18 June. Paris. You’ve got to hand it to the Americans. They know how to put on a show...and at just the right time to impress wavering Europeans. This weekend the F-35 Lightning II will grace the skies over the Paris Air Show. Named after two iconic aircraft – an American twin-engined World War Two fighter-bomber and a British Cold War interceptor – this plane could well be the last manned fighter and equip allied air forces for much of this century. That is if Pentagon assumptions are to believed, which are normally about as accurate as predictions by the manager of the England soccer team. Is this the triumph of hope of experience?
The amounts involved are truly staggering. The US is investing around $1 trillion (£0.62 trillion/€0.70 trillion) over what is claimed will be a fifty-year in-service life, having cost some $379 billion (£234 billion/€265 billion) to design and build. There will be some 2,443 aircraft built, mainly of the conventional F-35A and the navalised F-35C variants, which will also arm the air forces and navies of the Anglo-sphere Australia, Britain and Canada and others, such as Denmark, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark. I will not even bother discussing the short and vertical rip-off F-35B, with half the range and half the payload of the conventional version. If there is one thing Britain's 2010 Strategic Pretence and Impecunity Review got right it was to cancel the F-35B and replace it with the F-35C.
This issue of how long the plane will remain in service (and indeed when it will eventually come into service) is critical, especially as the programme started back in 1996. In 2001 the Pentagon suggested that the in-service life of the Lightning II would be thirty years. In 2006 that date mysteriously rolled back to fifty years. Being a Yorkshire cynic I am tempted to suggest that the fifty year in life service now claimed for the Lightning II is simply to reduce the perception of cost in Congress and amongst European governments by spreading said cost over a longer timeframe. There is certainly some evidence for this. At the very least the many travails of the programme have helped to make the benighted Eurofighter Typhoon look a little more respectable. You may recall the Typhoon was designed as an air defence fighter to protect Britain and other Europeans against Soviet air incursions. Now, miraculously, it sings, dances and fries eggs, and all at the same time.
But is the Lightning II the right aircraft? Probably yes. The real issue is of course the balance to be struck between cost, performance and change. The many challenges we in the West face range from state hyper-competition to the use of fragile and failed states as bases for catastrophic terrorist attack, and all of the above fueled by rampant developments in and the spreading of weapons technologies. Therefore, having looked at several programmes, and given how much has thus far been invested, it seems to me to be the only real option for Western air forces and navies over the medium term. There is risk. Technology is indeed advancing at a staggering pace and multi-role fighter-bombers are a bit like your PC – all shiny and new when bought, but soon become a little jaded compared with the new systems on the block (or should that be bloc?) a year or so later. But then again there is no way around the opportunity cost problem.
Would I recommend Europaans doing Lightning II again? No. Or, let me put it another way, yes. But, only if the US is far more willing to share critical technologies with paying allies and/or if Europe’s own defence industry fails to move past the men in sheds with hammers state in which it seems perpetually locked. The lesson from Lightning II is that European defence industries need to get over their obsession with meaningless sovereignty and local employment and become far better organised and much more efficient. That means a European Defence Agency worthy of the name with far more synergies between said national industries.
Only then will Europe stop designing aircraft for the Stone Age, deploying them in the Information Age but in so few numbers that cost becomes wildly disproportionate to performance. Without a radical reform of Europe’s defence and technological industrial base (DTIB) that is indeed the future as technology and defence inflation drive up the cost of military equipment. Indeed, without radical reform European defence industries will continue to be little more than sub-contractors for American giants.
Berlin, London...and Paris take note. Lightning always strikes twice.