I'm interested in the F-35, and I have been reading about it. There is so much noise that it's hard to sift through all of it. It doesn't help that I'm not any sort of military expert.
I have read that the F-35 is disaster piled upon disaster, and I have read that the F-35 is "retiring risks" and converting naysayers into believers. I have read that the F-35 is incredibly expensive to operate, and I have read that it was designed for easy maintenance and that it will save big money in the long run on operating costs. I have read that the design of the F-35 was compromised by the need for a lift fan on the B variant, and I have read that the plane would have been just as wide without the B variant because of the design of the enclosed weapons bay. In short, I keep reading things and then reading the exact opposite from some other source.
Here's what I think I have figured out.
First, the F-35 had better work because at this point we are stuck with it. The old planes are old and getting more expensive to maintain, and in the long run the F-35 is the only reasonable option (but only if it works... if it doesn't do the mission, it is not a "reasonable option"). The Obama administration shut down the F-22 production lines on the theory that we only need a handful of air superiority fighters, and the money would be better spent on the F-35 (and the Growler, according to Wikipedia). It takes forever to make a new plane, and we really don't have a plan B (or "plane B") ready to go. Also, the USA as a strategy would rather spend more money on planes than lose the lives of pilots; it might be cheaper to buy upgraded older planes, but if the "fifth generation fighter" thing works out, and future battlefields increasingly have anti-air missiles, the F-35 might have lower losses in combat than older plane designs.
Second, the F-35 may not be horribly expensive. Right now I don't care about sunk costs... cancelling the F-35 won't get the sunk costs back. All that really matters is the "fly-away cost", the cost to build and equip a new plane, and the F-35 doesn't seem completely unreasonable there (it's now under $100 million for the A variant and trending down). One of the remaining risks is whether production can scale up enough to make F-35s as fast as everyone wants them made, but if that scale-up happens costs will fall further. Again, the big question mark is operating expenses and reliability. If the F-35 needs so much maintenance that it can't fly very often, then it was a bad idea. (And by the way, next time the Pentagon wants to make a new weapons system, then I will be very interested in the sunk costs of this one.)
Third, I'm a cautious believer in the ability of the F-35 to do the missions as long as it's not in the hangar being repaired. It can't win a dogfight with an F-16, but that was never its mission (send an F-22 for that). It basically needs to be able to carry sensors, computers, radios, and missiles, fly long distances, and be a little bit stealthy. I think it can do those things; and once you have the plane, you can upgrade it by improving subsystems. I know, half a century ago, the end of dogfighting was prematurely announced, but with modern missiles and with the stealth features, I think the F-35 will be able to defend itself.
Fourth, I'm not completely certain that the F-35 will be useless for close-air support. The fans of the F-35 claim that the A-10 can't be used effectively against people with any anti-air missiles including shoulder-fired ones; that much of the time in recent years, the A-10 was required to operate from high altitude to avoid being shot down by missiles. The F-35 is not going to fly low and slow over a battlefield and shoot things with a gun, but it could fly past and fire off precision guided munitions, which should work. One thing is for sure: the alleged upcoming test between A-10 and F-35 for close-air support will include simulated anti-air missiles, because if it didn't the A-10 would totally win.
Fifth, I'm actually intrigued by the "short-deck carriers" that the Marines are going to be operating. The incredible staggering expense of building and equipping a "supercarrier" makes me question whether we should build any more of those; maybe it would be better to spend the same amount of money and get multiple smaller carriers that can only use STOVL aircraft like the F-35B and the Osprey. I'm also intrigued by what I have read about the Marines' planned strategy for using STOVL aircraft and mobile forward operating bases to leapfrog-advance air power into a contested area. In short, I think the F-35B will enable some nifty new capabilities.
So, what I think I have figured out is that the USA should buy a whole bunch of F-35s and make them work. Buy a bunch of spare parts and spare engines, make sure to work on improved-technology engines to possibly upgrade the F-35 at a future date, make the augmented reality helmet work. And, never run a weapons system development program this way ever again.