Thursday, April 9, 2015

An F-35 update

A brief summary of where we are 

The F-35B test fleet has received the F-135 engine fix that makes sure there won't be a repeat of the hard rubbing of fan blades and stator that lead to the fire on the USAF AF-27 aircraft last year. The only aircraft in the test fleet which has yet to receive the pre-trenched stator is BF-5, and that's because it spent the last 6 months inside the McKinley climatic laboratory in Eglin, to undergo extreme climatic testing. 
The whole fleet of F-35s is due to be fitted with the pre-trenched stator element by early next year. The stator element received a "trench", cut in during production, which ensures there is not excessive rubbing with the fan blades. The alternative, used to quickly fix some of the test aircraft, is to fly a series of manoeuvers planned out to gracefully cut the trench in. 
The fix is said to be effective. The loss due to the greater gap in the stator is said to be just around two degrees, which is not significant. However, engineers are considering whether a more effective change is possible, affordable and needed.

As mentioned, BF-5 has recently completed climatic testing. The results seem to have been good, and there have not been particular issues arising either from extreme heat or extreme cold, or everything in between. 

Sun bathing to replicate the intense heat of a day parked on a runway in hot climate zones

Icing cloud test
Flying in the freezing air
Flying without moving from the spot, including in VTOL modes. Testing the F-35B required a complex infrastructure.

In May, 6 F-35B of the USMC are due to deploy at sea on the USS Wasp for the first Operational Testing phase (OT-1). This test deployment will be a work-up to the incoming IOC, still scheduled for July. USMC F-35Bs are moving through the depots to receive the modifications they need to get up to the latest standard. As of March, 5 jets were undergoing the refit at the Cherry Point Fleet Readiness Center - East. 2 more should have already been redelivered, and other work is being done by the USAF's own Depot, in Utah. 
A total of 10 frontline aircraft will be modified in order to achieve IOC. 

F-35B Ski Jump trials have begun in Patuxent River, and are expected to finish by mid-May. The first images of an F-35B taking off from ski jump are expected soon, and this will be a significant milestone for the british and italian needs. 

AF-1 has begun flying test sorties with a very asymmetric external load (one wing with clean pylons, the other with two GBUs and one Sidewinder) as part of the work needed to clear external carriage of weapons in the Block 3F software. 
Test sorties have been flown with 4 Paveway IV and 2 ASRAAM on the wing pylons, as well, to begin the integration of the british weapons load configuration expected at Block 3F (up to 6 Paveway IV, 2 internal and 4 external, and 2 external ASRAAM). 

AF-2 and at least another F-35A have been flown in a first series of trial sorties, testing basic fighter maneouvering with the assistance of F-16s. These have been defined "dogfights" in some press reports, but it seems we are still talking mostly about testing the handling and finding where the flight control laws can be adjusted. Building on high Angle of Attack testing and departure trials, the test pilots have begun flying with and against F-16s to see what the F-35 can do. The report says that there is margin to relax the flight controls to achieve greater agility, perhaps leading to a reversal of the degradation reported a few years ago. 

AF-2 is also preparing to begin, this June, the firing trials with the 25mm gun. The gun becomes available with the Block 3F software. 

Earlier, Col. De Smit of the dutch air force and Lt Col Lee Kloos, USAF, both coming from the F-16, went on record saying that an F-35 compares nicely in terms of turning to "an F-16 with combat load". They both said that a clean F-16 will turn better, but noted that a clean F-16 has little to offer in terms of range and weaponry, and is never actually flown operationally in such a way. 
Transonic acceleration, as well as climbing and descent, are described by the two pilots as matching those of a clean F-16 Block 50.  
Later on, with the beginning of Air Combat Manoeuvre training, we will no doubt hear more. 

The F-35C is due to have its DT-2 period of trials at sea between august and september. This time, the carrier involved is expected to be the USS D. Eisenhower. 

Remaining issues

Issues remain in the development of ALIS, the logistic planning software. Progress is slower than desired, and this impacts on the time needed to carry out maintenance. It is also one of the problems remaining on the road to USMC IOC, as the portable, deployable ALIS terminal isn't yet ready. 

