Naval Services Tout Progress in F-35 Program
By Dan Parsons
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has been under fire from budget hawks and acquisition reformists because of repeated delays and soaring cost. The latest hitch in its development was a malfunctioning tail hook that failed to properly grab deck cables when the aircraft landed on aircraft carriers.
The tail hook has been completely redesigned and officials are confident it will work when tested later this year. With its physical components completed, the program now hinges on software development and integration, which will be the final challenge for engineers of the most expensive, complex weapons system the United States has ever fielded.
“We are now in the meat of this program,” said Vice Adm. David Dunaway, commander of Naval Air Systems Command, said April 10 at the Navy League’s annual Sea Air Space symposium at National Harbor, Md. “We’ve come a long way to get here. We’re now to the part that is really important. This is where the rubber is going to meet the road and we’re going to succeed or we’re going to fail.”
Two F-35Bs have completed at least 8,000 hours of flight testing. Lockheed has delivered 58 aircraft to date. Thirty of those were delivered last year and another 36 are scheduled for calendar year 2013.
The F-35A is a conventional takeoff-and-landing variant designed for the Air Force. It will be flown from land bases with full-length runways.
The F-35B variant, which is capable of short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL), will replace the Marine Corp’s Harrier jump jet and is designed to operate from amphibious assault ships. It is also the most complicated and expensive of the three variants because it has a pivoting rear engine and a vertical-lift fan behind the cockpit that allows STOVL.
The third version of the aircraft is the F-35C, will become the Navy’s primary carrier-based aircraft.
The Department of Defense plans to buy 2,443 aircraft.
The United Kingdom, Italy, Netherlands,Australia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, and Turkey are part of the development program; Israel, Singapore and Japan also plan to purchase the aircraft.Development efforts now are focused on the software that will run the aircraft, integrating all of its various functions — intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, flight controls, ordnance delivery, target acquisition — into a complete weapon system.
Rear Adm. Randolph L. Mahr, deputy program executive officer for the F-35, said “ We’re not going to focus on the past. What’s past is done. In 2001, the United States government made a choice on which aircraft to develop and we’re going to bring it across the finish line,” Mahr said.
The Marine Corps will receive an operational aircraft in summer of 2015, Mahr said.
“Put it on your calendars,” he said. “The United States Marine Corps is holding us to that date. The United States Air Force is right behind them. Our partner nations are right behind them.”
Software testing is scheduled for completion in 2017, with operational testing in 2018.
Lorraine M Martin, executive vice president for F-35 at Lockheed Martin said the company has driven “stakes in the sand” at those dates and is committed to staying on schedule.
Brig. Gen. Mark R. Wise, commander of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory said the first planned deployment of an operational F-35B is scheduled for 2017, but did not say where the jet would be sent.
The Marine Corps wants to buy 353 F-35B jets. It will augment that order with 67 F-35Cs, equating to a total order that will outfit 18 active duty squadrons and two reserve squadrons, Wise said.
Mahr said the complexity of the F-35 is a necessary and welcome symptom of modernization. But the military cannot absorb ballooning life cycle costs that complexity might entail, he said.
“The F-35 A, B and C are more complicated than the aircraft we’re replacing, but they cannot be more expensive to operate,” he said. “The operating cost of the F-35 … will be in line with the operating cost of legacy aircraft.”
Mahr said the military’s relationship with Lockheed Martin and engine builder Pratt & Whitney and their subcontractors was improving and that the companies are aware of the government’s need to restrain cost growth.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, program executive officer for F-35, recently criticized industry for failing to perform tasks within budget. Those failings stain the program, constantly reminding military officials that inefficiencies will not be forgiven in the future, Mahr said.
“We all have a long way to go putting the failings of the past and the problems the program has had behind us,” he said. “Judge us by where we go from here."
Despite development woes, the F-35 is flying now and Marine Corps officials are learning how it will be deployed in future conflicts.
There are currently five F-35 bases in the United States. A sixth will be established at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Another will be established next year at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, in South Carolina, which will be the primary training venue for pilots from the United States, the United Kingdom and Italy.
Before it is introduced to active units and deployed with the military around the globe, the military’s existing platforms have to be configured to work with the F-35, said Rear Adm. Mark Darrah, assistant commander for research and engineering at Naval Air Systems Command.
Integration with Navy ships is a major concern, given that the F-35B and F-35C will be flying off L-class amphibious assault ships and aircraft carriers, respectively. To accept the F-35B, which is capable of short takeoff and vertical landing, big-deck amphibious ships had to have a thermite coating painted on their decks in spots where the plane will land. Without the special coating, the heat from the aircraft’s downward-facing engines could melt the ship’s deck, he said.
“Air-ship integration is key,” Dunaway said. “The F-35 has to fit in to the carrier air wing and into the [Marine air-ground task force. We have to have affordable aircraft and we have to have sustainable aircraft.”
Photo Credit: Defense Dept.