The development, entry into service and widespread worldwide use of the United States’ controversial new stealth fighter is, by now, a foregone conclusion. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), produced by aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, has been in full-scale development for 11 years — and low-rate production for six. More than 120 of the single-engine jets have rolled out of Lockheed’s sprawling factory in Ft. Worth, Texas, and the first training and operational squadrons have stood up in the United States, with operational use slated for as early as 2015.
Military and political backing for the squat, silver-painted warplane is strong. “We need the F-35; it’s not going away,” U.S. Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, who sits a key military-funding committee, said in April. What’s less clear, however, is just how good the JSF is as a jet fighter. Flight testing has turned up a long and growing list of performance gaps, design flaws and safety concerns. Compared to older American jets, to say nothing of the latest Russian and Chinese fighter designs, the F-35 is looking worse and worse. “Can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run,” is how one independent analysis summarized the new plane’s performance.