Sunday, March 4, 2012

The F35 in a new storm

New rumors of an epic-fail re-rethink of the UK's F35 strategy have made the news on the end of this week, spreading new panic and outrage in abundance, and doing so by, as almost always happen, using vague or plain wrong information to cause outcry.

I do not think that there are serious chances of a re-rethink, nor would i ever encourage it. The cost of converting the carrier to catapults and wires is high, and this is undeniable, but there are all indications of the fact that the F35B is bound to cost more to acquire and run. In the short term it is attractive to buy STOVL carriers - a lot less money needs to be spent, and it is a lot easier for the Navy to argue for retention and use of both - but in the long term it is almost certainly going to cost a lot more. In other words, it risk being a cost-cutting measure as "wise" as Labour's 2008 decision of delaying 450 millions of expenditure on CVF in the short term, adding 1.56 billion of cost spread on the longer term.
This kind of suicidal economic planning is EXACTLY the kind of self-destructive "culture" that the MOD has promised to abandon.

Besides, going back on the decision to fit catapults would have a negative impact on the possibility of working and collaborating with France's naval aviation and with the US Navy, while doing very little to improve the capability of working with other allies, including Italy and the US marines, with their F35B.
A CATOBAR CVF can work without serious issues with embarked STOVL planes, but a STOVL CVF cannot take a CATOBAR airplane.

Another good reason to stick to catapults is that they are a real mean to future-proof the vessel for the future. UCAVs, large UAVs, F18s, Rafales, and so many other machines will be able to use a CATOBAR carrier, while a STOVL one is tied to the F35B and to purposefully-designed STOVL UCAVs which, just like the F35B, will cost more to develop and will perform less.

And all this is, of course, without expanding on how embarrassing and damaging it would be in political terms. The change from B to C is said to have severely irked the US Marines, especially since the UK's decision was a severe blow to the already shaking fundations of the F35B, which they desperately need.
A new change of heart would now enrage the Navy, and would be a tremendous blow to the UK's credibility, which would have consequences also on the willingness of the US to give F35 work to the industries of a country which seems unable to decide what it wants and in which numbers.

I'm sure that the program and the F35 situations are being followed and reviewed constantly, but i do not believe that, as of now at least, a big change is on the way. I don't even think it is being considered seriously. The press reports are, i believe, making far more noise than it is justified, building card castles over standard-enough practice of options reviewing common to all Planning Rounds.

This piece of metal, deceptively simple-looking, is the current cause of concerns.

The fact is that time for acting on the conversion at build of Prince of Wales is running fast, and decisions will have to be taken quite soon. David Downs, Aircraft Carrier Alliance engineer director, reported recently to "The Engineer" that:

Members of the Aircraft Carrier Alliance and the UK MOD attended the Preliminary Design Review for the Aircraft Launch and Recovery equipment, electro-magnetic catapults and advanced arrestor gear, at General Atomics in San Diego at the beginning of February. The proposed equipment for the UK is identical to that being supplied to the US carrier CVN 78 with just the minimum changes necessary to accommodate it in the UK ship, such as two catapults in lieu of four.

Read more:

The article is very good, you should read it. There are good updates on the progress of Queen Elizabeth and on the highly mechanized stores and weapons handling system.

In my opinion, in the MOD everyone is holding the breath and phoning to LM pretty often, waiting anxiously for the promised trials of the F35C with revised tailhook design and hoping that it goes according to plan.
If it does not go well, then a re-rethink might really become necessary.

I'd only support a return to the F35B if it was accompanied by a firm commitment to putting in service and operating both CVFs, no excuses.
But even so, i'd still have reserves: i do think firmly that catapults are the right choice, although expensive at build.
Conversion of Prince of Wales at build and later conversion of Queen Elizabeth in 2022/23 at her first major refit, with the two carriers both active to ensure constant availability of a carrier/Landing Helicopter Aviation platform for the Navy to form a proper task force in any moment of the year, when the need calls for it.
This should be the plan, and the firm cornerstone in the defence policy for the future.

Instead, there still seem to be hostility and hesitation. A situation to correct as soon as possible. Even "now" would arguably be late.

In the following article, i'll try to explain the current F35 situation, to dismantle, where possible and appropriate, the scaremongering of the press and of the opponents of carrier air, which in the UK for definition are opponents of the F35.

