In October South Korea announced it was buying 20 more F-35 stealth fighters. There are already 40 on order and South Korea will have received 13 by the end of 2019. Those 60 F-35s will cost $9.7 billion and a decision still has to be made as to whether any of the second 20 will be the VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) F-35B version. The first 40 will all be the basic F-35A which just operates from land-based airfields. But South Korea has ships that F-35Bs could operate from.
By 2018 South Korea had two 14,500 ton Dokdo class large amphibious ships. These South Korea LPHs (Landing Platform Helicopter) are similar in appearance and operation to the larger American amphibious ships. The LPH flight deck can handle helicopters, as well as vertical takeoff jets like the F-35B. The Koreans deny that the ship will be used with these jets, but the capability is there. The LPH normally carries 720 combat troops and their heavy equipment. Dokdos also carry fifteen aircraft; two V-22 vertical takeoff transports and 13 helicopters. Marado, the second Dokdo, has a redesigned flight deck that can handle two V-22s at once instead of just one. In addition to a more powerful 3-D surveillance radar for tracking aircraft, Marado has to Phalanx anti-missile system.
South Korea is also planning to build one or more 30,000 ton ships that look like the Japanese DDH (destroyer helicopter carrier) and could handle a dozen F-35Bs. Neighboring Japan has already ordered some F-35Bs so that it can experiment with some of these aircraft aboard the existing Japanese DDHs. Since 2017 Japan has had two 27,000 ton “destroyers” (DDH type ships) that look exactly like an aircraft carrier. These Izumo class ships can carry up to 28 helicopters or up to ten vertical takeoff aircraft. The carriers are armed only with two 20mm Phalanx anti-missile cannon and launchers with sixteen ESSM missiles for anti-missile defense. The DDH have powerful engines capable of destroyer-like speeds of over fifty-four kilometers an hour. Izumo has considerable cargo capacity, which is intended for moving disaster relief supplies quickly to where they are needed. Apparently, some of these cargo spaces can be converted to carry additional weapons and equipment needed to support F-35B fighter-bombers. Izumo could carry and operate at least ten F-35Bs once modifications are made to the flight deck to deal with the extremely high temperatures the F-35B generates when taking off or landing vertically (like a helicopter). When the first DDH entered service in 2015 Japan made no mention of buying F-35Bs or modifying the LPH flight decks to handle the very high temperatures. The Izumos already have an elevator (to the hanger deck under the flight deck) powerful enough to carry an F-35B fighter.
Another factor that makes operating F-35Bs from an LPH or DDH possible is the availability of smart bombs and small air-to-ground guided missiles for warplanes. A LPH or DDH was not designed to haul a lot of munitions for aircraft but, the amount of smart bombs and missiles needed to make five or ten F-35Bs effective would not be large. These ships already carry a lot of fuel for helicopters and have space for maintenance gear to support many helicopters. South Korean and Japanese naval planners noted this when they suggested using LPHs and DDHs as platforms for F-35Bs.
Japan is ordering another 99 F-35 fighters for about $15 billion. Most of these will be the F-35A model but as many as 40 will be F-35Bs that can operate from carriers. Japan already had 42 F-35As in order. Japanese and South Korean fighter pilots agree that the F-35 is an impressive combat aircraft and have been pointing out the many things the F-35 can do that current fighters cannot, as well as doing anything existing fighters do but doing it more effectively. This has been the experience of all F-35 pilots and those in training.
As more F-35s enter service their database of effective tactics and operating techniques are rapidly expanding. One thing the F-35 does extremely well is to use automated flight controls that allow the pilot to carry out maneuvers that would require a lot more experience in older aircraft but are much easier for an F-35 pilot. The more experienced pilots know a lot more useful maneuvers than new pilots but because of the adaptive F-35 flight control software, it is much easier for new pilots to master an unfamiliar maneuver. The best way to explain this is the experience of British carrier pilots who formerly flew Harrier vertical takeoff and landing aircraft and were now using the F-35B. The British pilots say difficult carrier landings that can be terrifying in a Harrier were surprisingly easy with an F-35B. As British pilots began carrying out landings on the new British carrier they were pleasantly surprised. The F-35B flight control automatically adapted to all the rapidly changing wind and carrier movement variables and allowed you to land without a lot of stress. Handling the F-35B, in general, was much easier, and safer, than the Harrier. Hovering, for example, required a lot of continuous effort and attention from a Harrier pilot. In the F-35B the pilot could fly the aircraft to a position and hover and the aircraft would remain where it was flown to without additional effort by the pilots no matter how much the weather changed.
All this ease of flying enables F-35 pilots to concentrate on something that does still require a lot of decision making by the pilot; stealth management and threat management. The stealth characteristics of the F-35 make it more difficult for radar to detect it. How the pilots fly in a combat zone can improve the effectiveness of stealth. That is done by learning to manage the flood of “threat management” data that F-35 pilots have access to. By being able to concentrate on stealth and threat management F-35 pilots achieve what has been the key element in air combat since 1914; getting in the first shot. From 1914 into the 1940s the key to success in air-to-air combat was knowing how to fly into a position where you would see the enemy first and carry out a surprise attack. The earliest of these tricks was the World War I tactics of trying to have the sun behind you to make it more difficult for the enemy to see you coming. Another tactic was trying to get higher and out of sight (for as long as possible) until you could dive on the enemy aircraft at a high speed and unexpectedly attack. In effect, “stealth” and the resulting surprise was always the key to victory. The F-35 was designed with that in mind. The radar stealth and maneuverability isn’t as good as the F-22, but the F-35 “situational awareness” is much better. Pilots who have flown the F-22 and F-35 always note that and point out that, in the hands of an experienced pilot, it makes the F-35 a more effective aircraft than the older and more expensive F-22.
