With its radar-absorbing mesh skin, the F-35 can slip through the most sophisticated air defenses at close to twice the speed of sound and drop a smart bomb into an Al Qaeda bunker without registering on a single radar screen. Zooming back to base at 1,200 mph, the Lightning can fire off up to four air-to-air missiles before the poor enemy pilots know they’re in a dogfight. Different versions of the stealth jet can land on aircraft carriers or vertically on a raggedy runway in the middle of nowhere and jam the electronics of any enemy aircraft or missile system known to exist.
“It’s a quantum leap,” U.S. Air Force pilot Major Matt Johnston says. “The F-35 can accomplish missions impossible for any other aircraft.”
Currently based at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, where he flies one of the roughly five dozen production-model F-35s in existence, Johnston will soon relocate to Luke Air Force Base to train a new generation of F-35 pilots. Along with Johnston and the F-35s could come an estimated $17 million annually in tax revenue, as much as $110 million in federal money toward expanding Luke’s facilities, about 2,300 construction jobs, and about 1,000 full-time jobs, according to a military environmental impact statement.
“It was a great day for Luke,” James “Rusty” Mitchell, director of the base’s Community Initiatives Team and a veteran F-16 pilot, says of the date last summer when Luke won the stiff competition to host the jets. “We’re the envy of the Air Force when it comes to community support.”
In recent years, Luke has experienced a slow decline in employment as the Air Force has reduced its fleet of F-16s, the single-engine fighter jet that for 30 years has formed the spine of the nation’s air defenses. The arrival of the F-35 training program around the end of 2013 will ensure the long-term future of the West Valley base, which injects between $1 billion and $2 billion annually into the local economy.
But the most expensive fighter jet in history has attracted its share of controversy: Some West Valley residents are concerned about increased noise from the F-35s, military officials worldwide have balked at their exorbitant cost, and governments have questioned whether their stealth technology is a strategic necessity or overpriced overkill.
Stretched over 1,500 acres in the West Valley, Luke Air Force Base is home to 7,500 service members, plus 15,000 family members. Since its inception in 1940, Luke has trained more than 50,000 pilots, including 900 who flew the bulk of the Air Force combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. About 80,000 retired military personnel who served at Luke have settled in the Phoenix area. It is the largest fighter wing in the U.S. Air Force, Glendale’s largest public employer, and a source of local pride.
For years, the F-16 has been the base’s bread and butter. With 138 F-16s, Luke at its peak turned out about 400 pilots and 700 mechanics annually. Thanks in part to the expertise of the generations of Luke-trained mechanics, the F-16 fleet has flown some 6 million hours and earned an impressive reliability record: The USAF has lost only four F-16s in combat, and an F-16 has never lost a dogfight.
For decades, Luke’s six-month trial by fire for F-16 pilots has produced almost all the Air Force fighter pilots in the country, plus trained allied countries’ pilots. Johnston, one of the top pilots on the planet, spent years training F-16 pilots at Luke and is one of only eight USAF pilots currently qualified to teach recruits how to fly the F-35 Lightning. Johnston excels in the intense, pressure-cooker process of turning green pilots into fighter jocks able to drop a smart bomb in the back of a pickup truck at night or duel with a fighter jet in a 9-G death spiral in a cockpit blinking with alarms and weapons systems. The trainee pilots spiral through the skies, simulating every possible disaster and malfunction, “stacking the bricks” of skills and stress until they can calmly do four things at once in a cockpit filled with smoke. They learn special breathing techniques and wear pressurized suits that automatically inflate so they don’t pass out during turns so tight that G-forces make a 180-pound pilot weigh the equivalent of 1,600 pounds.
But despite the F-16’s success, the existing fleet has already flown more than five years beyond its designed life span, making the planes vulnerable to structural cracks. So far, upgrades, retrofits and expert maintenance have kept the fleet in the air. The Air Force has set aside a number of “Block 50” version F-16s at a Fort Worth, Texas facility, where engineers subject the aging airframes to all manner of structural torture to find out how far they can push the F-16s without endangering pilots. The Air Force hopes to keep the F-16 fleet in the air for another decade, gradually replacing them with the stealth-equipped F-35.
