If fighter jets were mobile phones, aerospace company Lockheed Martin’s F-35 warplane would be a 4G-enabled iPhone while legacy warplanes such as the F-16, which is used by the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF), would be a mere 2G phone.
That is the extent to which an F-35 supersedes older models, said Lockheed Martin’s F-35 business development director Steve Over.
“It’s going to be the same kind of technology disruptor, except in the fighter domain space. As an engineer I can tell you, they’re going to find ways to use this weapons system – these skilled warfighters – that I can’t imagine today,” said Over, who spoke with Yahoo News Singapore at the Singapore Airshow 2018.
Two of these fighter jets – both F-35Bs – are in town for the first time, as part of the airshow’s static display, which will be open to members of the public this weekend (10-11 February).
According to media reports, the RSAF is evaluating the F-35s as an option to upgrade its current fleet.
The product of a US$400 billion (S$532 billion) weapons development programme – the most expensive in history – the F-35s are marketed as being far superior to other warplanes in areas such as stealth and communications.
While speed was imperative for fourth-generation fighters such as the F-16, Over said that this is no longer relevant for F-35 pilots, who can bank on their aircraft’s stealth capabilities as a combat advantage.
The new jets are less detectable to sensors as compared with older models. This means that pilots can approach their targets more easily, allowing them to strike first in a battle.
“Think of it like oxygen. We don’t think about oxygen, but if oxygen isn’t there, suddenly we become very concerned. So it’s like the stealth capability on the airplanes; they don’t think about it, but it enables them to do a vast number of things,” said Over.
Pilots operating F-35s also have a “god’s eye view” of the battlefield, thanks to an intricate sensor system exclusive to the jets, noted Over.
Sensors located around the aircraft’s exterior produce images, which are then stitched together and displayed on the pilot’s visor. This gives the pilot a 360-degree view of his external environment.
Another exclusive feature is the jets’ ability to communicate with one another in a precise and secure manner, said Over. In older models, plane-to-plane transmissions are more prone to interception from enemy warcraft, he noted.
“It’s a little bit like the difference between dial-up internet in the 80s and 90s, and the broadband internet that we have become very fond of now,” said Over.
Despite all the hype, the F-35s have also come under scrutiny. Detractors argue that the jets, which have been plagued by production delays, are too costly. US President Donald Trump even took to Twitter late last year to criticise the programme’s cost overruns.
However, Over maintained that the jets are still comparable in price to their competitors.
Citing a competition run by Denmark to select the most value-for-money fighter jet, he noted that the F-35 still beat its counterparts in the price category. Other aircraft that were in the running included Airbus’ Eurofighter Typhoon and Boeing’s F/A-18F Super Hornet.
“We were actually surprised that the acquisition price of the F-35, was about 50 per cent less expensive than other fourth-generation airplanes,” said Over.
An F-35 currently costs between US$94 million to around US$121 million.