F-35 Program: a national challenge that requires urgent political clarification

The definition of national strategies for the development of the National Defense of any country and, consequently, of the Armed Forces and each of their branches, is a matter of great political complexity. Currently, this definition cannot be made without taking into account the international context (increasingly challenging), the uncertainty of the outcome of current conflicts and the unpredictability of the escalation of current and possible new regional conflicts.

But not only: the evolution in North American politics and its impacts on NATO, the evolution in European politics and the establishment of consensus in the area of ​​European Defense, as well as in Industry of European Defense, are other issues that frame this area today. As is easily understood, the decisions taken by Portugal in National Defense need a good technical foundation, but also a political vision that is up to the challenges.

In this sense, the establishment of a broad political consensus around the Military Programming Law (LPM) is a decisive step towards the acquisition, modernization and adaptation of operational means of the three branches of the Portuguese Armed Forces. This is even more true with regard to the acquisition of new capabilities in each of them, with a consensus that in 2023 there was an adaptation of LPM to the new context challenges.

We realize that the speed of adaptation of each country’s national strategies becomes mandatory, as well as the flexibility of all instruments for applying these strategies. A better or worse response to present and future challenges will depend on this capacity.

This is, therefore, the time to courageously face these challenges, but also to review investment priorities to anticipate possible operational needs of the Portuguese Armed Forces in each of its three branches. One of these challenges is currently in the sphere of the Air Force with the need to reflect on its combat fighter squadrons.

There are two possible paths: maintaining the capacity to control national airspace, continuing to make adaptations and updates to the F-16 fighter program (today with around three decades of service, on average); or gain the capacity to project resources for new geopolitical challenges, and, in this case, take the decision to invest in a new program and a new installed capacity, through the acquisition of the fighter the F-35s.

If Portugal is left out of the fifth generation, “someone has to come here†to carry out air policing, says CEMFA

Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

Some will say that the decision is simple. Others will argue that equipping the Armed Forces will always be a secondary challenge, and the means for this investment should be channeled to other areas. In fact, they are both right, as the decision is truly basic from a strategic and operational point of view, but very complex given the country’s financial reality.

In a decision of this magnitude two analyzes normally operate: one related to political expectations regarding the existence and evolutionary progress of conflicts in which Portugal may be called upon to contribute within the scope of its commitments at multilateral level (UN; NATO and European Union); and another related to the military challenges and resource projection requirements of the Portuguese Armed Forces.

Advancing towards that paradigm that the Portuguese Air Force calls “Air Force 5.3†– considering its Mission of “participate, in an integrated manner, in the Military Defense of the Republic …†– It is an indispensable requirement to guarantee the progress of the Air Force, but also the acquisition of new capabilities. This paradigm involves providing the Portuguese Air Force with the means and capacity to dissuade and defeat potential adversaries in all imaginable war scenarios in the air.

But it also involves the materialization of a process of rapprochement with other air forces that already have modernization processes being implemented, with acquisition operations made or in progress of the aforementioned F-35. This is, in fact, a reality that leads to the obsolescence of the F-16 program becoming real, having already skyrocketed the cost of its maintenance, as well as the value of a possible adaptation ion and version update.

On the contrary, entering the F-35 Program will bring our Air Force closer to the others and also allow us to optimize its operational product, with inherent gains for the Country. With this, the aim is to apply the new capabilities to create a network of sensors, decision-makers and performers that will allow greater connectivity between partners.

One of the positive consequences will also be the synchronization of decision indices in training scenarios and in real combat scenarios. And, also, the alignment of the Air Force with civil society, generating obvious gains that will, in the medium term, decisively lower the value of the program.

At a technical level, this program will guarantee a reduction in the radar signature of combat fighters, guaranteeing greater “invisibility†and greater analysis of the operational context, with the increase in sensors multidisciplinary advanced. As well as an increase in the sharing of real-time information for joint operations, the guarantee of improving the capabilities of pilots and other human resources, in addition to the obvious increase in the quantity and types of weapons with which the F -35 can operate.

A very sensitive issue is the cost of this Program, which, according to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Cartaxo Alves, could amount to 5.5 billion euros over a period of 20 years. It should be noted that, in the current Military Programming Law, funds were already included to advance the studies necessary for its implementation.

This first sign is very important: it signaled the desire to move forward, in the short term, with the modernization of the Air Force. This expressed the existence of political will.

In short, the current European and global geopolitical context, but also the return of a conventional model of conflict in which air supremacy is fundamental, make it necessary to adapt the Portuguese Armed Forces through ©s of the execution of LPM. The increase in funds clearly demonstrates the political commitment of the previous Government.

It is now increasingly urgent for clarification from the current Government, particularly the current Minister of National Defense. The options that may be taken, or the lack thereof, will be decisive for the Air Force 5.3 program, but also for the development of National Defense itself and for the strengthening of Portugal’s sovereignty.


Francesco Giganti

Journalist, social media, blogger and pop culture obsessive in newshubpro

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