The F-35 jet is most expensive and advanced combat aircraft in history, integrating conventional weapons systems with modern technologies in an unprecedented fashion. The plane has been touted as an example of the future of military aircraft design, with over 8.2 million lines of software as part of its composition. As a multirole aircraft able to engage surface targets and enemy airborne threats, the F-35 also had the advantage of introducing a measure of uniformity to the air forces of principle NATO members; while there are three variants each designed for conventional, VTOL and carrier-based operations, using the same design across different nations and services will reduce the plethora of different aircraft currently fielded by the West. This is especially true for the United States military, which has in service a large variety of different airframes, some of which have only one specific role and date back to the latter years of the Cold War. The F-35, therefore, is also attractive to countries with smaller defence budgets, since its multirole nature does not necessitate the purchase of fleets of task-specific aircraft.
However, while revolutionary, complex, and operationally versatile, the F-35 has been plagued with problems ever since its early production stages.
Its highly technical design has resulted in a massive price tag: the UK’s first-wave order of fourteen aircraft cost 2.5 billion pounds, but the overall project has been described as being “$163 billion over budget and seven years behind schedule”; the F-35 was originally supposed to be declared combat ready in 2012, but it has taken until this year for the first squadrons of F-35s to become operational.
Further issues were identified during combat trials, in which the plane was soundly out-performed by F-15 and F-16 aircraft, two Cold War-era planes the F-35 is set to replace. In addition, military journalist Mark Urban writes in his 2015 book The Edge: Is the military dominance of the West coming to an end? that due to its high price, the F-35 will be fielded in fewer numbers than the aircraft of previous generations, a point supported by the lower numbers at which F-35 variants have been purchased by the US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps compared to earlier designs. Urban describes how in a hypothetical war with China – which could be expected to deploy large numbers of aircraft of older design – in the Pacific and South China Sea, F-35 squadrons would still have to leave the skies in enemy hands; even if the US aircraft enjoyed a high win-loss ratio, they would run out of munitions long before they ran out of Chinese planes to dogfight with. Coupled with this is the fact that any F-35 aircraft lost would cost approximately $90 million to replace; F-15 and F-16s, meanwhile, are bought a unit cost of $15 million and $30 million respectively. Indeed, the sheer cost of the F-35 programme caused some doubt in the British Minsitry of Defence in 2018 over whether or not to proceed with the order placed by the UK for several hundred aircraft for both the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. Defence Minister Gavin Williamson proposed buying cheaper but proven aircraft from Europe in the form of Eurofighter variants.
A 2018 US Department of Defense study identified several areas in which the F-35 was failing to live up to expectations, the study being later leaked to Bloomberg News. Amongst the listed problems were issues such as the service life of each aircraft being as low as 2100 hours as opposed to the predicted 8000, but perhaps the most alarming were deficiencies in the F-35’s cyber defences.
This was also noticed by Dan Grazier from the Project on Government Oversight: “The fully integrated nature of all F-35 systems makes cybersecurity more essential than for any other aircraft. Legacy aircraft already in service are equipped with software-enabled subsystems, and while a hacker could penetrate the GPS system in a legacy system, because the subsystems are not fully integrated, a hacker could not also access the communications system, for example. The F-35 is inherently far more vulnerable.”
Meanwhile, the US General Accountability Office discovered that the Department of Defense had not protected the software used to control the F-35’s weapons systems. Given the fully integrated nature of the F-35, everything from communications systems to avionics is connected, and disrupting one system could hinder the functioning of the others. “A successful attack on one of the systems the weapon depends on can potentially limit the weapon’s effectiveness, prevent it from achieving its mission, or even cause physical damage and loss of life,” said the GAO team.
Along with Russia, China has been accused several times of hacking data pertaining to the F-35 and its predecessor, the F-22, for use in its own J-20 and J-31 strike fighter programmes. However, a shocking report by Sky News revealed this week that a Chinese-owned company has been producing circuit boards that are installed in F-35 aircraft to operate its lighting, engine, fuel and navigation systems.
The company in question, Exception PCB, is based in Gloucestershire, England, but was bought by Shenzhen Fastprint, a Chinese corporation. Exception PCB dismissed any concerns raised by several cybersecurity experts, claiming that measures are taken to protect sensitive British and American data from their Chinese owners, but this has been met with some skepticism. As Sky News reports: ‘Clark Ince, a director of Hallmark Electronics, another printed circuit board manufacturer in the UK, said firms make boards according to a design given to them by their customer…[he said that] it is also possible to embed technology such as a chip without a customer’s knowledge into a circuit board that could affect the way it functions.’ Lockheed Martin, the company overall responsible for producing the F-35, was unable to confirm that there are no other third-tier companies involved with the project that are Chinese-owned.
Bob Seely, a British Member of Parliament and reserve soldier who co-authored a paper about concerns over the Huawei company and its involvement Britain’s 5G mobile network, said: “I think it’s breath-taking. It’s not a question of ‘is this bad’? It’s a question of ‘how bad is it?’”
As military technology continues to advance, undoubtedly other weapons systems will become as integrated as the F-35; electronic systems already make up significant portions of the design of tanks, armoured vehicles, self-propelled artillery pieces, and – of course – drones. But with China’s growing economic dominance, it is highly unlikely that Exception PCB will be the only company in the long military production supply chains that has some connection to Beijing. Defence against hacking, therefore, while already prominent, will arguably become as important as supplies of ammunition, fuel and armour plating. Given that the West has already failed badly in this instance, a rapid re-evaluation of its entire military industrial complex is warranted.