f-35 joint strike fighter jet


Workers assemble the fuselage of a F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at a Lockheed Martin plant in Fort Worth, Texas.

A senior US air force officer says Britain's new stealth jet may be no better than existing aircraft.

Britain's long-delayed $117 million stealth fighter may need to be cancelled because of its poor performance, according to analysis by a senior US Air Force officer.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter being built for British and US forces is based on outdated ideas of air warfare, it is claimed. The aircraft could be unable to evade enemy radar and be too expensive for long campaigns.

The critique in the US Air Force’s own journal concludes that the new fighter may even have “substantially less performance” than some existing aircraft.

Britain is preparing to buy at least 48 of the Lockheed Martin aircraft to replace its scrapped Harrier jump jets; the US military is expected to order more than 2,400.

The $395 billion programme is the most expensive weapons system in history at a time when defence budgets on both sides of the Atlantic are being cut.

The analysis in the Air and Space Power Journal states: “Even if funding were unlimited, reasons might still exist for terminating the F-35.

“Specifically, its performance has not met initial requirements, its payload is low, its range is short, and espionage efforts by the People’s Republic of China may have compromised the aircraft long in advance of its introduction.”

Advances in Russian and Chinese radar defences mean it is not clear that the stealth technology will still work, the analysis warns, adding: “The F-35 might well be the first modern fighter to have substantially less performance than its predecessors.”

The author, Col Michael Pietrucha, suggests the F-35 programme should be put on hold and the US Air Force should instead look at a mix of fighters for the future.

If America pulled out of the programme, Britain would have to follow, analysts said.

Col Pietrucha told The Sunday Telegraph: “All fighter programmes have developed problems. This one is particularly troubling, not necessarily because the aircraft is inherently bad, but because … they are being bought before they have been proven. They have not been tested outside a computer simulation.”

Britain originally said it would buy 138 of the fighters, but has now committed itself to only 48 of the jump jet variant, spread between the RAF and Navy. The first are due to enter service in 2018.

Edward Hunt, a senior aerospace analyst at IHS Jane’s, said the F-35’s performance was the subject of widespread debate in military aviation circles.

“It’s very difficult to peel back what’s being said because lots of people have an axe to grind,” he said.

“The whole F-35 programme hinges on US orders, so any significant cuts … would have significant knock-on effects for partner nations.”

Elizabeth Quintana, senior research fellow for air power at the Royal United Services Institute, said there was a debate to be had about whether it was wise to rely exclusively on a fleet of high-end stealth fighters when a mix of high-end and cheaper, light attack or remotely piloted aircraft could give more options for a range of future battlefields.

The Ministry of Defence defended the F-35 as the “most advanced combat jet in the world”, “designed to be updated … so it can benefit from new technology to counter emerging threats”.