US Navy's F35C Fleet Replacement Squadron will stand up May 1st on Eglin Air Force Base. The Squadron, will fall under 33th Wing USAF, and is the Navy component of the F35 Integrated Training Centre of Eglin.
The squadron plans for a strenght of 15 F35C, and will train pilots and maintainers for the C fleet.
The Squadron is the VF-101 "Grim Reapers".
I already covered the subject of the Integrated Training Centre of Eglin here.
Training deck crew for CATOBAR recovery ops. Two interesting video showing how the switch to CATOBAR is being trialed, simulated, and how it is informing the design changes to CVF.
The next months are going to be busy ones for the CVF program: a big part of Queen Elizabeth's hull [LB05 and LB02] will arrive in Rosyth for assembly, and a new build cycle will start as the hull of the carrier starts to really come together.
BAE systems succesfully delivered the Tornado Helmet Mounted Cueing System as a UOR for helping pilots operative in Afghanistan. In the next months the HMCS will be rolled out onto the wider Tornado fleet.
The RAF thinks of the Heron TP. With Telemos/Scavenger not coming online until 2020 and the Reaper funding being a UOR that will finish in 2015, the RAF is thinking of what to do to cover the gap. There are at least two options:
- Retain Reaper by bringing it into Core Budget when the treasury funding stops coming
- Acquire Heron TP from Israel
The Reaper option in my view is the most logical, and France's own interim UAV program is there to prove that it is also considerably cheaper. At least 50% of the current RAF Reaper fleet will be worn out by 2015, with how busy the fleet has been, but by then there will be a Reaper control station fully operative on Waddington air base, and years of operational experience to build upon.
The easiest solution would thus be, in my view, to make another order for new Reaper airframes to keep up the fleet strength.
The Heron TP is the most advanced Israeli drone. It has a single engine and twin tail booms. It can fly above 40.000 feet and stay in the air for over 36 hours with internal fuel, with around 1000 kg of sensors as payload, distributed in a big belly bay/bulge and in two pods in the tail booms. A "gondola" payload container can be fitted under the fuselage, and this high payload capability is seen as a way to future-proof the drone: Israeli sources have already expressed the idea that one day there might be an air refueling drogue system fitted in a special gondola, giving the Heron the capability of act as air tanker for other drones: something that the US are already experimenting with the Global Hawk.
It weights nearly 5 tons. With a 26 meters wingspan, it is believed that a typical mission is a 24 hours search loiter over an area at 1000 km from the take-off base, undoubtedly impressive.
Its advantages might lay in the very high altitude of cruising, easing problems of integration of the drone in civilian airspace (to this day a very hot issue braking the expansion of UAV roles at home), but it would represent a whole new investment, a whole new challenge and fleet and infrastructure to stand up.
In addition, while wing hardstations for weaponry might eventually be added, as it is the Heron TP is unarmed, and with it the RAF would either lose the considerable hunter-killer capability of Reaper or need to spend many millions of pounds to add the pylons and weapons to the Heron.
Despite France's Senate recommending a cheaper Reaper buy, the french government is pressing on to buy Heron TP and have Dassault make extensive work on it to bring the drone to France specifications. It is a political/industrial choice.
But the UK MOD definitely does not have money to throw out of the window, so i hope that whatever decision is eventually taken it is a well thought-out one.