The F-35 Lightning II is starting to look like a fighter that will punch well above its weight. And that is good, because militaries around the world have quite a lot riding on this fifth generation warplane.
In the United States, the Air Force is counting on the F-35A, a conventional multirole variant, to provide next generation stealth and sensor fusion to go with the powers of its stablemate—the F-22. Introduction of the Lightning will let USAF start retiring its aged F-16s in a few years. Later, F-35s will take the place of ground-attack A-10s, too.
The Navy, meanwhile, is eager to acquire the F-35C carrier variant of the Lightning. It will bring much-needed stealthiness to its big decks and allow retirement of older F/A-18C Hornets. The Navy’s premier carrier fighter, the F/A-18E/F, possesses no stealth capabilities.
All told, partner nations’ air forces and navies have booked orders for a total of 3,173 Lightnings. That may not be the end. Israel and Singapore have also signed on as “security cooperation participants” and could well wind up purchasing significant numbers. Essentially, every nation that currently flies the F-16 is considered a possible F-35 customer.
Indeed, the first flying F-35 air vehicle, designated AA-1, is quickly accumulating test flights. It flew for the 19th time on May 3—the first flight took place late last year.
These flights represented the initial 20 hours of a rigorous, 12,000-hour flight-test plan for a program that will eventually produce three highly common stealth fighters.
Program officials are evaluating a variety of key performance parameters, and results in most areas are better than planned. Reality is exceeding plan in the areas of combat radius, radio frequency signature, mission reliability, sortie generation rate, and logistics footprint. STOVL performance, meanwhile, is near the stated requirement.
This means, however, that F-35s will lack a direct beyond-line-of-sight communications capability until MUOS is operational. Until that time, Lightnings will have to route those communications through E-3 AWACS, E-8 Joint STARS, or other assets.
The aircraft had no fuel leaks during ground tests or the first flight—unprecedented for a new fighter design.
The F-35 team did not expect any delays in flight testing as a result of the incident.
The reason is that the toughest IOC target date is that of the Marine Corps—in the year 2012. Davis noted that, for various reasons, production has been pushed further into the outyears, meaning there will be fewer F-35s available in the target year. The Marine Corps, therefore, is concerned that airplane delays could delay IOC.
The Air Force’s 2013 IOC date offers more flexibility. The Air Force doesn’t always deploy full squadrons, so the service is now determining actual requirements for operational status.
The moves reduce the amount of money the Air Force will have to spend on the program in any given year, but the resulting loss of scale economies will raise the overall program price. “I don’t think the Air Force, with all of its other competing priorities, [was] going to buy 110 airplanes a year,” said Davis. “They never had the budget capacity ... to do that.” USAF is “struggling” to make sure it can “establish the budget capability to buy even the max rate they have now,” 80 aircraft a year at peak production, he added.
However, the age of the Air Force’s legacy fighters is such that the service simply must hold to the maximum production rate of 80 F-35s a year. Otherwise, it will not be able to fill out squadrons and allow aircraft to retire without being forced into unplanned service life extension programs.
USAF’s program has now been stretched; the last purchase, once planned for 2027, will now take place in 2034.
“There isn’t a big payoff for us in STOVL,” Gen. Ronald E. Keys, head of Air Combat Command, recently said. “Our plan now is not to acquire the STOVL version.”
For the time being the issue is dead. “I don’t think there’s any serious discussion within the Air Force about buying the STOVLs,” said Davis. “We’re certainly not responding to any questions, and I know of no activity.”
Current modernization and structural improvement programs will keep the A-10 in service into the 2020s, giving the Air Force more than a decade to change its mind again, if it so chooses.
Vice Adm. James M. Zortman, commander of naval air forces, said last year that the carrier fighter requirement falls “somewhere between 360 and 380.” At about the same time, USMC Col. Robert Walsh, deputy commandant for aviation, said that, “right now,” the Marine Corps requirement was 420 aircraft.
Davis characterized the ongoing discussions as a “healthy debate.”
Foreign partners such as Britain and Australia are eager to ditch their obsolete fighter aircraft and move on to the sleek, stealthy Lightning. At present, both the RAF and Royal Navy fly Harrier jump jets, fighters that have proved effective and versatile but tend to be unreliable.
Britain’s services plan to buy 138 F-35s, and it has been the strike fighter’s top foreign partner from the outset.
Nine PartnersAustralia did not want to take the risk that the F-35 would not be ready in time to replace the F-111.
The nine F-35 partner nations recently signed a memorandum of understanding reaffirming their commitment to participation in the production phase of the program. By the end of February, the US, Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, and Turkey all had signed the MOU codifying an agreement on the “common” portions of the production, sustainment, and follow-development.
For an aircraft program of this scope and magnitude, harsh questions about cost always will be close at hand.
Still, the F-35 program is in the grip of serious financial questions. Two recent developments illustrate the problems facing the F-35 program office.
Not all the recent cost growth is due to DOD budget adjustments, however. The F-35 program is now using much more titanium than previously expected, and this change occurred at the same time that the cost of titanium shot up in the world market. This added billions in cost to the program.
GAO’s concern is that the concurrent development, procurement, and test schedules will force delays or require large numbers of aircraft to be retrofitted as problems are identified.
He continued, “That can be done, but that can be a very costly process, too. I am concerned about the concurrency” between the F-35’s test, development, and acquisition schedules, but the program is building on the lessons from the F-22 program, which was “a great risk-reducing pathfinder for us.”
The F-35’s alternate engine program suffered a more dramatic fate, and its future is now in the hands of Congress, after the Pentagon moved to kill it.
“I believe there is always value in competition, and there’s value in having additional sources,” Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Chief of Staff, told Congress earlier this year. “At the end of the day, this is about money. It’s $2 billion that we don’t have.”
Such an unfunded mandate would force the Air Force and Navy to each give up $800 million to $900 million worth of airplanes. “That is my biggest concern,” Davis said, “If Congress uses this program as a source to fund this engine, ... we will have serious problems.”
Fact of LifeEvery budget perturbation is a problem because affordability is a hallmark of the program. “We have probably lost, cumulative, over a billion dollars’ worth of buying power just due to normal budget adjustments over the years,” said Davis, a fact of life in Washington that is hardly unique to this program.
“The biggest thing that concerns me ... is just trying to keep these production numbers stable,” said Davis. “The single most damaging thing that can happen to the program right now is continued degradation of the numbers of airplanes. That just drives cost.” (See “Struggling For Altitude,” September 2006, p. 38.)
Davis said, “We’ve got to deliver to the services what we’ve promised, but on the other hand, I need the department and the services to try to provide us stability.”
Davis is confident the program can prove that performance is on track with the first STOVL flight next spring. Many of the world’s air forces are hoping he’s right.
The Defense Department zeroed out funding for the F-35’s alternate engine program in the 2008 budget request. Now Congress has to determine whether to order the GE-Rolls Royce engine program to continue, or to let the Pratt & Whitney engine be the sole JSF engine supplier.
In the first, the Government Accountability Office determined that “competitive pressures” from two engine suppliers make it “reasonable to assume that competition on the JSF engine program could yield savings” that offset the cost of the second program. There are also likely to be nonfinancial benefits from competition, GAO found, such as better engine performance and reliability, industrial base stability, and “more responsive contractors.”
David G. Ahern, a senior official in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, testified in March that “the CAIG analysis of JSF engine alternatives showed relatively modest additional life-cycle costs or savings” resulting from a competition. The CAIG also found benefits in competition “other than cost savings,” but did not evaluate them in its analysis.
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