At the end of January 2020 Poland became the latest export customer for the F-35 stealth fighter. Poland ordered 32 F-35A land-based versions for $4.6 billion, with the possibility of later increasing that to 48. The current order comes to $144 million per aircraft but the deal includes training of pilots and ground personnel as well as maintenance equipment, tech support and logistical infrastructure. Delivery will begin in 2024 and continue until 2030 with 4-6 aircraft arriving each year. The first six Polish F-35As will be based in the United States for several years for use in training the first 24 Polish pilots and 90 maintainers. The first Polish F-35A squadron should be combat-ready by 2026. Poland originally wanted 64 F-35s but budget constraints cut that number in half.
The Polish air force currently has 28 MiG-29s, 32 Su-22 fighter-bombers and 48 F-16s. Poland will spend over $200 million to upgrade several bases F-35As will operate from. These are bases that the Russian built MiG-29s and Su-22s currently use, but these aircraft will be retired as the F-35As arrive. The Russian aircraft are old and Poland had to decide if they would be replaced by more F-16s or a more modern aircraft like the F-35A. This led to some history-minded Poles noting that by obtaining F-35s it would be the first time in history that Poland had more advanced combat aircraft than Germany.
Most European nations are buying locally made jets, mainly the Eurofighter, Rafale or Gripen. None of these are stealthy and are more comparable to late model F-16s, F-15s and F-18s. Britain bought F-35Bs for its navy but still used Eurofighters for the Royal Air Force. Currently, Britain, Norway, Belgium, Denmark, Italy and Netherlands are F-35 customers. Turkey was one customer that was recently banned from receiving F-35s because of security concerns, like buying Russian air defense systems and similar hostile behavior for a NATO member. Greece, Romania and Spain are considering the F-35.
Elsewhere Canada, Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Australia are all buying F-35s. Several of those countries are, like the United States and Britain, buying F-35Bs to operate from carriers. In the case of Japan and South Korea, the carriers are actually amphibious ships or slightly larger Japanese “destroyer helicopter carriers.”
New or prospective customers for the F-35 are attracted by the enthusiasm of those who have flown the F-35. There are only about a 500 F-35 pilots (and about ten times as many maintainers who keep h F-35s ready to fly) now but that number is rapidly increasing and they all confirm that the F-35 is not just a modern stealth aircraft but incorporates software and a degree of built-in automation that produces a spectacular, easy to use and very effective pilot experience. The F-35 has a large number of sensors (receivers for electronic signals, six cameras and a very capable radar) and the fusion of all that data and presentation to the pilot based on the current situation is impressive and makes the F-35 much easier to fly, despite all the additional capabilities it has. This sort of thing is not a new idea. By the 1990s it was recognized that this new technology (called data fusion) would be a key capability for combat aircraft as well as ships and ground forces. Put simply, it's all about taking real-time vidcam, radar and sensor data plus other information about the battlefield situation (all sorts of databases and reports), and combining it to provide commanders with a better understanding of current operations, preferably in real-time if you are a fighter pilot. Pilots agree that the heart of the F-35 superior capabilities is its software along with the digital communications with other aircraft and troops on the ground.
The F-35 is apparently the best working example of this so far and what is learned from the F-35 software has become the basis for updated software for older aircraft. But beyond the data fusion, and automatic sharing with other aircraft or systems on the ground, the pilots were impressed about how effective the “pilot assistant” software was. This is another concept that has been around for decades and more frequently installed in new aircraft. These minor advances get reported but never make headlines. But given the F-35s' stealth, maneuverability and sensor/data fusion, most pilots quickly become enthusiastic proponents of the aircraft.
The F-35 software is more complex and omnipresent throughout the aircraft than in any previous warplane. Because of that, it requires a major effort to implement and test any software changes. So some major upgrades are needed in how F-35 software changes are made and how quickly. In wartime this would be essential as otherwise vulnerable aircraft would be grounded when needed most.
As of early 2020 over 500 F-35s have been delivered, mostly to the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps. In 2018 alone 133 were delivered and that is expected to rise to 141 in 2020 with additional slight increases in annual deliveries until 2023. By the end of 2020 about 650 F-35s will be in service. Over 4,000 F-35s are expected to be delivered by the mid-2030s with more than 70 percent going to the United States.
The 31 ton F-35 is armed with an internal 25mm cannon and, before the SDB (GPS guided Small Diameter Bomb) arrived, four internal air-to-air missiles (or two missiles and two smart bombs) plus four external smart bombs and two missiles. A new bomb rack allows the F-35 to carry eight SDBs internally. All sensors are carried internally and max weapon load is 6.8 tons. The aircraft is very stealthy when just carrying internal weapons.
Currently, there are orders for nearly 3,000 F-35s. Most of these (1,700) are F-35As for the U.S. Air Force and 500 to foreign customers. Most of the 540 vertical takeoff F-35Bs on order are for the U.S. Marine Corps and all of the 340 F-35Cs (aircraft carrier version) are for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. The F-35B costs about $135 million each and the F-35C about $120 million. This is more than the $90 million F-35A partly because many more F-35As are being built and carrier versions have to be “ruggedized” to handle the harsh treatment received when it makes a carrier landing. The air force would call such an event a “hard landing” and pull the aircraft out of service for a thorough checkup for damage. The F-35C is built to regularly survive those hard landings, as well as constant exposure to corrosive salt water. The F-35B makes gentler landings and can take off like a helicopter thanks to the special engine exhaust system that puts the propulsive jet exhaust under the aircraft. Prices on F-35s are declining as production increases with the F-35A getting as low as $80 million each in a few years.
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, sales are increasing. Or maybe not, 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 was supposed to enter service in 2018 but that didn’t happen until January 2020. That has no impact on foreign sales because few, if any, were ever expected for the F-35C.