Aircraft Stories: The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (Part II)

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An F-35B Lightning II makes the first vertical landing on a flight deck at sea, courtesy of U.S. Navy/wikimedia commons

This article was originally published on the blog The Disorder of Things, on 17 May 2014.

This is the second part of a single post about the F-35 as actor-network. The first part is here.


This word is meant to convey the F-35’s identity as a proper multirole fighter, a machine rigged to conduct both air superiority and strike missions, the latter defined as tactical attacks on a ground or naval target with a particular focus on “initial blow” or “first day of attack” operations. All three variants of the F-35 fighter family hold this capability: the conventional A version designed for use by the U.S. Air Force and allied air forces; the Short Take-Off, Vertical Landing (STOVL) or B variant for the U.S. Marines Corps as well as the UK’s Royal Navy, as well as the conventional carrier-based edition for the U.S. Navy, the F-35C.

Airstrike, or strike for short, shapes, and is shaped by, the evolving structure of international politics in important ways. Pax Americana, defined in terms of successive hegemonic or hierarchical international and regional orders centered on Washington, D.C., can be regarded as an assemblage made possible by the so-called global strike, among other smaller assemblages. Since the middle years of the twentieth century warplanes have transformed themselves into multirole, fighter-bomber machines capable of ever-greater lethality and survivability. What makes U.S. strike aircraft especially formidable is the surrounding stuff—assets like ballistic and cruise missiles plus countless “force enablers” such as ground bases, aircraft carrier groups, logistics depots, a large tanker force and aerial refueling know-how, interlinked information and communication systems, the ability to generate and sustain the use-of-airspace deals on relatively short notice and so on.

In theory, the F-35s flown by the U.S. military and its allies will dramatically enhance this power since they will be able to approach and neutralize targets while remaining undetected by radar. Related, the F-35 is also implicated in the vast logistical infrastucture of the U.S. military, and is already contributing to what Michael Mann calls (state) infrastructural power. Prompted by local government and civil society action in Vermont, plans are now being drawn to help air bases deal with increased noise (the A version is said to have a takeoff sound level that is several decibels higher than that of the legacy fighters it will replace). Today, the F-35 mediates between civil society and the U.S. state at both local and national levels, but in the future similar linkages will no doubt be established abroad, at the level of the American imperium.

The rule of the skies was central to all American strategies during the Cold War, and remains central in the post-Cold War era. But the rule of the skies is co-constituted with others forms of rule—in security and economic institutions and practices as well as in cultural and ideological modes and modalities.[1] Assemblage-oriented thinking indeed recognizes that the F-35 works not only in relation to other objects in modern warfare, but also in relation to America’s exceptional role in international politics, one aspect of which is the “command of the commons.”[2] In other words, high-accuracy, long-range airstrikes co-function not only with preemptive war and regime change but also with global financial governance, large-scale disaster operations, and the rest of the vast political infrastructure that centers on the U.S. and sustains “access” to capital around the globe. It is true that U.S. power in the world is said to be declining, but there are also good reasons why American military strategists talk about the existence of “near-peers” as opposed to “peers” in the medium term. Even if a future rival power or coalition of powers could somehow match the quality and quantity of the American aerial might, there would likely be no equivalent parity in deployable air bases. This is why the talk of next-generation aircraft being developed by America’s rival tends to be overblown. The F-35 often looks inferior vis-à-vis “similar” weapon systems in speed, range, agility, and weapons, but this point may be moot considering the overall distribution of air power projection. As a social formation that depends on many parallel social formations, global strike is unique to the U.S.

Air power has been expanded, in the U.S. context at least, to combine kinetic with space and cyber components.[3] Space satellites enable the proper functioning of fighter jets as well as of much of the world economy. As for cyber, the F-35 has experienced this type of combat already, albeit indirectly. Between 2007 and 2009, the Chinese government and military reportedly carried a series of cyber intrusions into U.S. government computer systems that stole considerable amount of data on the Lockheed Martin fighter, and some suspect that these attacks have helped China reduce the lead time to developing its own fighter jets. Indeed, a related expansion of the strike assemblage concerns the ways in which America’s two “near-peers,” China and Russia, are putting aside millions towards the development of new long-range ballistic and cruise missiles, anti-satellite weapon systems, passive radars and other “anti-access/area-denial” capabilities. The readiness of rival states to expend multiple forms of capital in the hopes of countering U.S. strike effectiveness must be kept in mind when evaluating narrow air power theory debates, both academic and popular, over whether the F-35 brings any outstanding or enduring advantages to the battlefield.

