The US’s stealthy new fighter plane, the F-35 Lightning II, was designed to electrify the defence world and put every US-friendly air force beyond their enemies’ reach for decades to come. While this may yet happen, the Lightning has struggled to set the aviation world ablaze, falling years behind schedule and running horribly over budget as its developers battle to get the three different variants of the complex plane to work.
Nine countries, including the US, have signed up to buy over 3,000 F-35s collectively, but with each new technical holdup and cost overrun, the partners’ commitment becomes a little flakier. To shore up support for the troubled programme, the US has been trying to drum up some enthusiasm among those allies who were canny enough not to have committed themselves back when the plane was a shiny-looking artist’s impression.
At the top of this list are Israel, Japan and Singapore – big spenders on defence who are all in the market for a next-generation fighter. Japan and Singapore have both recently commenced formal evaluations of the F-35 – a clear signal that they are interested – while Israel went even further in October and committed to buying 20.
Israel’s vote of confidence in the plane was qualified, however. Tel Aviv is spending $2.75bn (€2bn) on just 20 aircraft, which is enough to price most countries out of the market. The Israelis also just turned down a US offer of 20 more F-35s as an inducement for returning to Palestinian peace talks, suggesting that as a bargaining chip the F-35 isn’t the super-weapon the Americans had hoped.
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