The real danger of relying on a single aircraft is that it could endanger its pilots. “During the Korean War, the U.S. Air Force was able to rapidly upgrade one of its four jet fighters, the F-86 Sabre, to meet the surprise introduction of the Russian Mikoyan-Gurevich (MiG)-15, a Soviet-designed fighter that was more capable than any other U.S. fighter in the Air Force or Navy inventory,” Rand says. “Had the Air Force and Navy relied exclusively on a single joint fighter other than the F-86, it might not have been able to respond quickly to the unanticipated new threat posed by the MiG-15.”
The fundamental challenge of building a multi-service fighter is that one size doesn’t fit all in the war-fighting business. “They are separate airplanes,” Thomas Christie, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester from 2001 to 2005, told Time earlier this year of the F-35’s three variants. “We would have been better off if we’d let the services go off and do their own thing.” A bonus would have been multiple plane builders—instead of a single contractor—to keep the companies on their toes, he added.
Dave Majumdar explains the risks of using the F-35 in situations better suited to the faster F-22 Raptor:
Both China and Russia are developing these so-called fifth-generation fighters, which feature high speed, maneuverability and radar-evading stealth. The Chinese have their Chengdu J-20 and Shenyang J-31 prototypes. Russia is working on the Sukhoi T-50. Both the Russian and Chinese aircraft might have the potential to match certain aspects of the Raptor’s performance. By contrast, there are troubling questions as to how well the F-35 would fare against the new foreign fighters. While the F-35 has air-to-air sensors and can carry air-to-air missiles, it does not have the kinematic performance of the F-22. It’s simply sluggish in comparison. The Raptor was designed from the outset as an air-to-air killer par excellence—the F-35 was not. The Raptor combines a very stealthy airframe with a high altitude ceiling and supersonic cruise. Further, the F-22 possesses excellent maneuverability for close-in visual-range dogfights.