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PARIS AIR SHOW NEWS: Lockheed Planning Major Increase in Range, Other Capabilities for F-35
Photo: Jon Harper
PARIS — The Lockheed Martin-built F-35 joint strike fighter will receive additional capabilities in the coming years including significantly enhanced range, weapons capacity and manned-unmanned teaming options, a company executive said June 17 at the Paris Air Show.
The fifth-generation aircraft is expected to play the role of “quarterback” and be the centerpiece of future military operations, Pentagon officials have said.
The Defense Department is buying the A variant for the Air Force, the short takeoff and vertical landing B variant for the Marine Corps, and the aircraft-carrier based C variant for the Navy. It is the largest acquisition program in Defense Department history.
But the program is a multi-national effort. Nine original partner nations have funded its development and produce components including: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States. Foreign military sales customers include Israel, Japan and South Korea. Belgium has also elected to procure the plane.
More than 400 of the fighter jets have already been delivered, and Lockheed Martin projects that number could eventually increase to more than 3,500. A technology refresh slated for the 2023 timeframe is expected to add significant capability to the platforms, said Greg Ulmer, vice president and general manager of the F-35 program at Lockheed.
“We talked to several customers about how do we extend the range of the airplane,” Ulmer told reporters during a briefing. “We're looking at conformal fuel tanks as well as external fuel tanks on the airplane to increase the range” by about 40 percent. The F-35A currently has a combat radius of about 590 nautical miles.
Ulmer said the range could be extended for all three variants.
Other capabilities are slated to improve. By the time of Lot 15 production, Lockheed aims to increase the internal weapons bay capacity from four to six missiles and integrate new weapons into the aircraft. The fighter could potentially externally carry new hypersonic weapons that the Pentagon is pursuing, he noted. Hypersonics can travel at speeds of Mach 5 or faster and are highly maneuverable, posing a major challenge to enemy air defenses.
New sensor fusion capabilities could facilitate multi-domain operations such as missile defense, Ulmer noted.
“We've done some experimentation here and seen some very strong results as well, and that will only improve” with the technology refresh, he said.
The sensing and communications capabilities could enable the jet to team with unmanned systems, he added.
“The data sensor fusion approach to the airplane as well as our relationship with our brethren at the Skunk Works [division of the company] I think very well align relative to unmanned teaming and the F-35's ability to play in that realm,” he said.
Lockheed is planning other classified upgrades to the aircraft, which Ulmer declined to discuss.
During the Block 4 technology refresh, new capabilities will be added over time, he noted.
After the hardware technology refresh in the 2023 timeframe, “you'll see year over year over year we're going to have an incremental update in terms of the capability that hardware provides,” Ulmer said.
Under pressure from the Pentagon, Lockheed Martin has been working to bring F-35 costs down. Last week, Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord announced that the department and Lockheed had reached a “handshake agreement” for the low-rate initial production Lot 12 contract with options for Lots 13 and 14.
The $34 billion agreement for Lots 12 through14 will include the delivery of 478 aircraft — including 157 for Lot 12 — for the U.S. military services, partner nations and foreign military sales customers, Lord said in a statement.
The agreement will result in an estimated 8.8 percent cost savings from Lot 11 to Lot 12 F-35As, and an average of 15 percent unit recurring flyaway cost reduction across all variants from Lot 11 to Lot 14, she noted. For Lot 11, the price tag for the F-35A was about $89 million.
“This framework estimates the delivery of an F-35A for less than $80 million in Lot 13, one year earlier than planned,” Lord said. “This agreement symbolizes my commitment to aggressively reduce F-35 cost, incentivize Industry to meet required performance, and to deliver the greatest capabilities to our warfighters at the best value to our taxpayers.”
Operation and sustainment costs of the joint strike fighter have been a major concern for Lord and others. Ulmer said Lockheed aims to bring the cost per flying hour down to $25,000 by 2025.
Some negative publicity for the program emerged last week when Defense News reported that different variants of the aircraft have a number of category 1 deficiencies including potential problems associated with operating in extreme temperatures, cabin pressure spikes, the logistics system and the peeling of stealth coating at speeds greater than Mach 1.2.
Ulmer said the company has plans in place or is developing plans to resolve those issues.
F-35 Program Executive Officer Vice Adm. Mat Winter told Defense News that none of the deficiencies represent any serious or catastrophic risk to pilots, the airframe or missions.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government has threatened to boot Turkey out of the F-35 program if it moves forward with plans to purchase Russian-made S-400 air-defense missile systems. Ulmer said the program has not been affected by the current standoff.
“Right now the program of record stands,” he said. “Turkey still remains … a partner on the program. We're still producing the Turkey aircraft. We're still procuring material from Turkey,” he said.
However, Lockheed is looking at potential alternative sources of supply and will follow the direction of the U.S. government as it relates to Turkey’s involvement in the program, he added.