Software development also remains, unsurprisingly, challenging. At IOC, the USMC seems set to not have access to the intended "4-ship fusion", which connects 4 F-35Bs in a package able to share the complete situational awareness picture, so that any target spotted by one aircraft is made visible to the others as well. 
Fusing the sensors inputs coming from 4 different aircraft is currently causing issues, as the differences in how each aircraft see the target generate multiple symbols on the screen, effectively making it hard for the pilot to know which target mark is the correct one. 
Fusion will initially be limited to pairs, while software clear up progresses with the aim of fixing this issue by October. 

The F-35B is still dealing with the Dunlop tyres, which, despite improvements made since 2013, still wear out quicker than planned. A new tyre design will follow. 

Software aside, the greatest issue still standing is the F-35B's 496 Bulkhead, which in 2004 was switched to aluminium from its original titanium design in order to reduce weight, with the unwanted result that, during airframe durability testing on the ground, it cracked, and then severed, at just after one simulated flying life. 
In order to be certified for its intended 8000 hours life, the F-35's fuselage must survive 2 simulated life cycles, with a third life cycle planned for validating the possibility of extensions beyond the 8000 hours. 
Durability testing on the F-35B's airframe has been stopped many months ago because of the 496's failure, and a redesigned bulkhead is needed. 
The problem will not affect the F-35B in the immediate (it'll be years before any of the aircraft produced so far enters the dangerous number of flying hours), but it is to be hoped that airframe stress tests will resume soon. In April 2014 Rear Adm. Randy Mahr, deputy program manager, said that the solution to the 496 problem was known and a redesigned bulkhead will be embodied into production from the LRIP 9 onwards, with the same component retrofitted during depot maintenance on the F-35Bs of the earlier lots. It is not clear at the moment if this is still the case, or if the development of a full, effective solution has slipped. It remains one issue to work upon. 

One non-issue which instead made a lot of noise on the press is the fix to the F-35B's weapon bay in order to fit the Small Diameter Bomb II. The apocalyptic tones used in some reports are definitely excessive when the fix is actually about a small change to the passage of an hydraulic line and some wire bundles. Moreover, the F-35 cannot exactly be blamed here, since the B's weapon bay was downsized all the way back in 2004, while the SDB II, which is not yet in service, began development in 2010. The "fault" is of the weapon, but the fact is that is simpler to carry out the small modification to the weapon bay rather than try to further miniaturize the bomb. Much drama has been made about how the SDB II won't be available on the F-35 before 2022, without considering that the SDB II won't be operational before 2017 at the earliest (on USAF F-15E), which becomes 2019 on US Navy Super Hornets. 
Moreover, it is not like F-35 will instantaneously make up the whole of the US air power: for many more years there will be F-15Es and F-16s to carry out a big share of the game. No real need to panic. 

The F-35B modification will be part of Block IV work, and the Joint Project Office is designing the fix keeping track of the requirements for partner weapon requirements as well. For the UK, this includes Meteor and SPEAR 3. 

British Status of Play

On a british-specific perspective, the 17 (R) Squadron stood up in Edwards AFB as the F-35 OEU squadron. For now it is equipped with BK-1 and BK-2 only. These aircraft came out from depot maintenance and received the latest modifications. 
BK-3, which is not instrumented, is in Beaufort as training aircraft, embedded in the USMC training squadron 501. 
BK-4, the next aircraft to be delivered, is instrumented and will joint 17(R) Sqn as third and last test platform. 

Procurement of a first batch of 14 aircraft has been authorized. The expected LRIP split is 4 in LRIP 8, 6 in LRIP 9 and 4 in LRIP 10. This should lead, by end-2018 or 2019 to the following situation: 

- 5 F-35B training fleet in Beaufort
- 3 F-35B test fleet in Edwards
- 9 F-35B in 617 Sqn, to RAF Marham 

Where to find F-35s in 2018

Speaking of RAF Marham, more than 300 million pounds have been assigned for infrastructure preparation in the base. Back in June 2014 it was announced that 3 Landing Pads will be built in order to practice vertical landing. A runway renovation is planned. The current Hardened Aircraft Shelters used by IX squadron with Tornado GR4 are due to be modernized ahead of welcoming 617 Sqn when it arrives from America (although the extension of the service life of the third Tornado squadron on base complicates somewhat the management of spaces as the major building work begins). 
Marham is also expected to receive an Integrated Training Centre which will train british pilots from 2019 and that will welcome other european crew training needs too, probably beginning with Norway's. 
Again, Marham is expected to eventually include a MRO plant for maintenance and upgrade, and this will require a large hangar and serious infrastructure. Another hangar complex is needed to host the stealth coating maintenance and the RCS testing laboratory which certifies the Low Observability after each coating re-application. 

