F-35: The joint strike fighter program – Part Three

Introduction: What if the F-35 is the Right Plane, at the Right Time, for the Right Price?
Part One: Why Canada Needs An Air Force And Supersonic Fighters
Part Two: A New Generation Of Fighters
Part Three: The Joint Strike Fighter Program
Part Four: Replacing the Cf-18
Part Five: The Cost Controversy

Canadian planning for a suitable replacement for the CF-18 actually began in the mid-1990s. Of immediate interest was the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program of the US Department of Defense (DOD). The program had been launched in the early 1990s aimed at producing a relatively affordable fifth-generation strike fighter that could be procured in three highly common versions to meet the separate needs of the US Air Force (conventional take-off and landing), the Marine Corps (short take-off and vertical landing), and the Navy (carrier take-off and landing). The JSF would replace a wide range of existing US fighter, strike and ground-attack aircraft including two versions of the F-18 used by the Marine Corps and the Navy.

In addition, the JSF was intended to be a joint venture with allied countries. This would help to defray US development and production costs, while permitting participating allies an affordable way to acquire a fifth-generation strike fighter, technical knowledge in new areas such as stealth, and industrial opportunities for their firms. Little wonder allies such as Canada were interested.

In 1995, the UK invested US$200 million in the Concept Demonstration phase of the Joint Strike Fighter Program; and in 1997 Canada followed suit with an initial investment of US$10 million. In 2002, Canada contributed a further US$150 million to the System Development and Demonstration phase. In December 2006, once the JSF program commenced its third phase (production, sustainment and follow-on development), Canada committed a further $US550 million. To date, then, Canada has committed US$710 million to developing what became known as the F-35.

Common opinion to the contrary, the selection of the Joint Strike Fighter was very much the product of a competition and involved the three major US manufacturers of high performance aircraft: Boeing, Lockheed Martin (which teamed with Northrop Grumman and British Aerospace), and McDonnell Douglas. In the words of the US Congressional Research Service, it was a competition that was “closely watched”. “Given the size of the JSF program and the expectation that the JSF might be the last fighter program that the DOD would initiate for many years, DOD’s decision on the JSF program was expected to shape the future of both U.S. tactical aviation and the U.S. tactical aircraft industrial base.”

McDonnell Douglas was eliminated in the initial airframe design phase of the competition reportedly because of the complexity of its proposed design. Boeing and Lockheed Martin were then awarded contracts and funding in November 1996 to build and test-fly two aircraft each to demonstrate their competing concepts for the three planned JSF variants: conventional take-off and landing (CTOL), short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL), and carrier-variant (CV). Test flights of Boeing’s X-32 and Lockheed Martin’s X-35 prototypes took place in 2000 and 2001.

X-32 and X-35

Boeing X-32 (left) and Lockheed Martin X-35 (Photo: AERIAA)

In October 2001, the Department of Defense selected Lockheed Martin’s X-35 as the winner of the Concept Demonstration phase. DOD announced that both competitors had met or exceeded the performance objectives established for the aircraft, but “on the basis of strengths, weaknesses and degrees of risk” the Lockheed Martin team was “the clear winner … on a best-value basis”. Pratt and Whitney, builder of the engines for the F-22, was selected to build the engines for the F-35.

The first flights of the initial versions of the F-35A (CTOL) and F-35B (STOVL) took place in 2007 and 2008, and the F-35C (CV) first flew in 2010. Initial operational capability (IOC) for each was variously scheduled for 2012, 2013 and 2015. The dates have since shifted to the right by three to four years, with the estimate for the F-35A (Air Force version) now the second half of 2016. For the F-35A, IOC has been defined as the first operational squadron equipped with 12-24 planes and airmen trained for the aircraft’s basic functions in a contested environment.

Today, there are eight foreign partners in the JSF program: Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, and Turkey. Four more countries, Israel, Japan, Republic of Korea and Singapore, while not partners, have announced an intention to purchase the JSF. Current commitments for non-US purchases total 674, not including the 65 under consideration by Canada, 30 by Denmark, and 12 by Singapore. Some US officials have speculated that foreign sales might eventually surpass 2,000, possibly even 3,000.

Sources: Congressional Research Service (29 April 2014); Reuters (5 June 2014)

  • Air Force
  • Marine Corps
  • Navy

US total


  • 1,763 (F-35A)
  • 340 (F-35B) 80 (F-35C)
  • 260 (F-35C)


AUSTRALIA 100 (14 ordered, 58 announced)
BRITAIN 138 (48 ordered)
CANADA Decision deferred on purchase of 65
DENMARK Decision deferred on purchase of 30
ISRAEL 75 (19 ordered)
ITALY 90 (down from 131)
NORWAY 52 (16 authorized)
NETHERLANDS 37 (down from 85, might order more later)
SINGAPORE Decision deferred on purchase of 12
SOUTH KOREA 40, option for another 20
TURKEY 100 (two ordered)
International total 674 (with Canada/Denmark/Singapore 781)


To date, 100 aircraft have been produced and delivered and are being flown by US and foreign pilots at US test sites, training facilities, and operational bases. An early production model has already logged 1,000 flight hours, and more than 15,000 sorties have been flown across all variants of the aircraft. Britain has received three F-35Bs (its fleet will fly off the new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers) and the Australian Air Force is due to receive its first F-35A in 2018.


F-35As lined up at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Note the national flags along the fuselage of the first plane. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

Continue to: Part Four: Replacing the Cf-18

Paul H. Chapin

Paul Chapin is Executive Editor of The Vimy Report. During a 30-year career in the Canadian foreign service, he served in Tel Aviv, Moscow, at NATO, and in Washington where he was head of the political section. He can be reached at pchapin@rogers.com.

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