The US’s stealthy new fighter plane, the F-35 Lightning II, was designed to electrify the defence world and put every US-friendly air force beyond their enemies’ reach for decades to come. While this may yet happen, the Lightning has struggled to set the aviation world ablaze, falling years behind schedule and running horribly over budget as its developers battle to get the three different variants of the complex plane to work.
Nine countries, including the US, have signed up to buy over 3,000 F-35s collectively, but with each new technical holdup and cost overrun, the partners’ commitment becomes a little flakier. To shore up support for the troubled programme, the US has been trying to drum up some enthusiasm among those allies who were canny enough not to have committed themselves back when the plane was a shiny-looking artist’s impression.
At the top of this list are Israel, Japan and Singapore – big spenders on defence who are all in the market for a next-generation fighter. Japan and Singapore have both recently commenced formal evaluations of the F-35 – a clear signal that they are interested – while Israel went even further in October and committed to buying 20.
Israel’s vote of confidence in the plane was qualified, however. Tel Aviv is spending $2.75bn (€2bn) on just 20 aircraft, which is enough to price most countries out of the market. The Israelis also just turned down a US offer of 20 more F-35s as an inducement for returning to Palestinian peace talks, suggesting that as a bargaining chip the F-35 isn’t the super-weapon the Americans had hoped.
Singapore shares Israel’s defensive outlook: it’s a small, well-off country whose traditional approach to defence has been to throw money at the problem. With a brand-new fleet of F-15s in their hangars, however, Singaporeans are debating whether the unproven F-35 might be an investment too far. “The Singaporeans are value shoppers,” says Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with the Teal Group. “They will probably go with the F-35 in the long run, but they will wait a while until they have all the cost data.” With the plane’s basic price tag now $112m and rising (up from under $62m projected in 2002), the data could make ugly reading by the time Singapore decides.
Japan has the same quandary as Singapore: it could buy a cheaper, more dependable fighter than the F-35 but it wants to retain an edge over its neighbours – especially China – and feels politically obliged to buy American. “The F-35 is the only fifth-generation fighter on the global market and it’s the only way to cement your relationship with the US military,” says Aboulafia. “It could also be the only non-Russian fighter on the market in eight or nine years. It’s simply something these countries will have to take.”
And that, in the end, will be the F-35’s secret weapon: it’s the best plane in a field of one.