The strike assemblage co-functions with pilots’ minds and bodies. Assuming it lives up to its potential, the F-35’s “augmented-reality” helmet-mounted display will have the most advanced system for synthesizing and presenting aircraft data. Similar prosthetics have long serve to collapse the line between the real and the virtual by generating an information-filtering real-time simulation of the plane’s environment, but now they are operating inside the visor of the helmet. The result is the so-called “distributed aperture system”—an assemblage that connects the pilot’s eyes to a network of cameras and sensors that in turn are connected to command and control datalink systems. The new experience has been variously described as “360-degree battle-space awareness,” “almost X-ray vision” and “a God’s-eye view of what’s going on.”[4] The F-35 pilot training structure is further contributing to this new experience by aggressively privileging the use of high-technology simulators over old-school training in the air and in the classroom. How these innovations will interact with notions and use of “conventional” airpower remains to be seen, but it is certain that the F-35 assemblage has already enabled new ways of information processing with a potential to change access to reality, including the emergent ways of war-fighting.

Airstrike capability enables U.S. airpower materially, but perhaps more importantly it does so socially. It appeals to civilians, leaders and voters alike, who believe that airpower can and does win wars decisively and affordably. U.S. “shock and awe” air campaigns centered on massive and successive raids against the hapless Arab and Serb forces constitute one of the iconic images of our time. By advancing the notion that political goals can be achieved by the right application of airpower, ideally one that brings no casualties to “us” and only minimal collateral damage to “them,” these campaigns, or the way they have been mediated to global audiences, shape popular and policy discourse regarding war even in the age of “irregular” and “asymmetric” conflicts. This construction of reality was impossible before sensor fusion and other advances in information processing that enabled high levels of battle-space awareness in real time. For one, what dramatically changed the risk assessment for low-altitude, around-the-clock and under-the-weather strike was a combination of infrared targeting and navigation sensors, beyond-visual-range missiles and precision-guided munition, plus advanced data fusion systems that cut the so-called kill-chain (officially: sensor-to-shooter data cycle time) from days and hours to minutes. Without these technologies, U.S. military commanders would not be able to exert virtually constant pressure on enemy forces while minimizing own vulnerability. Politicians would also be less likely to argue that large-scale strategic goals can be achieved by applying a single medium of warfare. In this sense, the technological transformation of American air power caused not only a socio-political transformation of war, but also of sovereignty.


This word entered the English language in the interwar period as an evolution from the monikers “scout” (in the UK) and “pursuit” (in in the U.S.) that once referred to particular types of aerial combat machines. The letter “F” in the F-35 stands for “fighter” and goes back to a classification system introduced in 1948 by the newly established U.S. Air Force. The number is part of a historically irregular U.S. military (“tri-service”) sequence, and is equivalent to the aircraft’s prototype X number, which was chosen in the late 1990s by the Lockheed Martin-led consortium that developed the warplane. “Lightning II,” the F-35 other official name, is meant to honor two military machines from the times past: the art deco-styled, World War II-era Lockheed P-38 Lightning, and the English Electric (Later BAC) Lightning, the world’s first supercruise-capable fighter.

The global military and aviation community today defines fighters as jet-powered aircraft designed and equipped for air-to-air and/or air-to-ground combat. The hot and cold world wars, the bureaucratic institutionalization of airpower as well as various developments in aerodynamics, electronics and other areas of science and technology have all combined to endow this object with a well-known materiality. In the 2000s, fighters and their components like missiles, sensors and engines accounted for one third of all international arms transfers in volume. Today, over 100 nation-states possess fighters, but only 11 produce them through different combination of public-private partnerships which in turn rely on global supply chains so complex that end-products routinely contain counterfeit electronic parts [5].

