Top Gun founder: F-35 fighter program could jeopardize US air superiority

WASHINGTON, (BM) – In recent months, despite more than 600 units delivered, the 5th generation F-35 fighter, developed by Lockheed-Martin, has raised doubts when it does not lend itself to severe criticism.

Thus, in February, the Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, General Charles Q. Brown, suggested that a decline in the number of aircraft ordered was in the pipeline, in favor of an acceleration of the NGAD [Next Generation Air Dominance] program. According to him, NGAD’s demonstrator has already flown, and the launch of the new generation 4.5 fighter-bomber, which would replace the F-16, is coming soon.

Earlier, ex-Air Force Procurement and Technology Secretary Will Roper estimated that “the high lifecycle costs of the F-35 mean the US Air Force cannot afford to buy as many planes as she needs to fight and win a war today.”

A position shared by the chairman of the Armed Services Committee in the House of Representatives, Democrat Adam Smith, who expressed it more abruptly. “What does the F-35 bring us? Is there a way to reduce our losses? Is there a way not to keep spending so much money on such a low capacity? Because the support costs are enormous,” he said last March.

Stemming from the Joint Strike Fighter [JSF] program, which dates back to 1992/1993, the F-35 is still not fully operational with US forces. According to a Pentagon report, it still has some 800 flaws, including a dozen deemed critical. As for development costs, they continue to increase: the development of the Block 4 version, which will give this aircraft all the capabilities for which it is designing, will cost an additional $ 1.9 billion to reach 14.4 billion. More recently, the development of the ODIN maintenance and logistics system to replace the non-functioning ALIS was “put on hold” after soaring costs.

In any case, Captain (N) Dan Pedersen made the harshest criticisms, who was one of the creators of the US Navy Fighter Weapons School, i.e., Top Gun. This US Navy school is the same institution popularized by the Tony Scott movie. Suffice to say that he is a “size” in terms of air combat.

Top Gun founder: F-35 fighter program could jeopardize US air superiority
Photo credit: HistoryNet

In 2019, for Top Gun’s fifty years, Dan Pedersen recounted the genesis of this US Navy school in Miramar in a book that was the recent publication in France [“TOP GUN – The Real Story”]. Full of unpublished anecdotes, this book was greeted by Admiral James Stavridis, who was the supreme allied commander of the allied forces in Europe [SACEUR] between 2009 and 2013. Does that mean that it lends its support to the eyes? Without concession that its author carries on the F-35?

Because, in the last chapter of his book, and drawing on his experience in American naval aviation, Dan Pedersen “descends” the concept of the F-35 as he would have done with a North Vietnamese MiG-21. First of all, he does not hide that he has a grudge against Dick Cheney, head of the Pentagon between 1989 and 1993, for having decided to stop production of the F-14 Tomcat from finding credits to finance the program. A-12 Avenger II stealth bomber [which never saw the light of day and whose affair inspired novelist Stephen Coonts, also a former pilot, for his book “The Minotaur”].

“When the Pentagon’s ax fell, we sadly watched the new and the expensive sweep away the affordable and reliable,” writes Dan Pedersen. The stealth of fighter jets was the priority then, hence the A-12 Avenger II program.

“We were selling our souls for stealth. The Pentagon mentality was that if we didn’t find a solution to the stealth issue, the US Air Force would be home to the strike missions. I kept saying that somewhere in some dark basement in Eastern Europe, a group of people wearing glasses as thick as Coke bottles studied how to overcome stealth. The plane had a bunch of problems. Giving up on this project saved the Navy itself,” said Lonny McClung, a former commander of Topgun, quoted by Dan Pedersen.

For him, “the move towards advanced technology has set us back in many ways.” And to insist, to speak of “the Pentagon’s fascination with stealth”: “We have forgotten the lessons we had dearly learned in the 1960s. We bow down to the altar of high technology and are on the verge of selling our soul. Stealth is like a zombie, a very expensive zombie. It comes back to life to haunt us.”

And so it came back with the F-35, which ignores the lessons that the Pentagon should have learned with the F-111, “the flying Edsel of Robert McNamara [Secretary of Defense between 1961 and 1968, editor’s note] who was supposed to serve both the US Air Force and the Navy.” Same concept as the JSF program … but with three versions [plus the so-called STOVL for the US Marine Corps].

Highlighting the very high costs of the F-35 program, Dan Pedersen believes that “companies that work for defense have succeeded in ensuring their profit margins with their ‘replaceable elements’ such as today they name spare parts. In the end, over the life of the program, the details will cost more than the device itself.” Much like inkjet printers that are inexpensive to buy but have expensive cartridges.

“The F-35 is so expensive that we may end up with a fleet of magnificent, brand new nuclear-powered aircraft carriers but with partially empty flight decks,” fears Dan Pedersen. He questions the performance of the Lockheed-Martin plane. “Pilots who lost faith in the F-35 have dubbed it the ‘penguin’ because “it flies the same way.”

Still, for the co-founder of Topgun, the problem lies in Washington. And more particularly in Congress. “The juicy F-35 subcontracts strategically extend to virtually every constituency in the United States. With so many House of Representatives members having an interest in the program, it is sure to enjoy broad political support regardless of its actual capacity or cost.”

Either way, for Dan Pedersen, the F-35 program can jeopardize US air superiority. Lockheed-Martin’s speech presents this aircraft “as a transformational early warning device. But he doesn’t say anything about what it is to win an aerial fight. Perhaps that’s where the shoe pinches, as pilots with a lot of experience flying the ‘penguin’ say it’s not a fighter. Furthermore, given its cost of operation, pilots “don’t come close to putting in the flying hours they need to become good,” he writes. “In recent years, Super Hornet pilots have flown only ten to twelve hours per month between deployments, just enough to learn how to fly the aircraft properly,” he continues.

Shooting red balls at the F-35 is one thing. But what does Dan Pedersen offer instead? “Give me a few hundred planes like the F-5N, with a reliable gun, a computer-assisted aiming system, four Sidewinder, electronic countermeasures, and pilots carrying out 40 or 50 flying hours a month, and we’ll beat any air force that ruins their country by investing in fifth-generation stealth ‘penguins,'” he says.

According to him, “the basic truth of aerial combat remains the same: it is not the plane that wins the fight, but the man who is in command” and “flying is a skill that the pilot must nurture.”

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