter

Poland’s existing fleet of Soviet-era Russian-built fighters could very easily be overwhelmed and destroyed by Russian 5th-generation aircraft, a scenario leaving their country extremely vulnerable to a possible Russian invasion. Should the Baltics fall to Russian control quickly, something which many regard as potentially realistic in the event of Russian attack, Poland would be the next likely destination for advancing Russian ground forces. 

Without the F-35, Poland would be in jeopardy of being overrun quickly by a Russian land attack, unless NATO were able to mass a large enough ground force with which to repel a Russian advance. However, even if Russia did operate with numerical overmatch on the ground, having decisive air superiority can more than compensate for a smaller, less capable ground force.

The weeks leading up to Switzerland and Finland’s decision to acquire the F-35 were filled with speculation, conjecture and even strategic thinking about NATO’s deterrence posture, yet the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Program Office and Lockheed Martin were entirely silent.

This is because, regardless of what deliberations and discussions may be going on related to potential F-35 customers, the Pentagon is often deliberately silent on the topic.

F-35 Greece

Nonetheless, the arrival pace of new F-35 countries has taken even some F-35 advocates by surprise, fueled discussion of the jet becoming the stealth fighter of the “free world,” and inspired further conjecture as to which countries might be next to choose the aircraft.

What about Greece? The country has formally sent a Letter of Request to the Pentagon to buy 18-to-24 F-35s. For several years now, the question of a Greek F-35 has generated countless reports focusing on whether Greece can afford the jets or whether Lockheed has the production capacity to build them anytime soon. 

A 2020 report in Air Force Magazine raised the possibility that Greece might be willing to buy used F-35s for the purpose of getting them sooner or saving money.
Regardless of how or when all of this fully evolves, the prospect of a force of Greek F-35s raises interesting questions about NATOs deterrence posture. At first glance, recent developments such as Finland’s choice to acquire the jet might seem to lend additional relevance to the possibility of a Greek F-35. 

For instance, a networked force of Finnish, Polish and Greek F-35s could form a parabola-like defensive perimeter for Eastern Europe with which to deter Russian across the entire North-South expanse of the continent. Greek F-35s could threaten Russia from the South while Finnish and Polish F-35s could cover central and Northern Russia. A Southern, Greece-based F-35 force could also reach the Black Sea and help defend Key NATO Eastern European allies such a Romania.

 There is yet another key variable of relevance to a possible Greek F-35 which is entirely separate from any need to deter Russia. Greek F-35s would be within striking reach of the Middle East in the event that operations were needed on the Arabian Peninsula or over Iraq and Iran. With Turkey not allowed as an F-35 customer, Greek F-35s could open up a 5th-generation attack corridor into the Middle East.

Israel F-35

Israel F-35

By mere proximity alone, Greek F-35s could hold Iran at risk in a way which could offer a closer-in deterrent against Iranian aggression. Along similar strategic lines, Greek F-35s could lend allied support to Israel’s F-35 variant by lending additional 5th-generation “mass” to a deterrence or combat equation. 

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven -the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President - Center for Military Modernization