The U.S. military’s largest tactical aviation program, it’s safe to say, will not be terminated.
Beyond that, a cloud of uncertainty still hovers over the Joint Strike Fighter. Doubts persist about key aspects of the nearly $400 billion program, such as how many airplanes will be produced and when; and most recently, whether the Marine Corps’ vertical-takeoff variant will even survive.
Of all the services, the Navy has been the most aggressive about hedging its bets by shoring up its fleet of Super Hornets and older Hornets. The Marine Corps continues to champion its short-takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) F-35B and so far has refused to buy into the Navy’s Super Hornet backup plan.
JSF, more than any other Pentagon weapon system, symbolizes the unsurpassed military might of the United States and the American way of war that is dominated by air power. The program includes nearly 2,500 high performance fighter jets for the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and several allied nations that have made tentative commitments to buying it.
The development phase of JSF already has slipped by nearly two years, to November 2015, and the military services already are drawing up contingency plans. If all goes as currently envisioned, the first fleet-ready aircraft would not be available until 2017 or later. It will be up to each individual service to determine when its F-35 variant will be ready for real-world operations.
The Pentagon’s Defense Acquisition Board met Nov. 22 to assess the current data on the program, but they did not issue any report or statement. A spokesman for prime contractor Lockheed Martin said it would be “inappropriate to discuss the specifics of the DAB at this time.”
Of the three JSF models, the Air Force’s F-35A appears to stand on firmer ground than the other two. Air Force officials have discussed possible upgrades to the F-16 and F-15 fleets, and have even leaked rumors about possibly extending the production of the F-22, in anticipation of F-35A delays.
Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz says the Air Force will be ready to deal with any setbacks in the program. “If the airplanes are not ready to put on the ramp, we’ll work alternatives,” he told reporters at a Defense Writers Group meeting in Washington, D.C. “It’s not the preferred solution to be sure, but we’ll do what’s required.”
Schwartz’ comments suggest that it is still too early for F-35A supporters to panic. “Software appears to be a potential pacing item here and that has me concerned in terms of deliveries,” he says. The Air Force is now beginning to study options for reburbishing current F-16 fighters.
The path that each service is taking to fill potentially a years-long gap before JSF arrives speaks volumes about one of the reasons this program has been so tough to manage and keep on schedule, industry insiders say. Just because the program is called “joint” does not mean the services are united behind it.
Marines for years have blamed the Navy for not standing firmly behind JSF and, by doing so, jeopardizing the prospects of the STOVL variant. Another devastating blow to F-35B has been the U.K. Royal Navy’s budget-driven decision to back out of the STOVL program. The British government may still acquire a reduced number of F-35Cs, the U.S. Navy’s carrier-based variant.
Navy officials, for their part, publicly have reaffirmed their commitment to F-35C, but have already kicked off a plan-B alternative. In what was seen as a sign of confidence that the Navy will not be replacing their Super Hornets with F-35s any time soon, the service awarded Boeing a $5 billion contract this year for 124 new aircraft.
In addition, the Navy will be embarking on what could be a multibillion-dollar project to revamp its fleet of more than 600 aging Hornets and the earlier generation of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. The Navy has more than 400 E/Fs. The older ones are being retrofit with new technology that could put make them JSF-like, officials contend.
Analysts estimate that it will cost $26 million per aircraft to extend the life of the Hornets from 8,000 to 10,000 flying hours. That is about half of what it costs to buy a new Super Hornet.
The F/A-18 E/Fs are being updated with improved data-links and radios, “look-and-shoot” helmets to cue weapons more precisely, air-to-air AIM-9X missiles, and new avionics and displays.
The older F/A-18A-D Hornets will require extensive renovations. The Naval Air Systems Command is conducting a “service life assessment program” and a “service life extension program.” A SLAP is an “extensive evaluation of opportunities to extend service life design limits,” says Marcia Hart-Wise, spokeswoman for Navy tactical aircraft programs at NavAir.
“The assessment for the legacy Hornet fleet is a two-phase effort,” says Hart-Wise. “Phase 1 focused on reaching extended goals for catapult, arrested landings and total landings. Phase 2 focused on extending the life of the F/A-18 A-D models from 8,000 to 10,000 flight hours.”
The first SLEP phase was completed in 2008. The second step — to categorize and prioritize aircraft structure based on its condition — began in December 2008 and is expected to wrap up by spring 2011, according to Hart-Wise. A third phase — scheduled to begin in mid-2011 — will provide justification for what the Navy will consider necessary structural modifications. “A SLEP Phase C request for proposal has been issued,” says Hart-Wise. A yet-to-be-determined number of F/A-18 Hornet A-D aircraft will undergo SLEP modifications between 2012 and 2018.
Early models of the Super Hornet are receiving new AN/APG-79 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar to replace mechanical scan AN/APG-73 radar.
In light of JSF delays, radar manufacturer Raytheon also is trying to persuade the Navy to expand AESA upgrades not just to Super Hornets but also to older Hornets.
“We’re pitching it to the Navy,” says Michael “Ponch” Garcia, a reserve Navy pilot and manager of business development at Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems.
This is a way for the Navy to keep flying “fourth-generation” aircraft and elevating their performance to quasi “fifth-generation” level as would be the case in F-35, Garcia says in an interview.
“You can put the AESA into an old jet without making major modifications, not going outside the weight confinements, not adding power or cooling requirements,” Garcia says. “The radar that will be on JSF is equivalent to the APG 79 in the E/F and the APG 82 that will be on the Air Force’s F-15E.”
The Navy’s tactical aviation fleet has a “significant obsolescence problem,” he says. That means that are no spare parts available for the older APG 73 radar. Raytheon is trying to make a case that the Navy could keep those Hornets “operationally relevant” for several more years if it equips them with new AESA radar. “Instead of trying to fix and buy spares for the old 73 radars, we are asking them to look at the business case of buying new radars,” says Garcia. “Every APG 73 radar that you displace now becomes a full set of spare parts for your legacy fleet.”
For both Boeing and Raytheon, there is a silver lining from JSF continuing to slip to the right.
The fourth-generation aircraft has been in service for 10 years, says Garcia, “but you know it’s going to be around for another 20,” he adds. “That’s the market we’re chasing right now.”
In times of declining budgets, he says, “One of our tag lines is you can get 90 percent of your fifth-generation capability at half the cost.” An AESA equipped Super Hornet is “generation four-and-a-half,” he says. “All the sensors are fifth generation. You won’t have super cruise. You won’t have 360 stealth. You lose that. But you’re getting it for half the price.”