The United States has labored to perfect stealth technology for decades, starting in 1986 with the B-1 bomber, designed to penetrate Soviet air defenses. A series of expensive and glitch-bedeviled stealth jets followed, culminating in the military-wide Joint Strike Fighter effort to design a jet-of-all-trades that could replace the Air Force’s F-16, A-10 and F-15, plus the Navy’s F-18 and the Harrier Jump Jet used by the Marines. The competition for one of the biggest airplane-building contracts in history pitted Lockheed Martin against Boeing, with Lockheed Martin winning the do-or-die contract to build the F-35s in 1996.
Tests suggest the F-35 should prove eight times as effective as the F-16 in air-to-air combat and three times as effective in taking out anti-aircraft defenses – the two essential steps in establishing air supremacy. The F-35 includes a bewilderment of weapons systems, including radar-homing air-to-air missiles, heat-seeking sidewinders, and MBDA Meteor missiles, which can go after targets far beyond visual range and cope with radar-jamming defensive systems while locked onto a turning jet. The F-35 can launch a missile that can zero in on a ground target 60 miles away using satellite signals, radar and infrared sensors. Many of its warheads can split apart at the last second to hit multiple targets. The jet’s Long Range Anti-Ship Missile can cruise for 500 miles and foil ships’ electronic and anti-missile defenses. The F-35 can even deliver nuclear bombs and missiles, including the B61 – a bomb with 23 times the power of the weapon that destroyed Hiroshima.
The 35-foot-long, 50,000-pound jet can zoom into the middle of heavily defended air space and blast apart a command center without lighting up enemy targeting screens. It can jam enemy radars and protect its own sensors from the most sophisticated electronic attack. Like something out of Star Wars, the F-35 features a high-tech cockpit that would make a video game designer swoon. “The cockpit has about a thousand fewer buttons than a commercial jetliner,” Johnston says. “The pilot interface provides a seamless presentation of reality and minimizes the amount of busywork, so you can focus on the mission accomplishment piece.” The helmet and display screen let the pilot peer through the bottom of the plane, study the view from his wingman’s jet 50 miles away, change weapons systems, aim them by looking at the target and blow up objects with pinpoint accuracy in pitch dark.
The Navy has a model of the F-35 that can land on aircraft carriers. The Marines have ordered a Lightning that can land and take off almost vertically on a superheated jet of air that, during test flights, melted concrete runways. (They since developed a heat-resistant landing pad they can set up quickly.) A Marine Corps base in Yuma won the bid to serve as the training base for that model of F-35.
As a result of the effort to engineer the Swiss Army knife of jets, the F-35 suffered repeated delays and cost overruns. A single F-35 will likely cost 10 to 15 times more than each of the planes it replaces. Depending on the model, and how you factor in research and development costs, the F-35 costs between $154 and $300 million. By contrast, a new F-16 costs about $20 million.
The cost for the first 2,500 jets on order for the U.S. Air Force, Marines and Navy has risen to $400 billion, with the possible cancellation of orders likely to only increase the per-plane cost. The total cost of operating the fleet of F-35s for the next 50 years will likely total $1.5 trillion. The spiraling costs have forced delays, bitter conflicts between the Pentagon and F-35 maker Lockheed Martin, plus order cutbacks by the U.S. military and NATO allies. Nations that have ordered F-35s include Britain, Australia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey – with Japan and Israel waiting in the wings. Pilots from all those countries will likely train at Luke, as they do now for the F-16. Other nations were supposed to buy a total of more than 3,000 jets initially, but some have started trimming their orders as the per-plane price has risen.
The jet has proved so expensive some critics say an enemy might overwhelm a fleet of F-35s through sheer numbers of much cheaper planes. Other detractors worry enemies will simply invest in overhauling existing radar and infrared detection systems to make it easier to detect the F-35. Perhaps even more important, rapid advances in radio- and satellite-controlled, unmanned drone aircraft could make manned fighter jets outmoded long before the F-35 lives out its useful life. Critics note that a drone or a smart missile launched from a drone can pull 50 Gs in a turn, making it difficult for any manned fighter jet to outmaneuver a drone in a dogfight.
“Is this the last manned fighter?” Luke Air Force Base’s “Rusty” Mitchell asks of the F-35. “Who knows? It’s not inconceivable.”
