One of the most difficult challenges for U.S. security policy in the 21st century is developing and maintaining its network of alliance relationships. Some traditional structures such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization appear increasingly threadbare as member after member reduces their defense budgets and cuts their armed forces. Long-standing relationships in the Middle East are being buffeted by the winds of change. Rising powers such as India and Brazil represent a whole new range of possibilities that need to be carefully explored and developed.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) has become an important and effective means of supporting traditional alliances and security relationships as well as providing the basis for the development of new ones. This is somewhat ironic in view of the criticism, much of it misplaced, that continues to be heaped on the program from some quarters in the U.S.
Initially, the Department of Defense was able to leverage the opportunity for allies to participate in the development and production of the JSF. Eight countries signed up to be participants, putting up their own money and receiving work shares and the opportunity to access advanced technologies in the process. Not only has this program helped to defray the cost of the F-35 but it is also creating a web of relationships both military and industrial that will last for decades.
The two latest countries to enter the F-35 club are Israel and Japan. Israel and the U.S. have just signed a deal whereby Tel Aviv will acquire the first 19 of a possible fleet of 75 JSFs. It is a matter of some significance that the five best air forces in the world — the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, the Royal Air Force and the Israeli Air Force — are all going to fly the F-35. The U.S. has an opportunity to learn from the Israelis who are reported to want to put additional electronic warfare gear on their new fighters.
The other new player is Japan which picked the F-35 as the winner of its F-X competition. The lengthening shadow of China’s military buildup made it imperative for Japan to acquire the best fighter it could. In the near future, it is possible, indeed likely, that countries such as India, South Korea and even Saudi Arabia will acquire some version of the F-35.
Like its predecessors, the F-15, 16 and 18, the JSF will help create a global network of security relationships and military capabilities that can help deter aggression. This is a valuable contribution to future U.S. security that must be factored into any discussion of the cost of this program.
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