The F35 delays in the US budget

It is by now known by pretty much everyone that the US are delaying a total of 179 planned F35s in the fiscal period between 2013 and 2017. Of these, 110 will be USAF F35A, 48 F35C and 21 F35B.
These are, at least for now, delays, not cancellations, as the Pentagon has stated again and again that the planned numbers still stand.
Of particular relevance to the UK, the numbers of interest are 340 F35B for the USMC, with an additional 15 to 22 airplanes for the Italian Navy (down from a figure that at one point was as high as 62) and 340 F35C (260 US Navy, 80 US Marines).

The US delays and the tail-hook issue of the F35 are the main sources of the current commotion, but a revised tailhook design is to be fitted and trialed in a few months time. If it does work, and luckily it is quite likely that it will, all the drama will finally be silenced.
If it fails and a major airframe redesign proves necessary, well, the story changes dramatically. But as of now, the tail-hook hysteria is entirely unjustified.

As of December 31, 2010, the F-35 program had a program acquisition unit cost (or PAUC, meaning total acquisition cost divided by the 2,456 research and development and procurement aircraft) of about $154.4 million in constant FY2010 dollars, and an average procurement unit cost (or APUC, meaning total procurement cost divided by the 2,443 production aircraft) of $132.8 million in constant FY2010 dollars.

This is the average cost that the US expects to be facing, and they are working to try and ensure that they stick to it: for example, the Low Rate Initial Production LRIP 4 order placed in November 2010 is fixed-price-incentive (firm target), meaning that Lockheed Martin and the government “would equally share the burden of a cost overrun up to 40% over the fixed price. Any overage above 40% would be Lockheed’s exclusive responsibility. Based on the per-unit price of roughly $126 million, the contract in other words ensures that even if the cost grows as high as 176 million per airplane, the government stops paying at 151 millions.

Of course, Lockheed Martin will only deliver the F35 program if, at the end of development, the unitary cost of the airplane drops and allows the company to get profit out of the production, otherwise the system doesn't work. However, this is a good mean to put pressure on LM and ensure that even Low Rate production airframes are purchased for an acceptable price.

The cost of the F35 of course depends also on the amount of money committed to development: the US has paid by far the largest share of said non-recurring costs, with the UK limiting its expense in this area to a maximum of some 2 billion pounds, with 1.55 having been expended so far. The UK's contribution is estimated to stand at 8% of the cost of the design and development phase.
There is a firm plan in place to give each country a determined share of the non-recurring production costs associated to the F35: the UK is liable for 318 million dollars with a further 58 million in non-recurring sustainment costs and 576 million in non-recurring follow-on development costs, for a total of 952 million USD.
The US figures, in comparison, stand at 5623 million dollars for the first, 1018 for the second and 10202 for the third, giving a total of 16843 USD millions in non-recurring costs that weight on their F35 acquisition effort.
This mechanism shields the partner countries, UK included, from the risk of having to shoulder massive cost increases due to development issues, but of course, if the F35 can't solve its problems and drive unitary cost down, it will still eventually fail, if nothing else because LM itself would eventually have to terminate it because unable not only to make a profit on it, but booking losses for it by paying overruns over the fixed-price contracts!

A total of eight allied countries - United Kingdom, Canada, Denmark, The Netherlands, Norway, Italy, Turkey, and Australia - are participating in the F-35 program under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for the SDD and Production, Sustainment, and Follow-On Development (PSFD) phases.
The US government has opened the F35 to participation to other allied countries unable to join the SDD phase, the so-called “Security Cooperative Participants”, which to date include Singapore and Israel, with both believed to have contributed north of 500 million dollars each to F35 development.
The UK is the most important partner, the only one with Level 1 status, and has received industrial workshares that account for around 20% of an F35 airframe and 15% of its total value. UK, Netherlands and Italy will participate in the Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) phase, with Britain having a particularly important role to play in the process with its two pre-production F35Bs and single F35C, while Italy and Netherlands will have a role limited essentially to the coalition concept of operations (CONOPS) validation testing.