Meanwhile, a Virtual Analysis Laboratory has opened in Ampthill, UK, to allow british-based software experimentation, analysis and development through simulation. The work done here will inform and direct software development carried out at the ACURL (Australia, Canada, United Kingdom Reprogramming Laboratory) at Eglin, in the US.

In Culdrose, funding is expected soon to rebuild the current Flight Deck training facility (the "dummy carrier" HMS Siskin) so that it ceases representing an Invincible class deck and enters the Queen Elizabeth age instead. The 14 Sea Harriers currently used for deck handling training are also expected to be replaced as they do not "impersonate" the larger and heavier F-35B well enough. A small number of F-35B mock-ups will be procured instead, for the handling and parking proper, while an option for deck runs and engine-on rolling training is getting back some ex-RAF Jaguars, which are thought to provide a more F-35B like feel. 

A Navy News graphic shows the existing HMS Siskin, surrounded by the shade of what Queen Elizabeth's deck would look like. In reality, it seems that there will not be a whole deck mock-up, but just the stern area, up to and including the first elevator.

A busy HMS Siskin training deck handlers. This is where you can still see Sea Harriers engines in action, although none of the aircraft can fly.
The 5-strong F-35B training fleet is expected to move out of the US to begin operating in Marham in July 2019. That's when US-based training of british F-35B crews is expected to end. 
Actually, the last of a planned 24 british pilots to be trained at Beaufort is expected to complete the course by May 2018. 

There is not yet a date for the standing up of the second frontline squadron, 809 NAS. For now, the stated purchase target stands at 48, including the test fleet. Greater clarity is hoped to come from the new SDSR. 

Where do we go from here? 

The beginning of the F-35B in british service will be relatively modest, at least compared to what the aircraft will be able to do later on. With Block 3F, the F-35B at IOC in 2018/19 will be able to carry 2 ASRAAM externally and up to 4 AMRAAM internally in a fighter role; or 2 AMRAAM and 2 Paveway IV in internal-only configuration, or up to 4 AMRAAM, 2 ASRAAM, 4 Paveway IV, or again 2 AMRAAM, 2 ASRAAM and 6 Paveway IV using both internal and external carriage. 
The gun pod will be available as well, provided that a new "no gun" budgetary stunt is pulled, like that, then aborted, which was played with the Typhoon.  

Block 3F capabilities

Block 3F comes with some limitations to the use of the EOTS as IRST sensor; and with no video-downlink capability, which is unfortunate as in recent years this has become a key factor in providing air support to the troops on the ground, sharing imagery with the JTAC. 
In defence of the F-35, it must be said that when the requirements were written and development started, the ROVER video-downlink did not exist yet. Clearly, the capability to share sensors imagery with the troops on the ground will be high on the list of priorities for development of Block IV, the software load for the 2020s. An IR pointer is also likely to be added. 

At entry in service, the F-35 will be able to share targeting information through self-determined GPS position data. Not quite the same thing as having full imagery, but it should be enough of a beginning. 

A notional road map for future developments

The capabilities will expand a lot going forwards with the Block IV software. Last 17 march, the deputy manager of the F-35 programme, Rear Adm. Randy Mahr, provided a document explaining some of the planned next steps. The presentation includes a table of enormous interest about british weaponry plans.
Block IV apparently is now going to comprise 4 different software releases, and I can’t quite say at the moment how this relates to the earlier assumption of having two stages, Block 4A in 2021/22 and 4B in 2022/23. 

March 2015 document showing the list of candidates for Block IV integration.

The four releases will incrementally add new weapons to the F-35, and for the UK the first candidate is SPEAR 1 – Penetrator, which is the new bunker-buster warhead developed for the Paveway IV bomb. This new warhead, which keeps the external shape of the current one but comes with an hardened penetrating body inside, is the de-facto replacement for the current 2000 lbs Paveway III used on Tornado GR4. The III is destined to go out of service alongside Tornado, it seems. Raytheon Uk and the MOD have been working on the new warhead option for the Paveway IV for a while now, and a production contract is expected soon.

