- Lucas Jackson/Reuters
WASHINGTON – America’s priciest weapons system – the F-35 – is continuing its march to full combat capability, but the US isn’t the only major power working toward a fifth-generation fighter.
“While there are countries that are building their version of a fifth-generation fighter, they are years and years behind the capabilities of the F-35,” US Air Force Brig. Gen. Scott Pleus, director of the F-35 integration office, told Business Insider.
Pleus, a former commander of the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke Air Force Base and a command pilot with just north of 2,200 flight hours, said the F-35 “is leaps and bounds ahead of anything else in the world today.”
In August 2016, US Air Force Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, commander of Air Combat Command, declared initial operational capability (IOC) for a squadron of F-35A’s – a significant breakthrough for the weapons program, which has been beset by design flaws, cost overruns, and technical challenges.
Since IOC, the Air Force has trained more than 120 pilots in 100 F-35As, accruing a combined total of 75,000 hours of flight time.
“It’s important to realize that the F-35 program is flying combat capable today and that our adversaries are trying to produce the same technology that we have but we are in front of them, for the time being,” Pleus explained.
“So while, Russia and China have both rolled out a prototype of their fifth-generation fighter they have a long way to go until they’ve got 75,000 flying hours on that airframe and more than 100 airplanes in their inventory.”
During the Air Force Association’s annual conference in September, Pleus sat on a panel alongside Carlisle, F-35A Joint Strike Fighter Program executive officer Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, and 388th Fighter Wing commander Col. David Lyons.
During his remarks, Pleus, who has flown both the F-16 and F-35, described the latter as “absolutely head and shoulders above our legacy fleet of fighters currently fielded.”
“This is an absolutely formidable airplane, and one our adversaries should fear,” he continued.
In order to maintain a “tactical advantage over our adversaries,” Pleus said the US must continue to modernize the F-35, F-22, and fourth-generation fighters.
“You can’t just build an F-35 or an F-22 or whatever the next generation of fighter is and say, ‘we’re good.’ It constantly has to be updated because the threat, the folks that want to do us harm, will constantly upgrade their airplanes and their anti-airplane weapons on a day to day basis,” Pleus explained.