According to Lockheed’s dedicated F-35 website, the fighter plane was designed to “defeat today’s most advanced threat systems both in the air and on the ground,” and would provide “unprecedented capability.” Does it? The F-35 has faced intense scrutiny during its development and testing. The plane’s detractors say it is a massively expensive failure. Even the Pentagon has admitted to encountering major flaws with the F-35 in development and planning. However, many technical or tactical critiques fail to address the more important underlying issue: how does the F-35 tie into broader U.S. military strategy?
Technological improvements are useful only if they’re properly integrated into American strategy. The F-35 is supposed to increase the Pentagon’s capabilities. However, it appears that while the Air Force has been developing the F-35, its pilots have been losing some of the skills directly tied to its strategic mission.
During a panel at the Intelligence & National Security Summit, Major-General Linda Urrutia-Varhall admitted that the Air Force has become “rusty” in contested airspace. Pilots “know counterterrorism like the back of their hand. They do that well,” she said. “A2/AD? Not so much. We found that out when we went up against the competition in Syria.”
A2/AD, or anti-access/anti-denial capabilities, are designed to prevent planes from entering an airspace or, if entry occurs, to limit their freedom of movement and action. Urrutia-Varhall went on to say that 80 percent of Air Force personnel signed on after September 11, 2001 and have not needed to use counter-anti-access/area denial skills. The Major-General said that the Air Force was going to have to “re-teach some of this stuff on target … it’s not as easy.”
The F-35 was designed to be useful against advanced air defenses, but its radar-evading and -jamming technology may already have been compromised. Concerns over the F-35’s technical ability to penetrate contested air space are made more worrying given the revelation that Air Force pilots lack experience with counter-AS/AD maneuvering. What’s the advantage of a manned stealthy strike fighter if pilots are not ready to make the most of it? If the Air Force has had trouble operating in Syria, as Urrutia-Varhall admits, what problems might it encounter in contested Chinese air space?
Urrutia-Varhall’s confession highlights the disconnect between defense acquisitions and strategic planning. The Pentagon’s ability, or inability, to make accurate strategic predictions has been pointed out before. Richard Danzig, a directer for the Center for a New American Security, has explained how the accelerating pace of technological change have increased the DOD’s chances of making bad predictions. He argues that defense acquisitions must factor in the likelihood that strategies will need to shift during the lifetime of a program. In light of the Air Force’s new revelation, that need to plan for the unexpected is more pressing than ever.