At the end of 2021 Finland became the latest and largest export customer for the F-35 stealth fighter by ordering 64 F-35As for $11.3 billion. The 35A is the land-based version, the most widely used and the lightest and least expensive. Finland was not one of the original customers for the F-35 because that opportunity occurred before Russia became more threatening to their neighbors.
There are two categories of F-35 export customers; pre-launch and post-launch. The pre-launch customers are long-time American allies who were allowed to produce some components and receive their aircraft early. Subsequent export customers were waiting to see how this new, and very expensive aircraft actually performed and whether they really needed it.
Reports from F-35 pilots have been positive, more so than most people expected. This has encouraged more post-launch customers to place larger orders. Finland will receive its first F-35A in 2026 and deliveries will be complete by 2030. Finland is replacing its older F-18A fighters. The 64 F-18s were delivered in the late 1990s, with most of them assembled in Finland. The eight two-seat F-18D versions were assembled in the United States first because these are used for training new pilots. Currently only 55 of the Finnish F-18s are still in service and all are due to begin retiring in the late 2020s.
Finland held a competition to select their new fighter and the F-35A, despite being the most expensive and newest competitor, won easily against the latest versions of the F-18E, Rafale, Typhoon and Gripen. Another factor favoring the F-35 was how much it annoyed the Russians, the most immediate military threat. Two years ago, Poland ordered 32 F-35As for $4.6 billion, with the possibility of later increasing that to 48. Russia was not amused and the Germans were chagrined to discover that by 2030 Poland will have a more powerful air force than Germany.
Since the 1990s Germany and Poland have been allies and Poland is closer to Russia than Germany. Proximity to Russia appears to be a powerful incentive to purchase the F-35, South Korea, Singapore and Japan, all of them neighbors of China, have a similar relationship with China, considering Russia a much smaller threat. While Russia failed in its attempt to build a stealth fighter, China was more successful, even though their J-20 is not quite combat ready yet. Australia is also a major customer, as one of the pre-launch partners and already has 26 of the 72 F-35As it ordered.
Another edge the F-35 has is combat experience. Israel is a post-launch customer but asked for and received early delivery because it was known the Israeli F-35s would be used for combat operations in Syria against the latest Russian air defense systems. The Russians were impressed and Iran complained that Israeli F-35s were seen over Iran in daylight but they were not detected by Iranian radars. This was never confirmed though a lot of Iranians believe it.
The Finnish F-35A order is the largest single defense procurement they have ever made. Finland is a wealthy nation, but with a smaller population than Israel. Both countries have about the same GDP per capita and very hostile neighbors. Israel spends more (5.6 percent) of GDP on defense than Finland (two percent) but the Finns percentage is the highest among NATO members and associates, like Finland. Israel receives large military aid from the United States each year because Israel is America’s more reliable, and powerful ally in the Middle East.
The Finnish F-35A order comes to $177 million per aircraft but the deal includes accessories, some weapons, training of pilots and ground personnel as well as maintenance equipment, tech support and establishing logistical infrastructure. The first Finnish F-35A squadron should be combat-ready by 2027.
Most European nations are buying locally made jets, mainly the Eurofighter, Rafale or Gripen. None of these are stealthy and are more comparable to late model F-16s, F-15s and F-18s. Britain bought F-35Bs for its navy but still used Eurofighters for the Royal Air Force. Currently, Britain, Norway, Belgium, Denmark, Italy and Netherlands are F-35 customers. Turkey was one customer that was recently banned from receiving F-35s because of security concerns, like buying Russian air defense systems and similar hostile behavior for a NATO member. Greece, Romania and Spain are considering the F-35.
Elsewhere Canada, Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Australia are all buying F-35s. Several of those countries are, like the United States and Britain, buying F-35Bs to operate from carriers. In the case of Japan and South Korea, the carriers are actually amphibious ships or slightly larger Japanese “destroyer helicopter carriers.”
New or prospective customers for the F-35 are attracted by the enthusiasm of those who have flown the F-35. There are only about 800 F-35 pilots (and about ten times as many maintainers who keep F-35s ready to fly) now but that number is not increasing as much as it should because the U.S. Air Force, the largest F-35 user, has a shortage of trainers and is having problems keeping up with total demand for pilots. Most F-35 pilots are transitions, that is experienced fighter pilots transitioning to the F-35. These require much less time and the Americans are concentrating on expanding their transition program. F-35 pilots all confirm that the F-35 is not just a modern stealth aircraft but incorporates software and a degree of built-in automation that produces a spectacular, easy to use and very effective pilot experience. The F-35 has a large number of sensors (receivers for electronic signals, six cameras and a very capable radar) and the fusion of all that data and presentation to the pilot based on the current situation is impressive. This fusion makes the F-35 much easier to fly, despite all the additional capabilities it has. This sort of thing is not a new idea. By the 1990s it was recognized that this new technology, called data fusion, would be a key capability for combat aircraft as well as ships and ground forces. Put simply, it's all about taking real-time vidcam, radar and sensor data plus other information about the battlefield situation (all sorts of databases and reports), and combining it to provide commanders with a better understanding of current operations, preferably in real-time if you are a fighter pilot. Pilots agree that the heart of the F-35’s superior capabilities is its software along with digital communications with ships, other aircraft and troops on the ground.
