F-35 Lightning II Adds Romania & Poland
Two more European countries have announced their intention to operate the F-35: Poland and Romania. Both countries are NATO allies who perceive increasing threats from Russia and seek to modernize their air forces with new technology suitable for interoperability with other F-35 operating nations.
The F-35 Lightning II is an advanced fifth-generation multirole fighter aircraft. The stealthy supersonic jet is intended to perform a variety of missions, from air superiority and strike, to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. The F-35 is also a global program, with nine partner nations and six foreign military sales customers who have already procured or plan to procure the aircraft.
Poland signed a deal worth about $4.6 billion in January 2020 to acquire 32 F-35A fighters, along with a training and logistics package. The first deliveries are expected to begin in 2024. Poland will become the first country in Central and Eastern Europe to operate the F-35A, the conventional takeoff and landing variant of the jet.
Romania approved a plan to acquire F-35A fighters in April 2023, following a decision by its Supreme Council on National Defense. The number and value of the jets to be purchased were not disclosed, but Romania is expected to replace its aging fleet of F-16s and MiG-21s with the F-35A. Romania will become the third country in the region, after Poland and the Czech Republic, to operate the fifth-generation aircraft.
The F-35A is not the only variant of the jet available to customers. The F-35B is the short takeoff and vertical landing variant, which can operate from austere bases and amphibious ships. The F-35C is the carrier variant, which has larger wings and more robust landing gear for the stress and rigors of aircraft carrier operations. The United States operates all three variants, while the United Kingdom and Italy operate both the F-35A and F-35B. Other countries that operate or have ordered the F-35A include Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Israel, Japan, Norway, South Korea and Turkey. Other countries that operate or have ordered the F-35B include Singapore and Switzerland.
The F-35 program has faced some challenges over its development and production, especially regarding its engine, the Pratt & Whitney F135. The engine has suffered from reliability issues, cost overruns and delays in delivering spare parts. A planned replacement for the engine, the General Electric/Rolls-Royce F136, was cancelled by the U.S. government in 2011 due to budget constraints. The current plan is to upgrade the F135 with new technologies and capabilities under a program called Growth Option 2.0, which aims to improve performance, fuel efficiency and maintainability.
The F-35 program began in 1996 as a joint effort between Lockheed Martin and several other contractors to develop a stealthy fighter that could replace various legacy aircraft in the U.S. and allied inventories. The program involved a competitive bidding process between two teams: Lockheed Martin/Boeing/Northrop Grumman and Boeing/McDonnell Douglas (X-32). Lockheed Martin won the contract in 2001 with its X-35 design, which later became the F-35. The first flight of an F-35 took place in 2006, and the first operational unit was declared ready in 2015.
According to reporting by Rachel S. Cohen in Air Force Times, a 2022 short-notice deployment of US Air Force F-35As revealed both the strengths and weaknesses of the current configuration of the aircraft, along with the need to finesse ideas around what is sent with the aircraft in terms of spares and personnel. Citing 388th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Craig Andrle, the article points out that upgrades coming with the Technology Refresh 3 and Block 4 are required to unlock the full range of weapons loadouts needed for the battlespace facing F-35 operators.
The cost per aircraft of the F-35 varies depending on the variant, quantity and contract terms. According to Lockheed Martin, the average unit cost for an F-35A in Lot 15 was $77.9 million, for an F-35B was $101.3 million and for an F-35C was $94.4 million. The expected useful lifetime of an F-35 is 8,000 flight hours, which can be extended to 10,000 hours with modifications.