The second candidate is “SPEAR seeker”. The definition is somewhat puzzling and not detailed, but I believe it probably refers to the proposed addition of an IR Imaging seeker again on the Paveway IV, in order to dramatically improve its ability to hit moving targets.
Spiral development of Paveway IV is all included in Selective Precision Effects At Range Capability 1 (2 being the Brimstone developments, and 3 the whole new weapon by the name of Spear).
There is also a “ASRAAM new build” candidate, which suggests that the Royal Air Force thinks it is time for a Capability Sustainment Programme for the ASRAAM. This has been loosely planned for years, and is supposed to build on what is being done for the CAMM / Sea Ceptor missile, itself an ASRAAM derivative.

Most important is the planned addition of Meteor. Integrating this weapon is particularly crucial to make best use of the F-35’s stealthness, firing from very long range. Moreover, integrating Meteor on F-35 is an indispensable step to move if the AMRAAM is to effectively leave british service in the near future.
The UK once planned to get rid of AMRAAM by 2017, but Meteor delays have forced a rethink. I would expect (and hope) that AMRAAM stocks will be extended a little more, to bridge the gap on the F-35, even after Meteor becomes the weapon of choice for Typhoon (should happen from 2018).

Finally, SPEAR 3 is expected to become available. Decisions regarding SPEAR 3 are expected in the coming months: MBDA is progressing with the design of the new SPEAR missile, but final development and production is expected to cost several hundred million pounds. There is a risk that the MOD will accept the Small Diameter Bomb II as SPEAR Capability 3 solution. However, this is not desiderable, as it would hurt the ability to design and produce complex weapons at home and moreover because the SDB II is a gliding weapon, while Spear has its own turbofan engine, offering greater range, greater Acceptable Launch Zone, more flexibility and greater range. All these advantages are crucial if SPEAR 3 is to provide, among others, a Destruction of Enemy Air Defence capability (DEAD) to compensate for the removal without replacement of the ALARM anti-radar missile. 

A single MBDA SPEAR missile seen on a Typhoon during development work
The end result the programme aims for. 2 Meteor and 8 SPEAR 3 will make for a powerful and versatile weapons load.

It becomes dubious if there will ever be a Storm Shadow integration on F-35. It won't happen that soon, and in the meanwhile the missile is aging. According to french budgetary documents, the Life Extension Programme for Storm Shadow / Scalp EG, which is a joint cooperation initiative between France and UK, is supposed to begin moving this year. We will have to see if the programme starts and how it goes. The number of missiles updated and life extended and the new OSD date will be crucial to understand if the F-35B will move on directly to the Storm Shadow future replacement. 
The SDSR 2010 imposed stock cuts on the Storm Shadow holdings for some 170 million pounds, according to the Telegraph. This is likely to have resulted in the removal of 170 to 200 missiles. Around 100 more have been used between Iraq and Libya, maybe more, leaving possibly around 600 rounds in stock. 

Brimstone is also not mentioned, at least for now. Brimstone, even in its Brimstone 2 iteration about to enter service is a rail launched weapon, so that internal integration is a problem (you need to eject the missile downwards and clear out of the weapon bay before its rocket motor ignites). However, SPEAR might include further developments of Brimstone, and if the missile continues to be the weapon of choice for CAS into the future, it will have to be added in at some point. 

Not mentioned in the table, but planned, is the addition, on the sole F-35A, of the tactical nuclear capability with integration of the B61-12 bomb for internal carriage. It does not concern the UK, but it is a factor in planning for Italy, Netherlands and, reportedly, for Belgium as it begins evaluating its options for replacing its F-16s.

Looking further into the future, the US are already planning years ahead, in particular by basing the research for new, more effective jet engines for the future on the F-135 powerplant. The future Adaptive Engine Technology Development (AETD) engine will be retro-compatible with the F-35, and is expected to bring massive advantages, in particular to combat range through much greater efficiency. The engine is expected to adapt to the various phases of flights to optimize its power output and fuel consumption. 

Funding is already being provided for cyber / electronic warfare capability insertion. In particular, a "cyber warfare" pod is in development already. Although not officially confirmed, the cyber payload will probably be carried into the TERMA-produced "multi-role pod" which is currently best known for containing the B and C's 25mm gun. 

Serious consideration is being given to directed energy weapons, in particular to lasers, but all this is of course quite a few years into the future.


  1. Nice photo's of HMS Siskin!

    All in all things don't sound too bad on the F35 front.

