The US military's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft is proving to be a pain in the neck in more ways than one. Not only did the Pentagon spend almost $400 billion to buy 2,400 aircraft - about twice as much as it cost to put a man on the moon - the F-35 program is 7 years behind schedule and $163 billion over budget. This at a time when cuts in the defense budget are forcing the Pentagon to shrink the size of the military. CBS 60 Minutes took a closer look at the troubled fighter plane a few months back, but their rebroadcast on Sunday evening seems like as good a reason as any to revisit one of the biggest ongoing budget debacles in U.S. military memory. David Martin gets an inside look at what makes the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter the most expensive weapons system in history.
So the reason we have this aircraft is so it might be useful someday in a combat mission ... if we ever have a combat mission that cheaper aircraft can't do ... which we don't because we plan all the missions so they can be done by cheaper aircraft ... and that works fine ... as long as the cost overruns from the expensive aircraft don't lead to budget cuts that ground the cheaper aircraft that actually does stuff.
Incidently, I feel like a claim like this should be backed up. I don't remember where I originally read it (it was quite possibly in an actual newspaper), but I found this article on ABC News [go.com] which backs up the fact the F-22 has never been used in combat despite being in service for 5 years when the article was written (2011).
You can read about it on wikipedia, but to save you the time, its an air superiority fighter and we've not been getting into battles with other air forces in quite awhile so they have approximately nothing to shoot down. There is a squadron seemingly permanently in the persian gulf which continuously harasses the Iranians ancient F-4 aircraft, but intercepting and following around and generally being pests toward each other isn't "real combat", although sooner or later someone's going to literally bump into someone else and cause an international incident. Those things happen. Other than the Iranians, there's no one to mess with.
The block 3.1 first flew in '09 and added a really crappy air to ground capability (well, arguably about as good as my grandpa's B-24, it has less payload than the B-24 but more electronics than his B-24 had, so it probably comes out about equal ...), this is probably the origin of the waste of money commentary. So you can use an air superiority fighter as a crappy bomber, but its going to have (seriously) about 1/200th the payload of a B2 while only being about 1/10th the cost of a B-2, so thats a pretty dumb idea if there's any way to task a B-2 to do the job. Also I don't think block 3.1 has all weather air to ground, so its only useful for good weather. Basically emergency use, like if NK decides to invade SK as a last ditch effort we might have to have everything that can carry a bomb up there doin' something, however uselessly. Before block 3.1 first flight in '09 I don't think they had any air to ground capability at all. So whatever ABC news story is pretty silly because its not been in service for 5 years as of '11, as of '11 the very first F22 ever to have A2G capability had flown less than 2 years ago... and its probably all secret which planes and how many have been upgraded from 3.0 to 3.1 so its quite possible that a A2G capable F22 has not yet deployed to a combat area.
Although adding an "emergency" A2G capability to the plane is intelligent from a military perspective, why add an emergency capability for free, its really dumb from a PR perspective because the usual suspects focus on the useless vestigal A2G feature like laser beams, as though its significant or deeply symbolic and meaningful. Which it certainly isn't.
To some extent the reason why its the best plane in the world at shooting down other planes is because that's really all its good at doing. Not multi-role at all. Not a strategic bomber, not CAS, just shoots down other planes, like crazy. Its very "unix philosopy" make a tool that does one thing, one thing only, and does it excellently. Its opponents get all wound up about it not having an embedded mp3 player and so on all windows philosophy, but thats just not what it is.