Global Defense Procurement and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

  • Published

Global Defense Procurement and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter by Bert Chapman. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, 396 pp. 

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter plays an important and still developing role in the intersecting fields of aviation, defense investment, coalition dynamics, and military history. The complexity of the program—twice the economic size of the US manned lunar program of the 1960s—contributes to the importance of understanding the F-35 while it simultaneously adds to the challenge of doing so. Bert Chapman should be commended for providing an effective and informative look at the program and its US and overseas procurement. 

The book’s structure brings coherence to a complicated topic. The first chapters provide context about where the F-35 fits in a larger trajectory of aviation development and describe potential aerospace threats with which the F-35’s designers recognized their platform might need to contend. Subsequent chapters examine US experiences, dealing with Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom (UK) in turn. The author reserves two chapters for a study of various North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other friendly states and their purchase or consideration of the F-35. 

Frequently touted as a “fifth-generation fighter,” the position of the F-35 is clarified by the synopsis Chapman presents regarding the first four generations of jet fighter technology, spanning from World War II to the 1990s. Concise information about peers includes views of the army and naval air components of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that are expected to possess more than 2,500 aircraft. Chapman also includes a preponderance of highly maneuverable fourth-generation platforms, the status and posture of Russia’s air forces, and the inventories of Iran and North Korea with considerable numbers of legacy platforms in their air forces that are bolstered by ballistic missile forces. 

A key point in understanding F-35 procurement is that, on the international stage, it is, from a practical standpoint, the only fifth-generation game in town. As a joint strike platform, the F-35 originated in the belief that commonalities among Air Force, Naval, and Marine platforms would deliver important economic and logistical efficiencies. The same concept had propelled defense department advocacy of the F-111, a third-generation jet burdened by cost overruns and development complications, during the 1960s. The F-22 Raptor, also a fifth-generation fighter, is expressly excluded from export beyond the US. Aircraft like the PRC’s J-31 and possibly Russia’s Su-35 are suspected of having drawn on exfiltrated information about the F-35; thus, the countries that produce potential fifth-generation peers are the same countries whose air activities spark overseas interest in a fifth-generation platform in the first place. 

Consolidation of the aerospace industry in the 1990s narrowed the field of potential developers and contenders for contracts. The decade following the end of the Cold War witnessed the elimination, by purchase or merger, of half a dozen of the leading companies in the US market to leave Lockheed Martin and Boeing as the sole “credible combat air fighter contractors” (p. 17). Chapman makes clear that expanding the domestic industrial base would be a prerequisite for the emergence of competitor platforms and the potential cost advantages that might emanate as a result. 

That absence of competition, coupled with the degree of superiority envisioned for the F-35 relative to other platforms, explain the rising cost curve in the F-35 development. Those factors combine with ongoing security issues and with the advancing age of the fleets of aircraft such as the F-15, F-16, and F-18 used by the US and partner nations, to explain the pattern of reluctance to abandon the program in favor of an alternative. Platforms like the Eurofighter Typhoon or the improved Saab Gripen reportedly cannot match the performance of the F-35 and are only debatably eligible for consideration as alternatives. While the F-35 is not the first program to encounter cost overruns or delays, both have been substantial. The geographic and political dispersal of contracts connected to the F-35 also reportedly insulates the program from potentially dire effects of criticism and controversy in the US, Canada, the UK, and elsewhere involved in sourcing or fabrication. 

Although Australia, Canada, and the UK are notable important participants in the program and the FACO plant at Cameri, Italy helps assemble the plane, Israel and Italy became the first non-US countries to receive F-35 deliveries, in December 2016. The first Japanese assembly at FACO followed suit seven months later, and the first combat use of the plane occurred in May 2018 when an Israeli Air Force F-35 struck Hezbollah targets in Lebanon. For Japan, as for Canada and other partners and customers, mounting numbers of foreign sorties threatening national airspace points to the requirement for up-to-date fighter aircraft. Across all the countries Chapman examines, a common theme emerges, in which rising cost, developmental challenges, and delivery delays spark controversy and criticism, but the F-35 generally remains the only viable fifth-generation option. 

The double-edged sword regarding any work examining current events is that while, on the one hand, its currency underlines its relevance, the inevitable processes involved in undertaking and disseminating such a study require time in which dynamics may be altered, and landmark events may be overtaken by other events. In several places, Chapman works to gird his book against such problems, such as by commenting on how the likely alternatives of upcoming parliamentary contests in partner or client nations might shape future interest and engagement with the program. 

For readers interested in current defense procurement and students of airpower history broadly, Global Defense Procurement is a valuable and accessible resource. It is not the first study of post-Cold War military aircraft procurement to point to the value of an expanded industrial base, and it will probably not be the last. But it is a worthwhile and effective study pointing to the parallel conversations about the F-35 that take place in the US and among its allies. 

Nicholas Michael Sambaluk, PhD 

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."