The causes behind the rise of the fighter assemblage are multiple and mutually reinforcing, covering tropes like “anarchy” and “military-industrial complex” plus many others besides. One classic view is that sovereign states interact with a system that is competitive and dynamic. An increase in the state’s military capabilities can thus increase its security, autonomy, and external authority vis-à-vis other nation-states, but it can also provoke security dilemmas and lead to conflict. The desire for own air power, specifically tactical air attack capability and enhanced deterrence that fighters provide, chimes with this logic even in the context of international interdependence and the pacifying force of global commerce [6].

Another classic systemic view is that fighters have desirable symbolic and normative properties. Low-income states want them not because of their functionality—that tactical air power can be relatively quickly extracted and concentrated or that it can bypass both the land and naval forces of an enemy is irrelevant many contexts, especially where the basic enabling infrastructure is lacking—but because world-level culture affixes this weapon system as an important symbol of the modern state and full membership in the international society [7].

The F-35 is thus part of an assemblage that is at once international and global; in other words, it has broad and deep roots among entities that simultaneously construct, crisscross as well as collapse the boundaries among nations. The same goes for the boundaries between the public and the private, the military and the civilian, the fake and the real. One such international-cum-global entity is a durable web of relations connecting science, technocrats, bureaucrats, and politics in the context of the Anglo-American partnership. Three “renegade” technocratic networks are notable in particular: “Skunk Works,” the “Fighter Mafia,” and the “Harrier Coalition.” The first is a special engineering and technocratic unit within Lockheed Martin that is credited with developing stealth—the technology of low radar observability developed in the 1970s and now established as the mainstay of the U.S. approach to high-technology warfare.[8] The second one is the self-proclaimed “Fighter Mafia,” a group of U.S. Air Force officers and civilian analysts keen on transforming their country’s fixed-wing airpower experience in the wake of the Vietnam War. Pierre Sprey, who began his Pentagon career of one of “whiz kids” in the McNamara era, recently (and “half-jokingly”) reflected on the work of his team thus:

We were bureaucratic guerrilla warriors, fighting the system and deploying whatever underground means we could use,” including whistleblowing, leaking, and “suborning” members of Congress…[today]we’re a network of subversives trying to cut the defense budget and campaigning against things that don’t work.[9]

Historians disagree over the extent to which said bureaucratic guerillas contributed to the great transformation in American air power since the 1970s, but there is no question that ideas espoused by this network found considerable institutional expression in the way the U.S. and its allies fight and prepare for war—or a specific kind of war that involves regular battles and conventional enemy forces.[10] The third network, the Harrier Coalition, has kept alive the STOVL system, the pillar of one of the variants of the F-35. Transferred to the U.S. in 1970, when U.S Marine Corps received a fleet of British-made Harriers, STOVL has long been subject to technocratic controversy and much hard labor had to be put in to make this technology possible in the military-political circles. This network has been the most trans-Atlantic of the three: “As members of a heretic minority, the British and American STOVL communities forged strong professional bonds, staging a biennial Powered Lift Conference that alternated between U.K. and U.S. locations.”[11] All of these networks are actor-networks in the sense that they feature human operating within and among material and discursive relations like statistics and non-linear science to make and unmake connections between different fields of political action.

This analytical perspective recognizes that objects always arise out of tensions, too. Consider Sprey’s words again: in a short interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 2012, he described the F-35 as an “an exceptionally dumb piece of Air Force’s PR spin,” “a turkey,” and “a scam” with a singular purpose of “making money for Lockheed Martin.” These views are common in parts of the global epistemic community that shapes and reshapes the F-35 on a weekly basis. At stake here are multi-pronged political-economic and ideological battles involving questions of, inter alia, national deficit and debt, opportunity costs within declining defense budgets, changing airpower doctrine, foreign policy goals and the like. There are multiple networked performances are at work in this assemblage. For example, the generations discourse is new and is increasingly being used in the global aviation community to identify how aircraft performance, technology and design philosophies evolved over time. For Sprey, this is an illusion created by those with a vested economic interest in military modernization: “fifth generation is a silly, mindless cliché.” While there is much truth in this claim, what goes on here is a broader process of assembly that involves complicated enactments and rejections of technology by co-existing networks and counter-networks. For example, when a representative of a competitor fighter jet consortium dismisses the generation-talk altogether in front of a parliamentary defense committee or when a government auditor’s report notes that fifth generation is undefined and perhaps undefinable, they are both making the same point as Sprey, but their appeals are hobbled from the start by a broader social domain that places premium on technological innovation, evolution and the idea that a new product release should be a carefully staged cultural event.[12]