    What's the deal with the recent mentions of having only 6 F35 on QE as part of her standard air-group when 617 squadron will be initially equipped with 9 of them?

    1. HMS Queen Elizabeth will only be starting to see the F-35B in 2018... and from 9 aircraft, you can't expect to have many to deploy. But hopefully things will build up to more reasonable numbers.

    2. We will almost certainly see the 2nd F-35B squadron, allowing the operational carrier to surge 24 F-35B. In a national emergency or a Falklands 2.0, the reserve squadron will be able to provide additional qualified pilots and air frames on top of the 24 figure.

      Realistically, we will never see anymore than the 2 frontline F-35B squadrons than current planned. However, that this represents a very potent capability, especially if we get Storm Shadow and Brimstone 2 cleared for use.

      Towards the future, we should be looking at replacing our Typhoons (whose OSD is 2030) with F-35A and possibly see a Son-of-Taranis coming online by then too.

    3. Agreed that a mix of F35A or B and a matured UCAV (whatever it's being called this week) is the most sensible and likely approach when it comes to replacing Typhoon, although despite the official OSD being 2030 that could easily be extended, the Tornado after all has now seen 35+ years of service.

      It seems unlikely we will see more than 48 F35B as Harrier and partial Tornado replacement.

      As you say that will provide for 2 squadrons with additional air-frames and pilots that could set up a 3rd or bolster the others in a national emergency or other 'surge' conditions.

      The lingering questions in my mind as when will 809 squadron stand up and when (or even if) QE will be able to regularly deploy 12 F35B?

      6 as an initial number for trials is bearable, but as an accepted, continuing effort is pathetic!

      12 for each deployment with a surge to 24 every so often to demonstrate the ability is the minimum i'd like to see.

    4. My apologies, but a couple of points appear salient -
      1. 2 squadrons of 12 aircraft each is not a "potent" capability. It means we will have 24 aircraft to deploy inextremis and could sustain them only for 6 months in a "Falklands style emergency". So in effect we are saying that under current plans we will have enough aircraft and pilots to support a one off short operation with a half-full carrier
      2. Storm shadow integration would be a total waste of money and should not even be being talked about for F-35. To be honest I regret the day that the UK spent so much money on 900 of those things.....
      3. Perhaps you should be focusing on keeping the Typhoons in service and relevant for as long as possible, rather than replacing them with another variant of the F-35.... or alternatively buying more F-35Bs

    5. In fairness, 24 F-35 is 2/3rds of the maximum of 36. However the carriers are also (and rightly so) much more than just strike carriers. They will deliver AEW, ASW and air-lift for marines too. So I completely refute the "half-full carrier" nonsense, or worse, the "no aircraft to fly from them".

      They will be extremely busy platforms.

      Very few nations in the foreseeable future will posses an aircraft carrier able to surge 24+ 5th generation fighters for a 6 months campaign. That is a potent capability compared to what else is out there (bar the Americans).

      It is comparable to what the French offer, but with the added advantage of 100% availability of two carriers and 5th gen aircraft. It is a whole order of magnitude above what the Russians can do with their carrier.

      Storm Sh

    6. It is not immediately possible to determine how many aircraft 2 single squadrons could generate, and moreover, how often? It is highly desirable to build up, over time, to a 4 squadrons force. It would be very, very wrong to purchase any F-35A with the risk of having two similar, but not equal types, each of which would generate only so many deployable aircraft. Better to have more of the same type. Especially since the A would not be of any use carrier-wise. Land needs are covered by Typhoon. Let's fill the actual capability gap, before piling up other land-only assets.

    7. I completely agree - a 4 squadron force of F-35B is the absolute minimum the UK should be aiming for. That allows consistent deployment of 12 aircraft to a carrier and a realistic surge to 24 for 12 months. Gabriele is absolutely right that beginning to purchase F-35A would be a dreadful mistake, but one which I suspect the RAF is going to be pushing very hard for.
      Just to follow up on my Storm Shadow point - Typhoon integration is more than sufficient. Integration on a carrier based asset like F-35B just duplicates the cheaper and more effective Tomahawk alternative.

    8. Agreed that the F35A would be a catastrophe for the UK. I hope one day the blighters will understand we are an island and all strike a/c should have a maritime capability from word go. That way you have worldwide capability with maximum numbers; simples.

