Royal Air Force (RAF) Vice-Marshal Simon Rochelle has warned that NATO countries should not pin all their hopes on the F-35 in a potential future conflict, despite it being the top of the line jet at the Royal United Service Institute's Combat Air Survivability conference on 27 March, according to Business Insider. He pointed out that by 2030, 80% of NATO members' air forces would still consist of fourth-generation jets without stealth capabilities and would thus remain vulnerable to advanced enemy air defences, such as Russia's S-400s.
"If we think we're going to wait for the next generation to sort the problems out, I can categorically tell you we will fail when next major conflict occurs", he said.
Rochelle specifically stressed that the threat posed by Russian air defences is constantly growing. He noted that such systems can already spot stealth jets like the F-35 and shoot them down while costing a fraction of the F-35's price.
While referring to Russia's S-400, Rochelle said, "They are formidable beasts. Those systems are so complex and so capable that a price point for those systems of defence is far cheaper than the long running programs we have in the aircraft to development".
At the same time, the top RAF officer came up with several ideas as to how NATO states could improve the situation, at least partially. He suggested looking into the possibility of sharing the F-35's capabilities with legacy jets. For instance, he spoke about the possibility of data exchange between different generations of aircraft, whereby advanced F-35 intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance information could be fed to older models.
"We have F-35s and Typhoons, and I have to use those symbiotically. I can't afford poor interoperability", he said.
The F-35 development programme, called the Joint Strike Fighter, was organised by the US, but included efforts of the UK, Turkey, Italy, Canada, Australia, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands. The total cost of development and acquisition of the jet reached $406.5 billion, with another $1.1 trillion planned for the operation and maintenance of the planes. While deliveries of the aircraft were postponed several times, last year Lockheed Martin started shipping the first F-35s with price tags starting from $89.2 million each.