Special Video Report Above: Inside Building the F-35 - Where Stealth Begins
Sun Tzu’s famous concept that “mass matters” in warfare, coupled with paradigm changing next-generation technologies, seem to inform the spirit and message of an interesting bipartisan letter about the F-35 just sent from Congress to the Biden Administration.
F-35 Congressional Support
The letter, signed by 89 members of Congress, calls for a larger F-35 investment in the upcoming 2023 budget submission sufficient to reach the addition of as many as 100 new F-35s per year.
Citing the technological superiority of the airplane, the global threat environment, allied cooperation and impact upon the U.S. economy,
The bipartisan letter, led Rep. Mark Veasey, (R.-Texas) , refers to the kinds of stealth aircraft and advanced weapons adversaries of the United States are fast-tracking to production.
Su-57s, J-20s and J-31s
Part of the equation is simply numbers with respect to the size and scope of the threat, a circumstance which arguably generates a need for greater numbers of F-35s. Russia is working quickly to increase its number of Su-57 fighters and China is not only producing more J-20s but fast-tracking new variants of its 5th-Generation J-31.
As of 2021, China has only built 150 J-20 stealth fighters, whereas the U.S. Air Force already has more than 280 F-35As and plans to acquire 1,763. This is the Air Force alone, meaning the number does not include the growing number of F-35Bs traveling on amphibious assault vehicles with the Marine Corps or the now arriving carrier-launched F-35C Navy aircraft. Overall, current force plans call for 353 F-35Bs and 67 F-35Cs for the Corps, and 273 F-35Cs for the Navy.
There is now a call to go above these planned numbers of F-35s, according to the Congressional proponents for the aircraft, who cite the growing age of a U.S. Air Force and Navy fighter fleet mostly emerging from the 1980s era.
The advocates for more F-35 funding also cite the continued impact of the F-35 upon the U.S. economy and industrial base.
“Across our country more than 1,800 suppliers contribute to the F-35, with one in every two of those companies being a small and/or disadvantaged business. The F-35 supports more than 254,000 high-tech, high-paying American jobs annually with thousands of those workers who are skilled union members,” the letter states.
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Switzerland, Japan, Israel and South Korea are among the group of nations who have in recent years joined the international community of F-35 nations, something which provided some of the inspirational basis upon which the 89-members of Congressional Republicans and Democrats sent a letter to President Biden asking for more F-35 funding in 2023.
“Now is the time to make the investments in America and uphold our commitments to our allies to buy a minimum of 100 F-35s for our U.S. services per year, invest in the advanced capabilities to stay ahead of the threats, and fund the sustainment profile necessary to support these aircraft for decades to come,” the letter, sponsored by Rep. Marc Veasey (R-Texas), states.
The Congressional call for more U.S. production and acquisition of the F-35 rests upon a host of variables to include concern over Russian and Chinese threats, continued support for massive numbers of U.S. jobs and small-business contributions and the overall “age” of Air Force and Navy fighters.
F-35 & Allies
Alongside these factors, there is another compelling reason why members of Congress are teaming up to call for higher levels of F-35 funding in 2023, and that is the growing international community of F-35 allied nations. The number of countries now quickly adding F-35s is growing at an alarming rate in terms of planned fleet size and arriving aircraft.
Overall, at least 13 countries operate or plan to operate F-35s. South Korea operates sixteen F-35s so far and Denmark and Norway are receiving and operating their F-35s. Many other countries are at various stages of acquiring healthy numbers of the jet to include Switzerland, Japan, Israel, Poland, Australia, Italy, The Netherlands, Belgium, Singapore, and the United Kingdom. Japan, for instance, plans to acquire roughly 200 F-35s to include a mix of F-35As and F-35Bs and the UK already owns 21 F-35s with plans to acquire more.
International collaboration and F-35-driven allied cooperation continues to bring tactical and strategic advantages for the U.S., something Veasey also emphasized in his letter. Vesay mentions the well known event this past summer wherein the British HMS Queen Elizabeth sailed into the South China Sea armed with both British and American F-35Bs.
“The HMS Queen Elizabeth is sending a strong message to China that we still have the most modern capabilities in the world, and that we will work together to deter aggression and keep the Indo-Pacific region free and open. The F-35 is the lynchpin, bringing together fourteen allied and partner nations, providing unmatched interoperability and enabling regional deterrence and diplomacy,” he wrote.
Of course simply increasing the number of different kinds of fighter jets and airplanes for U.S. allied nations strengthens NATO and America’s global security posture overall, yet there are specific ways in which growing F-35 partnerships can bring unprecedented value.
F-35s & MADL
All F-35s across the growing consortium of F-35 nations are all engineered with something called MADL, for Multifunction Advanced Data link. This is a secure and highly specialized datalink unique to F-35s, meaning multiple countries operating the aircraft can quickly network voice, video data and other time-sensitive intelligence information to one another during ongoing warfare. In many cases the protocols, frequencies or technical standards used by fighter aircraft and drones from different countries are constricted by narrowly configured technical standards unable to interoperate with allied platforms. The F-35 was built with a specific mind to address and resolve this challenge, something which allows allied forces to expand the operational envelope and disperse F-35 formations across wider areas while retaining secure networking.
For instance, should a conflict unfold in the Pacific, having U.S. Japanese, South Korean and Australian F-35s all integrated and able to coordinate with one another will certainly change the paradigm in terms of any kind of attack strategy or unfolding war scenario. Amphibs armed with F-35Bs could, for example, support a Japanese amphibious assault on mainland China by extending an attack formation through MADL networking between each countries’ F-35s
There are even many gateway technologies now in development, such as Northrop Grumman’s Freedom 550, which convert frequency signals to enable F-35 interoperability with F-22s without compromising stealth. There is also two-way connectivity with LINK 16 between F-35s and F-22s, and other transport layer mechanisms through which the F-35 can network with 4th-generation fighters or even bombers, drones or ground vehicles.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. 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 Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.