This is the reason why Lockheed Martin never tires of describing the F-35 as “the world’s only fifth generation international multirole stealth fighter.” There is much truth in this claim, too. Today, there are around ten fifth generation fighter aircraft designs in the world, but most are mostly conceptual. The one design that is operational and combat-ready is the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, air superiority fighter that has been in service with the U.S. Air Force for a decade now. The fact that the F-22 is non-exportable by U.S. law helps the F-35, the Raptor’s multirole cousin, in two interrelated ways. First, it attracts no shortage of foreign contractors to the supply chain. By one estimate, almost two-thirds of top F-35 contractors are located outside the U.S., as are more than half of the program’s work sites.[13] Second, it compels foreign governments, partners and buyers alike, stay the course on the aircraft and weather the political storms over ongoing performance shortfalls (now a routinized media performance at a global scale that seizes on, and sometimes scandalizes, regular reports published by think tanks or government watchdog agencies such as the Government Accountability Office or the Defense Department’s Inspector General in the U.S.), delays (depending on who you ask, five to seven years behind schedule and counting), and rising costs (officiously, double the original estimate).

As far as combat aircraft projects go, the F-35 has been deeply troubled for the past six or seven years, but nothing suggests that it will ever meet the fate of the TSR-2. In fact, this thing is coming to theaters near you. Pentagon, Farnborough and Fairford people have all confirmed that the F-35 will finally be appearing in the UK, and not just on static display. To commemorate the plane’s very first international appearance, the UK Ministry of Defence recently published on its website this CGI-generated photo of an F-35B landing on HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Navy’s latest pride and joy (via Colin Clark at Breaking Defense):

You can expect to see no small amount of the F-35 in the headlines, and perhaps catch a glimpse of Defence Minister Philip Hammond’s next speech on how the UK government and industry are indispensable to the project:

F-35 boosters will at some point in the near future be rudely interrupted by a Congress vote to scale back the Pentagon’s order. Whatever happens next, one analytical lesson is self-evident: even if the F-35 were to be completely de-funded, we would not be able to proclaim this aircraft “dead” given how much impact it has already had on the world. The ANT mantra that objects simultaneously cohere and de-cohere suggests that materiality is always evolving. The F-35 exists inasmuch as it is renegotiated and delimited through a deeply international network of political and technical relations.

In lieu of a conclusion

To go back to the opening question, how big is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter? The answer depends on how we approach the constitution of this particular object. We can focus on its different costs, as defense economists and government auditors do, on its too-big-to-fail characteristics as political scientists do, or on its engine or airframe dimensions, as aerospace engineers do. Or we can focus on global assemblages of elements that come together in contingent ways to constitute this profoundly international object: the sand that travels to become glass in the cockpit and on the helmet-mounted display, chemicals that are made into surface coatings, pilot minds and bodies and their trained capacities to co-function with the machine, theories of airpower and so on.

From the perspective of assemblage thinking, the F-35 is dependent on the successful coming together of all of multiple materials, transactions, and relationships. Accordingly, its size and scale cannot be determined a priori, only analytically reconstructed from the social and material acts in which this object is accepted as a social fact. As I have suggested in this post, the F-35 is decentered, multiple, and deeply implicated in the constitution of the international. What makes it big is a singular combination of globalized high technology, globalized development and production structure and globalized mainstream media presence. But the F-35 is also big, perhaps at a more fundamental level, because of its current and latent impact on warfare, state sovereignty, alliances and other elements of international life. Indeed, the program’s supply chain may be geopolitically unmoored, but America’s imperial claim on who gets the machine, when, and in what proportion is a reminder that the politics of globalization does not contradict traditional sovereign authority. In other words, this thing is so big that it calls for a worldwide scale of analysis that looks for global and international conjunctures in equal measure and the ways in which they empower and delimit each other.