Japan and Israel have placed firm orders for 42 and 20 F35A, with both (but particularly Israel) interested in buying more later on. The unitary cost that they are about to pay is significantly different: Japan will get each F35A for 112 million dollars, rising to around 126 when spares and support are factored in. The unitary cost of the Israeli F35 (spares excluded) is put at around 137.5 million.
This is due to a combination of factors which include:

- Israeli funding to the F35 development might have been calculated into the procurement price
- Israel is effectively acquiring a special variant of the F35A, the F35I, which will be quite widely modified since Israel wants to integrate significant amounts of national systems and technology. Interestingly, Israel is already developing a Conformal Fuel Tank assembly for the F35, that might prove very interesting to other customers as well.
- Israel wants the stealth F35s urgently, and deliveries are requested to happen between 2015 and 2016. The Japanese deliveries will only begin in 2016, and with time cost is bound to drop lower.

Italy has recently announced that its order for 131 F35 (69 F35A, 40 F35B for the Air Force and 22 F35B for the Navy) will go down to just 90 (68 A and 22 B, or potentially 75 A and just 15 B, there is not yet a firm plan). Norwey has decided to take delivery of its F35As two years later than once planned (the first 4 will arrive in 2016). Canada once planned for 80 airplanes, now for 65, and might downsize the order even further. Turkey wants around 100. Netherlands delayed their orders so that they will get their first airplanes in 2019, four years later than once planned.
The UK was once expected to have ordered some 36 airplanes between 2013 and 2020, but this is very likely to be cut by 50%, giving a fleet of 18 by 2020, to be expanded in the following years. The full order is insistently indicated in 50 airplanes as of late.
In the 2009 Production Plan, the UK was set to finalize an order for 7 F35 in year 2013, with delivery in 2015. If this order is to be placed, it is evident that a firm decision is needed soon, and there's only one year left to make it.
There is a quite sizeable probability that this order will be delayed by at least one year, or downsized, because the planes ordered in 2013 would have to undergo a quite expensive retrofit and upgrade a few years later to bring them to full capability, something that the MOD would like to avoid.

The US delays themselves are mainly caused by uncertainty regarding development. Production is ongoing at quite high rhythm while development and testing is still ongoing (this is called Concurrency), and, unfortunately, the process of validation of the airplane and of its systems is being much slower and much more complex than hoped.
Slowing the orders is a quite natural consequence: in fact, the planes produced now are equipped with an incomplete software and even the hardware and the airframe itself comes with problems and with components that are still effectively untested under many aspects: this means that, in the future, many millions would have to be spent to retrofit the airplanes with the final software and possibly with re-designed, re-manufactured airframe parts.
To give an idea, a 2011 Budget proposal, modified during the approval process, contained a request valued at over 80 million dollars for the procurement of 25 conversion kits to retrofit an equal number of early-production F35A.
Delaying orders, while moving more money into development and testing, is a natural reaction to try and bring the airplane to maturity while limiting the numbers of airframes to retrofit later on.

Is it a problem? Yes. Does it have the potential for causing cost increases affecting the UK's order? Potentially, but i do not think it will. If the arrestor hook issue is solved with a mere redesign of the hook itself, which is already being done, the F35C will remain on a substantially firm and healthy footing. The issues would emerge from an eventual failure of the redesigned hook.

By November 2015, the SDD phase is planned to be completed and full-rate production is to start (Milestone C). In 2013 the F35C should go to sea for the first time to launch and recovery from a carrier underway. In 2014 the testing on components for validating the airframe life expectations are to be completed.
By the end of 2015, mature Block 3 software will have to be available, while the LRIP lot currently on order (LRIP 6) and the next one should have the Block 2B and 3I, which will have the first few combat capabilities built in, but still with large limitations and flight envelope limits.
The LRIP 6 should deliver airplanes with a basic weapon carriage and employment capability, and it should remove the Angle of Attack limitation to 18°, allowing the F35 to reach its design value of 50°.
In terms of maximum speed, which is currently limited to 0.9 Mach, the LRIP 6 and LRIP 7 planes should bring it to 1.6 (F35A, service speed target) and 1.2 for F35B and C.
In terms of G force limits, the F35A will be cleared for 7, the B for 5.5 and the F35C for 7.5, its final expected value.

The plan is to have the F35s delivered ready for service from LRIP 8 onwards.
LRIP 8 production should start in 2013 with Long Lead item orders, and deliver the airplanes in late 2016, early 2017.
LRIP 9 will follow with initial activity in 2014 and deliveries completed by early 2018, LRIP 10 will have its start in 2015 and LRIP 11 in 2016.
In 2017, the Low Rate production should finish, and give way to the final, full-production output.

