When the Air Force and Navy first started looking for a shared plane to replace several of their aging fighters, there was a Clinton in the White House. The Air Force and Navy wanted a fighter to face the threats of tomorrow, stealthy and deadly for the unknown dangers of the century to come. The end result of that program, almost years later, is Lockheed Martin's F-35. And when it finally flies its first combat mission, there's a good chance there could be a different Clinton in the Oval Office.
Last fall, the United States Marine Corps declared their F-35B variant operational. The Navy, which will fly the F-35C version, has yet to do the same for their version, though that's expected in the coming years. The development of the F-35 is a saga, spanning five presidential terms and quietly sitting on the backburner during America's two long and concurrent wars.
The F-35 Lightning II isn't just an expensive plane, it's three expensive planes, with somewhat similar bodies and some shared parts. The F-35A, used by the Air Force, is the cheapest, at just $108 million apiece. (Some of the cost savings in the F-35A come from volume: the USAF plans to order over 1,700 of the plane, compared to the relatively smaller batches of 340 for each of the other variants).
In a statement put out by the Air Force, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein said:
"The combat ready F-35A is the latest fifth-generation fighter aircraft in the Air Force's inventory and provides our nation air dominance in any environment. The F-35A brings an unprecedented combination of lethality, survivability, and adaptability to joint and combined operations, and is ready to deploy and strike well-defended targets anywhere on Earth. Today's declaration of IOC is an important milestone on the road to achieving full warfighting capability for the F-35A.”
There was, as recently as 2013](http://www.foreffectivegov.org/cancel-flawed-f-35-and-free-up-billions-better-aircraft-and-domestic-needs), thought that the F-35 might be canceled. In 2009, Congress voted to stop production of America's other modern stealth fighter, the air-superiority F-22. Yet the F-35 has endured, through inertia as much as anything else. While it may be synonymous with the high price military industrial excess, there simply was no other program to rival it. When the Air Force and the Navy committed to replacing their current fighters with a shared fighter design, the impetus behind the F-35 became too great to steer aside, and now the Pentagon is one step closer to fielding a stealthy, contradictory workhorse fighter for the next thirty years, or even longer.
I leave you with this, a picture of Boeing's X-32 entry for the competition. No doubt the X-32 would have suffered many of the same struggles during its development, but at the end of the day, we could have had this incredibly goofy looking plane. It's not the greatest “what-if” in the history of stealth fighters. It's definitely the silliest.