[1] If you like Mann’s social theory, you will love Bryan Mabee’s last book, Understanding American Power: The Changing World of US Foreign Policy. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

[2] Posen, B.R. “Command of the Commons: The Military Foundations of U.S. Hegemony,” International Security 28 (2003), 5–46. The strategic documents issued during George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barak Obama presidencies, speak of protecting the “global commons” or safeguarding the “international economic environment.” While the meanings of airpower have undergone a number of shifts over time, the basic idea that aerial assets have strategic value has long flourished among American military and civilian planners. Gray, Colin S. Airpower for Strategic Effect. Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Air University Press with Air Force Research Institute, 2012.

[3] The U.S. Air Force now defines airpower in terms of air, space, and cyber domains, whereby the first domain is primary and the latter two are classified as manoeuver or facilitating environments. The global positioning system is an example of a hybrid cyber and space asset that enables contemporary airpower. Shaud, John A. Air Force Strategy Study, 2020–2030. Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2011. Recall further that deterrence, associated for the past sixty years with the nuclear umbrella, is part of this mix (a nuclear weapons-capable Joint Strike Fighter has been conceptualized).

[4] Quoted phrases are from Ciralsky, Adam. “Will It Fly?”, Vanity Fair, September 16, 2013. On synthetic systems that enable modern flight, see Antoine’s “Marshalling the Real: War and Simulation.”

[5] BBC News. “China fake parts ‘used in US military equipment’.” 21 May 2012.

[6]For relevant recent discussions, see Resende-Santos, Joao. Neorealism, States, and the Modern Mass Army. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, 16-33 and 310-3 to Stephen G. Brooks, Producing Security: Multinational Corporations, Globalization, and the Changing Calculus of Conflict. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007, 16-46, and 246-66.

[7] Eyre, Dana P. and Mark C. Suchman. “Status, Norms, and the Proliferation of Conventional Weapons: An Institutional Theory Approach,” in Peter J. Katzenstein, ed., The Culture of National Security. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996, 79-113. The airplane is itself emblematic of modernity.

[8] Sweetman, Bill. Lockheed Stealth. St Paul, MN: Zenith, 2004. The group goes back to the 1940s, and the alias Skunk Works was self-ascribed by engineers to signal their autonomy, secrecy and pioneer spirit. Similar networks are credited with furnishing the U.S. with other game-changer weapon systems, from the atomic bomb to, arguably, the Stuxnet virus.

[9] Vlahos, Kelly. “40 Years of the ‘Fighter Mafia’.” The American Conservative, September 20, 2013.

[10] Michel, Marshall L. III. “The Revolt of the Majors: How the Air Force Changed After Vietnam,” PhD Dissertation, Department of History, Auburn University, December 15, 2006; and Cunningham, Jim. “Rediscovering Air Superiority: Vietnam, the F-X, and the ‘Fighter Mafia,’” Air and Space Power Journal, August 25, 2011. One of the founding fathers of the Fighter Mafia was John Boyd, arguably one of the most influential strategists of the modern era. Bousquet, Antoine. The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity. New York: Columbia University Press & Hurst, 2009, Ch. 7. Also note that some Fighter Mafia (a.k.a. Lightweight Fighter Mafia) visions – the idea of swarms of affordable, short-ranged, and dogfight-heavy combat aircraft, for example – failed at the time, but may yet to be resuscitated in the drone era.

[11] Sweetman, Bill. Ultimate Fighter. St Paul, MN: Zenith, 2004: 22.

[12]I am referring to the various stages of the Canadian F-35 debate, 2010-2012. For details, see Vucetic, Srdjan. ed., “The F-35: Right for Canada?”, Canadian Foreign Policy Journal 17: 3 (2011), and Tago, Atsushi and Srdjan Vucetic. “The ‘Only’ Choice: Canadian and Japanese F-35 Decisions Compared,” International Journal 68: 1 (2012-3), 131-149. “Fifth generation” is not to be confused with the discourse of the “fourth generation,” network-centric warfare.

[13] Hartung, “Promising the Sky”: 4.



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