LRIPs, software packs, and airplane capabilities: the plan to reach Combat Ready status

The UK's orders are likely to try and stay as much as possible in the advanced phases of Low Rate Initial Production. Ideally, the UK wants to order the thick of its fleet no earlier than LRIP 8, to avoid needing an expensive retrofit soon after entry in service. The Typhoon has given more than enough nightmares with its spiral development still far from being complete to this day, and money is tight.

The problem with the F35, in other words, is not so much the fact that the US are delaying some of their orders, but the fact that the development schedule is quite demanding, there are issues to solve, millions of lines of software to write, and all must be done by 2015 while pushing costs down.
One first very important moment should come within the first or second quarter of this year, when the F35C will trial (on land) the revised tailhook.

The F35C arrestor hook problem is actually a combination of three issues: a too weak hold-down damper, an ineffective hook design, and a very short distance between the main undercarriage and the arrestor hook. The comparison of values between the F35C and all other US Navy carrierborne assets, including even the X47B drones, is quite merciless: the F35C is by far the machine with the less space between undercarriage and hook. This means that the cable on deck is still moving wildly due to the shockwave of the aircraft's passage above when the arrestor hook comes down for the catch, making a miss far more likely than it should be. The damper and hook are already being redesigned and fixed, and are not a too serious issue. But if the revised design also fails and relocation further aft of the hook proves necessary, extensive airframe redesign will be needed, and this would be a tremendous blow to the program. Click on the image to see larger.
If it catches the wire, we can pull a huge breath of relief. If it does not, it is likely to represent a deadly serious problem at that point.

F35 testing progress

Lockheed Martin is trying to speed up development, testing and validation of the F35, with some considerable success this far. In the first two months of 2012, the F35 test fleet flew around 10% of this year's targets. The 2012 schedule is very demanding: it calls for the accumulation of 1,001 test flights and 7,873 test points, and LM anticipates a growth in both counts as development is accelerated.
Last year, the test fleet flew 972 flights, one hundred more than planned at year start, and set 7823 test points, against an expectation of 6622. LM hopes to replicate, and significantly exceed test targets in year.

Significant reached milestones already reached in the first two months of the year include:

- highest altitude flown by the F-35 to date, with AF-4, an F35A, reaching an altitude of 43,000 feet Mean Sea Level (MSL) On Jan. 9.

- another F35A, AF-3, completed the first low approach with the Electro Optical Distributed Aperture System (DAS) on January 17.

- On January 18, F35A AF-6 completed the first night flight and landing.

- On January 20, Defense Secretary Leonard Panetta announced that the F35B has progressed enough that it is out of probation, and a year earlier than expected.

- February 16 saw the first flight with external pylons and weapons being carried, by AF-1.

- Also in February, the F35B test airplane BF-2 flew test sorties with internal and external weapons carried. Bomb bay opening was trialed, and on February 22 the airplane flew with inert, externally mounted AIM-9X SIdewinder missiles and centerline 25 mm gunpod. The gunpod will also be used by the F35C, with the sole F35A having the gun internally mounted. More weapons carriage activity will be carried out this year by F35B and F35C, all the way up to bomb releases.

- Training of pilots and maintainers has been officially started with the USAF authorizing local flying for the F35 from the base of Eglin, on March 2. From tomorrow onwards, the growing fleet of F35s on the base will become operative.

BF-2 flying with external pylons, inert Sidewinder missiles and centerline gunpod. This pod is used also by the F35C.

Progress is reportedly being done on fixing the imagery jittery and latency issues that represent a very serious obstacle to the use of the Head Mounted Display and sight developed for the program by VSI, a joint venture company of Rockwell Collins of the U.S. and Israel’s Elbit Systems.
The sight is intended to use EO DAS live image feeds to display the outside view for the pilot, giving full 360° degrees sight and cueing, even across the fuselage or cockpit floor. The HMD should also project infrared imagery for night flying, removing the need for night vision goggles (NVG). This very ambitious system is particularly vital for the F35, also because the JSF does not have a conventional HUD.

The issues with the HMD have pushed Lockheed Martin to ask BAE Systems and VSI to work on a temporary solution using NVGs. However, using NVG on top of the standard helmet will limit the use of the sophisticated display and information fusion capabilities that make the F-35 unique.
It is very important to fix the HMD issues in time and within budget, otherwise the effectiveness of the F35 will be severely affected. The temporary solution from BAE is based on the Striker helmet used on the Typhoon, with the Q-sight display and drop-down NVGs for night flying. Excellent coverage of the solutions being considered available here.

