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F-35 Declared Ready for Battle
The first two American F-35A Lightning II fighter jets land in Leeuwarden, The Netherlands, on May 23, 2016. (Photo: EVERT-JAN DANIELS/AFP/Getty Images)

F-35 Declared Ready for Battle

Walter Russell Mead

After a long period of bad news, the F-35 seems to have turned a corner. DefenseNews notes an important milestone:

The US Air Force on Tuesday declared its first squadron of F-35As ready for battle, 15 years after Lockheed Martin won the contract to make the plane.

The milestone means that the service can now send its first operational F-35 formation — the 34th Fighter Squadron located at Hill Air Force Base, Utah — into combat operations anywhere in the world. The service, which plans to buy 1,763 F-35As, is the single-largest customer of the joint strike fighter program, which also includes the US Marine Corps, US Navy and a host of governments worldwide.

It’s too soon to tell what the final verdict will be, but it is worth noting that in an era of increasingly complex weaponry, most weapons programs will have a news profile like this one has had: initial enthusiasm, followed by an endless and painful drip-drip-drip of bad news: cost overruns, leaks by disgruntled services and/or groups who lost out in the design and development wars, smarter-than-thou sniping by self-described experts in the peanut gallery, more cost overruns, software issues, snark by anti-military intellectuals and journalists—and on and on and on. The doomsday chorus swells and gains credibility.

None of that means the new system is bad—or good for that matter. But the long period of design, the political compromises required by the nature of the system, the inter-service rivalries, the fiendishly high cost that cutting edge tech imposes, the irrational interplay of military procurement regulations and the vagaries of the congressional budget process, the mind-numbing complexity of both the hardware and software aspects of a next-generation weapons system, the desire of bright thirty-somethings to make a name for themselves—all these will combine to create an atmosphere of controversy and failure around anything new.

That has been the F-35’s fate now for many years, creating a conventional wisdom that the fighter is a white elephant. Maybe so, but it is hard not to be impressed by the flow of better news as the plane moves closer to readiness.

More hangs on the program’s success than anybody expected back when geopolitical challenges from revisionist powers seemed as over as history. But in these darker days, the arrival of a new generation of fighter jets that solidified allied air control would be welcome news. And, converesely, the failure of a weapons program that has been at the heart of American military planning would be destabilizing and troubling indeed.

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