The F-35 recently completed its first trial in beast mode. This is the next step in a process that has been fraught with delays and technical issues, and historical developments of superweapons suggest there is a long way to go.
Beast mode is the term when the internal bay of the F-35 is fully loaded with ordnances. This increases the plane’s stealth capabilities and top speed while retaining its stunning lethality. The speed, ability to avoid detection, and wide range of ordnances with advanced guiding technology make this plane superior to many others and suited for multiple combat missions ranging from air-to-air superiority, tactical shaping of the battlefield, or hitting critical command-and-control sites.
This is a much needed step in its development. The F-35 has faced numerous cost overruns and delays in its 20-year development. It has had numerous technical problems and, at one point, almost 50 percent of the air fleet was grounded due to lack of spare parts. It famously lost a dog fight to older (much cheaper) planes during its testing phase, though the more recent tests suggest a better performance for the F-35 as pilots became more familiar with it.
Despite those numerous design flaws it has entered its combat-ready phase, and as shown from its test of beast mode, it promises to offer a significant upgrade in capabilities over the current jets fielded by potential adversaries like China and Russia. While the F-35 has faced teething issues, it is still better than planes like the new Chinese J-20 which is still trying to overcome engine explosions and their own share of design flaws.
Overall, the promises of the F-35 remain largely potential versus realistic. This is hardly surprising considering the lessons of history. Despite their impressive armaments, the Japanese super battleships had little effect on the war. The new ships were literally in their own class and were 40-percent larger than the Americans’ Iowa-class battleship with guns that alone weighed more than America’s battleships from World War I (New York-, Wyoming-, and Nevada-class.)
Yet they were so expensive and important that the Japanese often kept them away from intense battles until late in the war when they were heavily outnumbered and strategically limited. The ships ended up spending so much time in port, especially after a submarine attack damaged one of them, that one of the super battleships was called the Hotel Yamato. This meant that these ships missed critical engagements like Solomon Islands Campaigns and Battle of Guadalcanal, where they could have made a difference in the strategic balance of the war.
The King Tiger (or Tiger II) heavy tank is another example. At its introduction in mid-1944, this was one of the most feared tanks fielded by the German army. It combined the thick armor of the Tiger I with the sloping armor of the Panther medium tank. The heavy armor, with sloping design and powerful gun, made it extremely powerful against other tanks on the battlefield. But it was rushed into development and had numerous technical flaws such as needing prodigious amounts of fuel and maintenance. The tank overpowered most of the allied tanks available on the Western front until late in the war but still had little effect on the outcome.
Wars are not simply a math contest where a person compares the size of gun barrels or counts how many missiles they have. Weapons systems are used by soldiers and seamen during times of intense stress and they are directed by an overall strategy. This means that weapons systems can sound really impressive on paper and in click-bait articles, but they might have a negligible effect on any future conflict. This is something to remember when reading about weapons systems like the carrier-killing missile developed by China or when Vladimir Putin brags about Russian hypersonic missiles. It should also be in the minds of the American military every time they trumpet the success of a superweapon that promises the world. The beast mode is an important development and a good sign, but the general history of superweapons and the troubled development of the F-35 suggest a strong amount of caution.