Perhaps the best-kept secret of the top-secret F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is that it might be the best airplane of its kind in the world -- and that it will likely change the way America fight its wars.
Plagued by cost overruns, mechanical gremlins and fears that its high-tech sensors would overload a human pilot's ability to analyze the aerial battlefield, the $379 billion project for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps infamously became known in the Pentagon as "acquisition malpractice."
With mounting delays in getting these fighters to the fleet, the Navy is scrambling to revamp its aging Hornet strike aircraft, pushing them far beyond their anticipated service lives. To keep the Marines' Harrier II ground-attack planes, the Corps bought scrapped British jets to cannibalize for parts.
But two F-35 squadrons at the Marines' air station in Yuma, Ariz., are now classified as "operational."
The Green Knights of Fighter Squadron 121 are set to deploy to Japan in January and the Wake Avengers of Squadron 211 are slated for sea duty near the Middle East in 2018.
"There's no other plane in the world I'd rather fly into combat, no other plane in the world," said the 211 squadron's commander, Lt. Col. Chad "Mo" Vaughn.
The 41-year-old native of Virginia recently received his tenth F-35B fighter, an aircraft that can take off and land vertically on the battlefield, and will get an additional six before his squadron deploys.
In talking with Marine pilots like Vaughn, a picture of how radically the F-35 could reshape aerial warfare emerges.
The jet's vast and swift computing power, advanced battlefield sensors, stubby but stealthy profile and precision bombs and missiles allow it to survive far behind enemy lines, even above dense arrays of foes' most advanced anti-aircraft missile batteries.
Attacking like a marauding linebacker in the enemy's backfield, the F-35 also will become coach and quarterback, telling older legacy aircraft -- like the F-18 Hornets -- and new robotic drones where to strike and what spots on the battlefield to avoid.
"I'd say that's the coolest part of the job. It's unlocking the capabilities of the airplane," said Maj. Alexander "Oprah" Mellman, 34.
The San Franciscan, who's part of a digital generation that grew up in front of a computer screen or with a smartphone in his hand, said new technology never wows him -- unless he's in the F-35 cockpit.
"There's a lot of information coming at you, but that's the beauty of this aircraft -- the fusion," said his boss, Vaughn. "Those sensors are doing a lot of the work for you. They're literally just showing you the information. You're not working the sensors very much. You're just looking at the output of the sensors. It allows you to be a tactician."
The Joint Strike Fighter's comparative invisibility, sensors and computing power give it an unchallenged "first shot" capability. Instead of waging a war of attrition in the skies between American "fourth-generation" fighters such as the Hornet and the Russian-built Flankers, F-35s can see and kill an enemy fighter, radar site or missile battery before it's detected.
That's why Mellman said the Marines spend a lot of time learning to win dogfights before they start, destroying enemies "chiefly beyond visual range."
"We're only beginning to scratch the surface. Yuma is pretty far along in changing tactics to meet what this plane can do," said John "JV" Venable, a defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
A retired Air Force colonel who flew the F-16 Fighting Falcon and commanded the Thunderbirds aerial acrobat team, Venable is conducting an ongoing survey of F-35 pilots in his former service and the Marine Corps.
He has done 40 interviews, and the pilots overwhelmingly favor the Joint Strike Fighter.
But critics disagree with the rosy assessments.
Dan Grazier, a former Marine tank officer and now a defense analyst at the D.C.-based Program on Government Oversight, is "not a big fan of the F-35" partly because its "actual usefulness in combat hasn't been demonstrated." Key reasons for this absence of operational proof are recurring software glitches, engine snafus and safety worries.
Grazier said some pilots he has interviewed dislike the F-35, citing its meager bomb payload -- a pair of half-ton munitions-- and its lack of a high cockpit canopy, which could limit their ability to see the enemy during dogfights.
But the most persistent criticism The San Diego Union-Tribune has heard about the F-35 has been its expense.
"Here's the problem: You have replacement airplanes that now cost a lot more money than originally intended. Because they're behind schedule, you have rising costs for maintaining and operating the older aircraft. At some point, those costs start eating into the budget to replace the airplanes in the first place," said James Hasik, a former Navy aviator and currently the senior fellow for defense at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, a D.C. think tank.
"You have the Pentagon saying that the U.S. military will buy all 2,400 or so Joint Strike Fighters, but you begin to suspect that it'll be much lower, that you won't be able to fly all of them because of the money you're losing now and the escalating procurement costs," he added.
The Navy plans to purchase 260 F-35Cs that can operate from aircraft carriers. The price tag for those being delivered today is about $115.7 million each, not including the engine.
About three years behind schedule, each F-35B arriving at the Marine base in Yuma costs $102 million. The Corps intends to buy 353 of them, plus 67 F-35Cs, and the last of them won't roll off the assembly line until 2031.
Grazier at the Program on Government Oversight said a hidden expense is the $1.1 trillion the Pentagon estimates will be spent maintaining the aircraft.
"What you're going to find is that the contractors working on the F-35 program are going to make their money on the back end, through support," Grazier said. "This problem is exacerbated by a 'revolving door' from the Pentagon to the contractors. They set themselves up for lucrative jobs post-retirement from the military."
However, former Harrier mechanic Staff Sgt. Derek W. Hockgeiger said Yuma's F-35s are so far "a lot easier to work on." He pointed to a complicated chore like removing a strike fighter's engine. It takes "about a shift" to complete -- half the time a Harrier demanded.
"It's interesting. It's a flying computer. It's very intelligent. It's very autonomous," said Hockgeiger, 29, from Indiana.
But the F-35 might be nowhere near as brainy and self-reliant as the sixth-generation fighter for the Air Force and Navy, which is on the drawing boards now. Scheduled to replace the F-35 about two decades from now, this future jet might fire lasers or wield microwave weapons while flying at rocket-like speeds.
If departing Navy Secretary Raymond "Ray" Mabus has his way, it won't follow the F-35's joint procurement plan -- or even carry a human pilot.
The future, he said, might be closer to the Navy's MQ-25A Stingray carrier-based drone.
"Right now, we use four fighters out of every fighter squadron on a carrier to refuel. That's all they do. They're gas trucks. We're going to use (the Stingray) as a refueling aircraft and then, as time goes by, add capabilities to where you finally get a full-up strike fighter that's unmanned and can go into denied airspace," Mabus said.
And it won't be the only unmanned weapons the Navy uses.
Mabus envisions aircraft-carrier workshops churning out flocks of fist-sized mini-drones on 3-D printers, then launching them at the enemy to perform missions the F-35 is expected to do.
"They cost a couple of a hundred bucks apiece. If you get into a fight, you send out a couple thousand of them and they don't come back but they set up a network," he said. "They can be offensive or defensive. They can jam (enemy communications) and protect your networks. They can open paths for aircraft and missiles coming through."
For the moment, Mabus and the Marines are speeding up orders for the Joint Strike Fighter before the Hornets and Harriers wear out completely.
"What we need now is to get more of these (F-35) aircraft as quickly as we can so that we can get those legacy aircraft out of the fight and get their pilots retrained (to) fly the F-35s as soon as possible," said Vaughn the squadron commander in Yuma.
(c)2016 The San Diego Union-Tribune