Defenders of the F-35 say that if Russia or China developed their own stealth jets and bombers, they could sweep American “legacy” jets out of the sky, and the United States and its allies would remain at a disadvantage for years as they scrambled to catch up. Moreover, dramatic improvements in missile technology will make it increasingly difficult for a non-stealth fighter to survive in a modern war. The ability of the F-35 to cope with the most sophisticated anti-air defenses also makes it possible to carry out missions like potentially destroying Iran’s nuclear facilities or an enemy’s command and control centers and anti-aircraft defenses. Advocates also hope the F-35 will ensure the U.S. remains the primary supplier of aircraft for key allies, forestalling the rise of competitors.
For pilots like Johnston, none of that matters as much as the ability of the world’s most advanced fighter jet to drop bombs, shoot down enemies, and get the pilot home alive. “Quantity has a quality all its own,” Johnston says. “Vast numbers are always an effective strategy. That’s why you see that the Air Force game plan is to have thousands of F-35s.”
The decision to award Luke the F-35 training mission represented a major triumph, not only for the base, but for the Valley and the state, whose elected representatives lobbied for the project through the long, suspenseful decision-making process. The Air Force kicked off the process in 2009 by undertaking a full-fledged Environmental Impact Statement. After narrowing the selection down to Luke, Boise Air Guard Station in Idaho, Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, and Tucson Air National Guard Station, consultants prepared a 1,000-page report comparing the five bases, starting in January of 2010.
Some 1,800 officials and members of the public signed in for 23 scoping meetings to outline concerns – most notably, noise concerns. For years, officials and residents in towns such as El Mirage have complained that the massive base has hemmed in development, and the roar of daily flyovers not only disturbs the peace and rattles windows but could reduce property values. Initial estimates a few years ago suggested the F-35 could prove two to four times as loud as an F-16. But the environmental impact report concluded the F-35s won’t make much more noise than the F-16s.
“If the F-16s here now bother you, then the F-35 will probably bother you. But we honestly don’t get many complaints about noise,” says Mitchell, who has spent years smoothing out tensions between Luke and the community and assisting local and state elected officials in crafting changes in laws to protect military bases from encroachments by housing developments. Such encroachments can create safety problems in the event of crashes, which have remained mercifully infrequent. The state has passed several laws to protect the area around Luke from such encroachments, including the creation of an overlay zone where buyers sign a statement saying they understand they’re near a flight path. The base has also worked to protect zones of undeveloped agricultural land and open space along which the jets can fly to the Goldwater Range.
Judging by various public meetings and soundboards, Valley residents largely support Luke Air Force base and the F-35 program, with some comparing the sound of the jets to “the sound of freedom.” It’s also the sound of prosperity, considering the jets could usher in thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue and federal funds toward expanding Luke’s facilities.
In the end, Luke won the competition based largely on the massive investment the Air Force had already made in the base, and on the ability to utilize the Barry M. Goldwater Range, a 2-million-acre bombing range along the Mexican border. West Valley community support, bolstered by the cocoon of legal protections for base operations, also played a decisive role, according to the analysis.
Unfortunately, though Luke landed the F-35 pilot training mission, the Air Force will train F-35 mechanics at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Luke had hoped to train the F-35 mechanics, as it now trains the F-16 mechanics, but the Air Force and other branches of the military have a time-honored history of spreading contracts around to maximize congressional support for Pentagon programs.
No one knows how long Luke will train F-16 pilots and F-35 pilots side by side. Current Air Force plans envision buying 80 F-35s per year until the fleet tops 2,000 – at which point the Air Force will no longer need F-16s. However, the Government Accountability Office has raised questions about whether the Air Force can meet that schedule, given the delays and cost overruns in the F-35 program, which could force an extension of the F-16’s lifespan.
Meanwhile, Luke has started drawing up plans for improvements, including building a set of flight simulators so F-35 pilots can train in a model of the cockpit before taking the plane aloft. But most of the construction awaits the establishment of a final timetable. Unfortunately, there’s a worrisome caveat: If Congress drives the budget over the fiscal cliff, deep automatic military spending cuts could cause the F-35 program to nosedive.
But if all goes as Luke officials plan, the F-35s could arrive by the end of this year, and the roar of jets soaring through West Valley skies will be the sound of a stealthy and state-of-the-art future.
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