The F-35 stealth fighter jet was supposed to be a groundbreaking aircraft that would replace a multitude of already existing fighter jets in their role and thus help rationalize supply chains and costs. However, the fifth-generation fighter jet cost has since exploded to become the most expensive weapon program in military history. The budget is now estimated to reach $1.5 trillion over the operational life of the aircraft.
The initial requirements were for the F-35 to be an economical aircraft. In 2001, the Pentagon entrusted Lockheed Martin with the development of a fifth-generation fighter jet that could serve three of its corps: the U.S. Navy, the Air Force, and the Marines. The three versions (F-35A, F-35B, and F-35C) were required to have at least 80% of parts and avionics in common, in order to limit production and maintenance costs. The allocated budget for development was $233 billion.
19 years later, the titanic program regroups 14 countries and over 1,500 worldwide suppliers, such as Northrop Grumman, Pratt & Whitney, and BAE Systems. What was supposed to be a cost-saving procurement became the most expensive fighter jet ever designed.
The F-35 development was plagued by accumulated delays and technical deficiencies. A software instability of the stealth jet radar was one of the first F-35 problems observed, but more dangerous technical issues arose throughout the years.
On October 5, 2020, the United States Air Force released a report in which it determined that some of those issues factored in the crash of an F-35A Lightning II near Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, in May 2020. The pilot was distracted by a discrepancy in the alignment of his Helmet Mounted Display. Additionally, the specific life support system of the F-35 caused excessive fatigue to the pilot who had participated in several days of exercise. “It is known amongst the F-35 flying community that the oxygen delivery system is very different than legacy oxygen delivery systems, such as the one used in the F-15E,” was stated in the USAF report.
In June 2020, the United States Air Force found out early wear of the tubes of the On Board Inerting Gas Generation System (OBIGGS), a system that replaces the oxygen contained in fuel tanks with inert gas, thus rendering kerosene vapors non-flammable. Flight restrictions on its stealth fighters were issued, preventing them from flying closer than 24 miles (40 km) from thunderstorms, as the aircraft were at risk of fuel explosion.
On September 18, 2020, the Dutch Ministry of Defense confirmed that the same issue was found on the fifth-generation fighter jets of the Koninklijke Luchtmacht (KLu), the Royal Dutch Air Force. Consequently, the four F-35As based in Leeuwarden could not participate in a NATO demonstration of interoperability, called Operation Allied Sky, in August 2020.
In addition to the flight restriction, lightning rods or protective shelters were imposed on the Dutch F-35As parked within 10 miles (18 kilometers) of a thunderstorm.
In the past, the life support system caused several cases of hypoxia. Peaks of pressure in the jet cockpit were also observed, which could cause barotrauma to the pilots (the same type of pressure damage faced by divers).
As a result of the multiple fixes and delays, the total fighter jet cost in development of the fighter jet exploded to more than $400 billion dollars. Additionally, the operating cost of the entire F-35 fleet over its expected 60-year lifetime is now forecasted to reach $1.12 trillion dollars, of which 70% would be spent on flying the aircraft.