The last few days have been filled with announcements about the F35, possibly a reaction of Lochkeed Martin to the by now well known report that throwing the current problems of the plane to the crowd easily managed to rise moans and calls for cancellation and other bemoaning. While it is far from pleasant to see the F35 still having all these issues, it is not at all surprising for a new generation airframe which is roughly 1/5 into its test phase and which is pushing the boundaries of what is possible a good deal ahead of where they are now.
First of all, the F35 report on year 2011 from the US DoD was released, and it confirmed that the situation is bittersweet.
"Overall the [F-35 programme] has demonstrated very little missions system capability thus far in flight-tests. In fact the programme has not delivered some of its intended initial training capability, such as effective and consistent radar performance," the report written by Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon's director of operational test and evaluation, notes.
The report, though, notes that the F35 programme exceeded the 812 in-year test flights for 2011 by 105, and flew 56 more sorties for the testing of mission systems than the 133 planned. The problem is that the most specific test flying, the sorties designed to demonstrate specific systems such as targeting and navigation, are behind schedule by 11% for the F35A and 9% for the B.
Good news for the UK, the F35C is 32% ahead of schedule.
More worrisome, but expected, is the fact that the 63 production-model airplanes delivered under the first four low-rate initial production contracts will require, later on, “significant numbers of structural modifications and upgrades”. It is a problem, for now, for the US: the UK is getting 2 F35B (BK-1 and BK-2) from LRIP5, both due for delivery this May if the schedule is met, with the first F35C (CK-1) arriving next year. All three are more advanced than the previous airplanes built and already incorporate many of the changes. Still, they will need upgrades and fixes, but being airplanes destined to live an intense but relatively short life (especially the first 2) it is not granted that they will be upgraded.
What the UK wants, is for its production lots of F35C to come as ready and complete as possible, at most, if possible, coming out with the software Block 2 while the final Block 3 is refined. Expensive structural upgrades will hopefully be avoided: the Typhoon gave (and gives) the armed forces more than enough in-year expense as it is to gain the many capabilities it still does not have. (from Paveway IV, which should arrive this year, to AESA radars hopefully around 2015, to Brimstone and Storm Shadow planned for around 2014, but also the last ten or so Tranche 1 to go through the R2 retrofit to be brought to Block 8 standard [from F2 toFRG4 in-service designation for the RAF] )
The F35 test fleet is now starting to fly at night as well, it has been announced, further expanding the scope of the test flights. An Interim Helmet Mounted Display (a version of the Striker from BAE system, as used on the Typhoon) will be soon made available and used for the tests, with the pilots wearing NVGs while Rockwell Collins tries to fix the latency problems with its HMD, which for the moment remains the long term planned F35 fit.
It would not surprise if BAE further developed the Striker to try and get the contract, though. Whoever can deliver the needed performance on time and budget is more than welcome!
Again of great relevance to the UK, the tailhook issue that caused the press to write a thousand articles about carrier planes that can’t land on carriers was already know by LM, and a revised tailhook design is being prepared for trials on Lakehurst Air Base, N.J in the second quarter of this year. While risks remain, the at-sea trials campaign on US Navy carriers remains planned for summer 2013, with LM confident that the revised tailhook will catch the wire.
Basically, the problem is that, in order to conceal the tailhook when not in use to preserve stealthness, a small bay had to be built in the fuselage to accommodate it, and this forced engineers to have the hook much closer to the landing gear than in other carrierborne airplanes. Distance on the F35C is just above 7 feet, while even the X47B drone has over 10 feet, and the F18 much more than that.
This means that when the jet passes above the wire and causes it to move, the hook arrives early, before the hook movement stops, making it more complex to catch it. The revised tailhook takes this and other considerations in hand, and hopefully will deliver a working solution. LM is bullish on the matter, and dismissed claims that the F35C won’t land on aircraft carriers as “patently not true”.
Again of importance, modifications and fixes are financed by the US. The money spent by the UK in test and development won’t rise above already agreed figures (over 2 billion).
A less pleasant news, (see why I say bittersweet?) is that transonic acceleration targets might not be met, with the F35 accelerating slower than planned due to its large front section. This is hardly an issue of great concern, considering that the acceleration target was (very ambitiously) written for the F35 based on acceleration of the F16 and F18 in “clean” (no external loads) configuration.
The clean configuration of F16 and F18 means no weaponry, the clean configuration of the F35 means 2 AMRAAM and 2x 2000 pounds bombs in the weapon bays, a relevant difference.
Besides, most of the life of the fighter jets, including in combat, still happens at high subsonic speed. And for the UK, the F35 will still be a huge leap ahead in performance compared to Harrier and also to Tornado GR4.
Another of the issues highlighted by the recent damning report was that of the fuel dump valve, which (again due to the needs of stealth) had the defect of not releasing fuel clear of the fuselage. Particularly bad for the F35B, on which fuel can go dangerously close to the roll-post ducts in the wings, part of the short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing system, and potentially ignite. A revised fuel dump design is incoming already that will fix the problem. A first temporary change will be available on the test fleet soon, while in the second quarter of the year the definitive solution will be rolled out and tested on the fleet for enabling its use on the next airplanes to be produced.
As a news of purely UK interest, the MOD process for selection of the Joint Combat Aircraft Main (and only) base is ongoing. Unsurprisingly, Marham is on the shortlist. It is not specified which bases complete said list: Lossiemouth could still be on it, since it used to be the preferred MOB until last year, when it was decided to close Leuchars and move the Typhoons into Lossie. It is expected that Lossiemouth will now be busy with its 3 Typhoon squadrons and QRA North role, so the F35 is very likely to be based elsewhere.
Marham is, in my opinion, the most serious (and possibly the only) alternative. Also because Marham’s destiny depends purely on the Tornado GR4 of which it is home. There is only one destiny for Marham is the F35 goes somewhere else (where? I don’t really see realistic alternatives): closure.
We will see what happens, but I firmly believe that, perhaps already later this year, Marham will be announced as MOB for the JCA fleet.
Speaking of announcements, the new British Army structure is expected to be explained on April 12. So, updating the “Big Dates” calendar:
January 26, BAE conference on Type 26 GCS
April 12, announcement on new Army Structure