The F-35 was designed to have “affordable stealth” and much more effective sensors and electronics. The F-35 stealth is much less expensive than that in the F-22 and initial Israeli combat experience over Lebanon and Syria indicates that the stealth and internal electronic countermeasures more than make up to for that. The passive sensors and “sensor fusion” software of the F-35 also appear to be working as advertised. In the cockpit, the pilot has one large (20 inch diagonal) LCD showing all needed aircraft data with more showing on the pilot's JHMDS helmet visor. That is all very well, but as with the very capable F-22, it wasn’t the performance that limited procurement but excessive cost.
What the F-35 flight management software and situational awareness demonstrate is that the usual measures of a superior fighter aircraft (speed and maneuverability) no longer matter as much. An F-35 is more likely to see the other aircraft first, fire first and be more aware of the changing battle situation than enemy pilots in, on paper, faster and more maneuverable aircraft.
Even when the F-35 is hit and damaged the flight control software senses the damage and automatically flies differently to compensate for the damage. That takes a lot of stress off the pilot who can concentrate on threat and stealth management to complete the mission and get the aircraft back to base. Another important aspect of the F-35 is that its flight control and threat management software is built to be constantly updated by pilot experience. As more pilots fly the F-35 and experiment with different techniques, its software is updated to become more capable. Those updates require more attention to post-change testing. That’s because there are so many interconnections within the flight control software. Those have to be tested to prevent unexpected results when the pilot is most vulnerable to that sort of thing.
All these positive reviews from F-35 pilots have made it more likely sales will increase. In 2001 the U.S. believed 5,100 F-35s would be sold but the rising costs and increasing delays drove that down to 3,100 by 2013 and 2,500 by 2018. Now that some F-35s are actually in service (F-35As and 35Bs) and getting good reviews from users, existing and potential customers are increasing their orders. That may not last, because there is a lot still to be discovered about how well the F-35 will do in comparison to the many F-16s, F-15s, F-18s and AV-8s it will replace. The F-35C finally entered service in early 2019 and that will not have an impact on foreign sales because few, if any, were ever expected. This version is similar to the F-35A but built to handle conventional takeoff and landing on large carriers. The U.S. Navy is the only customer.
Currently, the F-35 is, at $405 billion, one of the most expensive defense procurement projects ever. Total development cost is now put at $70 billion, which comes to nearly $30 million per aircraft if only 2,500 are built. Development costs for the new U.S. F-35 fighter-bomber have grown more than a third over the last few years as the aircraft finally entered service. The additional development costs were accompanied by additional delays.
The 31 ton F-35 is mainly defined by the land-based F-35A which is armed with an internal 25mm cannon and four internal air-to-air missiles (or two missiles and two smart bombs) plus four external smart bombs and two missiles. All sensors are carried internally and max weapon load is 6.8 tons. The aircraft is very stealthy when just carrying internal weapons. The F-35B and C do not have the internal cannon and the B model has less internal space for weapons.
Like the F-22, which had production capped at less than 200 aircraft, the capabilities, as superior as they are, may not justify the much higher costs. The F-22 fighter is stealthier than the F-35, especially from the side and rear. The F-22 is more maneuverable and has two engines instead of one in the F-35. Both are stuffed with a lot of new technology. Obviously, the F-35 tech is more recent and more powerful. For example, the stealth coatings in the F-35 are far easier (and cheaper) to maintain than those in the F-22. But time will tell (and soon) just how much cheaper the F-35 is to maintain as an operational aircraft.
Initially, it was believed that most (about 60 percent) of the F-35s built would be used by foreign nations. The rising cost of the F-35 brought with it a reluctance to buy as many aircraft as customers originally planned. The success of smart bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan has also made it clear that fewer aircraft will be needed in the future. In any event, it seemed likely that F-35s would end up costing more than $100 million each and many current and potential customers realized they could upgrade some of their F-16s and get along just fine until it was clear that the F-35 was effective and affordable. That means the F-35 has to prove it is affordable to maintain. The manufacturer has cooperated by getting the price below $100 and demonstrating how they can keep it low. Then there are the other costs. For most modern fighters operations and maintenance are 65 percent of the lifetime cost of the aircraft. Currently, the F-35A is 40 percent more expensive to maintain per flight hour than the F-16s most it will replace. The F-35 manufacturer says they can reduce that gap but potential buyers will want to see that in action first. Another deal breaker is the long time it takes to modify the F-35 software and certify non-U.S. weapons for use. This is proving to be another obstacle to foreign sales. So is the U.S. policy of allowing little foreign user access to the source code of the software. That’s a security measure and the only way around it (to help sales) is to make software changes requested by foreign users in a timely and affordable fashion.