The F-35 is apparently the best working example of this so far and what is learned from the F-35 software has become the basis for updated software for older aircraft. But beyond the data fusion, and automatic sharing with other aircraft or systems on the ground, the pilots were impressed about how effective the “pilot assistant” software was. This is another concept that has been around for decades and more frequently installed in new aircraft. These minor advances get reported but never make headlines. But given the F-35s' stealth, maneuverability and sensor/data fusion, most pilots quickly become enthusiastic proponents of the aircraft.
The F-35 software is more complex and omnipresent throughout the aircraft than in any previous warplane. Because of that, it requires a major effort to implement and test any software changes. Some major upgrades are needed in how F-35 software changes are made and how quickly. In wartime this would be essential as otherwise vulnerable aircraft would be grounded when needed most.
As of late 2021 over 740 F-35s have been delivered, mostly to the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps. In 2018 alone 133 were delivered and that rose to 141 in 2020 with additional slight increases in annual deliveries until 2023. By the end of 2020 about 650 F-35s were in service, a status that takes place months after delivery. Over 4,000 F-35s are expected to be delivered by the mid-2030s with more than 70 percent going to the United States.
The F-35A is a 31-ton, single engine fighter that is 15.7 meters (51.4 feet) long with a 10.7-meter (35 foot) wingspan. The F-35A can carry 8.1 tons of weapons in addition to an internal 20mm four-barrel autocannon. Before the SDB (GPS guided Small Diameter Bomb) arrived, four internal air-to-air missiles (or two missiles and two smart bombs) plus four external smart bombs and two missiles could be carried. A new bomb rack allows the F-35 to carry eight SDBs internally. All sensors are carried internally and max weapon load is 6.8 tons. The aircraft is very stealthy when just carrying internal weapons.
In 2001 the U.S. believed 5,100 F-35s would be sold but the rising costs and increasing delays drove that down to 3,100 by 2013 and 2,500 by 2018. Now that some F-35s are actually in service and getting good reviews from users, sales are increasing. The aircraft carrier F-35C was supposed to enter service in 2018 but that didn’t happen until January 2020. That has no impact on foreign sales because few, if any, export orders were ever expected for the F-35C.
The success of the F-35 persuaded Japan to revive its stealth fighter project. Japan purchased 42 American F-35 fighters in 2011 while it also develops its own stealth fighters. In 2020 Japan decided to revive a two-decade old plan to design and build its own stealth fighter. This F-X/F-3 effort would only produce a hundred aircraft unless Japan obtains export customers. Until 2013 Japan refused to export weapons, since then such exports are allowed as long as they do not go to any nation at war or violate any arms embargoes. The FX project will cost $12 billion and the Japanese parliament provided $703 million in the 2021 defense budget to start work. Japan has been actively developing technologies for a new fighter for over a decade and for that reason the first FX prototype is expected to make its first flight in 2028 and enter service in the mid-2030s.
Japan has already developed and flown a stealth fighter prototype. This aircraft, the X-2, was made public in 2016 after it made its first flight in April 2016. With that there was no point in trying to keep it hidden from public view anymore. Work on X-2 began in 2009 and at the time Japan realized it would take another decade to get the X-2 into service, assuming all the technical and fiscal obstacles could be overcome and the government agreed to provide the cash. At that time China and Russia were also trying to develop similar aircraft while the U.S. has already done so, several times, since the 1980s when the F-117 appeared.
The X-2 was actually a “demonstrator” aircraft for testing stealth concepts. The stealth tech that works would then be incorporated into what became known as the F-X. A new fighter was needed to replace the locally built F-2s by the end of the 2020s. At first it was planned to call the F-2 replacement the F-3 (or ATD-X). This version would have a lot less stealth and other advanced tech. The decision to go full stealth came about after Japan received its first F-35s and realized that the original X-2/F3 concept was too limited. Japanese F-35 pilots confirmed that the F-35 software was as essential as the stealth features and the reason why F-35 export customers have been increasing their orders once their pilots have experience with the F-35.
Japan was always aware that the FX option depended on how dangerous their neighborhood got. The Chinese and North Korean threats increased over the last decade and FX is an effort to ensure the Japanese defenses keep up. The X-2 program was meant to prove Japan could develop and build a modern stealth fighter. The single X-2 prototype was not meant to become an actual combat aircraft, but rather a technology demonstrator that would make as many as 50 test flights and conclude the process in 2018. That is what happened even though the X-2 only flew 34 times. After 2018 it was a matter of obtaining foreign partners and money from the Japanese parliament to proceed to stage two, which is the F-X.