As issues delaying the Pentagon’s F-35 fighter program are gradually resolved, it seems to be securing broad support in the political system. Perennial critic Sen. John McCain of Arizona recently commented that the tri-service tactical aircraft “may be the greatest combat aircraft in the history of the world.” The Government Accountability Office issued its first-ever assessment of the program in which no new advice was offered on how to manage it better. And senior Pentagon officials have indicated they intend to protect the program in the budget process — a distinct departure from its previous treatment.
Now comes additional praise from the nation’s top military officer, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey. A self-described “ground-pounder” (soldier), Dempsey told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that he was “open-minded” on the fate of the F-35 until he talked to a Marine officer running one of the first operational squadrons of F-35s at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Dempsey said that conversation about the plane’s performance turned him into an advocate. And then he put his finger on what may be the most important reason for buying the F-35: “We haven’t been attacked from the air since April 15, 1953, and I’m not going to be the chairman on whose watch… that’s reversed.”
It’s true: April 15 marked the 60th anniversary of the last time a U.S. soldier on the ground was killed in action by hostile aircraft. Ever since then, U.S. air power has protected troops from aerial attack, not to mention many other types of aggression. Whatever the special features of the F-35 program may be, it is perhaps best viewed as the latest installment in a multi-generational effort to assure U.S. air dominance in overseas conflicts. There’s always the danger when an advantage has been enjoyed for so long that people will lose sight of its value. Fortunately for U.S. warfighters, the Obama Administration’s defense team grasps how crucial air dominance is to every facet of modern warfare — and the central role F-35 plays in preserving that edge.