BAE's interim solution for the pilot's helmet is far from where the F35 wants to get, even though it is a very advanced solution.

As of 31 December 2011, the F35 program has reached a total of 12.728 test points, 21.4% of the total 59585 total points to be met by 2016.

The Naval F35s: B and C in the US navy and USMC. What for RN and RAF?

An interesting document from the US Navy department contains some very good info about the numbers and plans of the american naval aviation.
In particular, there is excellent detail about the USMC plan for the use of its F35 fleet, which is planned to include 340 F35B and 80 F35C.

This fleet will sustain a force of 21 Active and 3 Reserve Squadrons. Each active squadron is to have 12 airplanes, with the reserve sqns having probably 10 each.
Of the active squadrons, 5 will be mounted on F35C and 16 on F35B.

Out of 420 USMC F35s, 282 will be frontline airframes, 64 will be used for training, 6 for Operational Evaluation and 68 will be attritional airframes. Unfortunately, there is not a breakdown of the 3 reserve squadrons (will one of them be on F35C?) and there is not a detailed separation between B and C in the numbers.
However, with 5 squadrons planned, 60 out of 80 F35C should be frontline, with just 20, a quarter, committed to training, attrition and OEU.
Counting on the whole fleet of B and C together, instead, between training, OEU and attrition, one good third of the fleet is sucked away from frontline service: this is partially due to more F35B being allocated for attrition.

The 5 F35C squadrons of the Marines will replace as many as 13 Squadrons currently flying the old F/A-18A and F/A-18D Hornet.
The US Navy is to get 260 F35C, to assign to an unspecified number of squadrons (15 or 16, possibly) to replace some 17 squadrons currently flying the Hornet.

A further 20 squadrons of US Navy and US marines fly with the newer, larger and far more capable F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornet, and they will continue to serve at the very least until 2030 alongside the F35.
The planned US Navy carrier air wings of the future will have 2 Super Hornet squadrons, each with 14 airplanes, and 2 F35C squadrons with 12 airplanes each, plus a squadron of EA-18G Growler electronic war airplanes, of which there are now on order some 126, destined to replace the Prowlers in as many as 14 Squadrons by 2015. Around 2018, the UCLASS reconnaissance and strike drone should become part of the wing, with 4 to 6 drones embarked. Hawkeyes and helicopters complete the force.
There will be 10 standing Carrier Air Wings according to current planning.

For the UK, on an order of 50, a rate of 1 support airframe to 2 frontline ones could mean committing 16/18 airplanes to training, OEU and attrition, leaving as few as 32 airplanes for frontline service, insufficient to equip 3 squadrons of 12 airplanes each. A possible solution would be to effectively pool the frontline airframes and assign them based on the needs of the moment to bring one or two squadrons to full strength all the time in a rotational fashion. A quite likely solution, especially considering that the whole F35 fleet will be based on a single airport.
3 frontline squadrons of 12 planes each should be the firm bottom-line for the F35 fleet: a force even smaller would hardly be meaningful. 3 squadrons is also the minimum strenght needed to be able to embark a full carrier wing when needed.
A better target remains the activation of 4 frontline squadrons in the long term, but this requires more airplanes to be ordered, since 50 are just too few.

The 2009 British F35 schedule: how much of it is still valid?

A question without answer, at least for now. Not much of it is still valid, if anything, is my sensation.

Anyway, the schedule would give the UK a fleet of 36 F35s by 2020, by means of orders finalized in the following fashion:

2013 - 7 planes
2015 - 9 planes
2016 - 11 planes
2017 - 3 planes
2018 - 6 planes

These firm finalized orders are followed by delivery of the airframes roughly 2 years later, so 2018 is the last useful year to place an order with delivery in 2020.
The UK plans to hit F35 Initial Operating Capability on land in 2018, with a second IOC at sea in 2020 with 6 embarked planes, to become a full squadron of 12 routinely embarked by 2023.
Unless the 2018 IOC target is abandoned, the UK will have to order a number of airplanes soon to start the buildup.


F35 Memorandum of Understanding_update 2010

US Navy and USMC aviation plans

F35 report for US Congress, 2012

F35 Quick Look review

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