  2. That makes sense Gabriele, about focusing on the B variant. But do you actually see a mix of 5 Typhoon squadrons and 4 F-35B squadrons happening? Maybe 3 of the latter is more plausible, or 4 with the removal of 1 Typhoon squadron.

    Replacing Typhoon beyond 2030 with the B variant may be difficult for the RAF to swallow. But the benefit of all being carrier capable has to be taken into consideration.

    1. No the RAF and UK will like the US forces be looking at what NGAD will bring (hopefully alot of learned lessons from the JSF farce). The F-35 will be old hat by then and they will be looking at the next 30-50 yrs workload

  3. So the 48 F35Bs the UK will eventually be replacing the 100+ RAF Tornado GR4s, ~150 odd Harrier GR9s, and the 50 or so Sea Harrier FA2s that went in 2006. Fewer than 50 aircraft to replace capabilities that were provided by more than 300 less than a decade ago. I know F35 is good, I'm not one of the naysayers that think it's a complete lemon, but we've fallen into the same trap that we did with Type 45. "The platform is more capable so we can do with significantly fewer" argument is bollocks, because everyone's kit is getting more capable - even the Argentines will have a good 4th generation aircraft if the Grippen sale goes ahead, and they're about as bereft of military capability as you can get. I
    f we retreat to a policy of tokenism, weakly "supporting" operations dominated by the United States, we risk being able to do much at all if the Americans aren't on board. The Sierra Leone intervention, a small commitment sensibly managed and we'll led, was absolutely in the UK's interest - nipping a worsening crisis in the bud before it got too out of control. That earned us the near - permanent friendship of a small developing nation. It is unsurprising that Sierra Leone is still one of the few places where Tony Blair is popular, and while the story about their government asking for protectorate status may be apocryphal the image of a red-faced FCO official tugging his collar and saying "sorry, we're not in that business anymore" is certainly a nice thought!
    Without robust air forces, and armed forces capable of fighting for Britain's national interests, our defence and foreign policy will continue to be hitched to the Americans for good or I'll - and if there's one thing the Yanks won't do it's support our interests when theirs are at stake.

    1. I don't know, of course, how many F-35 will be purchased in the end, and over how long a time. But the plan, SDSR permitting, is to purchase more aircraft into the 2020s. I'm still quietly, silently hoping for the total to reach perhaps the 80 aircraft or so. Even so, with the Typhoons going down to 107 by 2019/20, there would be just about 180 combat aircraft into the late 2020s. The budget associated to the F-35 is apparently some 15 billions, although it notionally includes in-service support fixed costs out to 2040, so that the actual procurement money is not easily determined from the outside.

    2. Even with the longer term figures, you're looking at a very significant reduction in the number of UK strike aircraft. In a decade the pool of such aircraft will be be 1/6th of what it was in 2006. Even taking a theoretical total purchase of say 80 at some point in the 2020s that's still less than a third of the number we were operating very recently and without the diversity of airframes. Typhoon is good, but do we run an unnecessary risk by forcing our already dwindling pool of interceptors into the ground attack role and thus weakening our already borderline insufficient air defences at home- at a time when the Russians are probing our airspace more than they have since the end of the cold war.
      Also far fewer of the total pool of aircraft will actually be available for operations than the total. If we can only provide a token commitment then we might as well just abrogate our foreign and defence policy to the Americans and have done with it. The UK and US's national interests have slowly been diverging since the end of the Cold War, this is no time to gut our armed forces for short - term economic reasons.

    3. "our foreign and defence policy to the Americans and have done with it"

      When they are in a similar state? Haha that's nonsensical.

      Why not vice versa?

    4. Just as their defence policy is "hitched" to ours?

      The MIC on both sides of the Atlantic has propelled recent Middle East actions.

  4. Just a small point but should there be 6 in the training squadron as 18 aircraft ordered but only 17 allocated? (3+5+9)

    1. The figure of 5 aircraft for the OCU was given in a written answer. But 6 aircraft was an earlier suggested figure for the training element, so it might change over time.

      However, the fact that the map in 2018 shows only 17 aircraft might have to do with deliveries time. I'm actually not at all sure that there will be 17 aircraft operational by 2018, considering the time it is taking these days to go from order to delivery. Several aircraft might only actually arrive during 2019, i fear, especially those from LRIP 10. Timeline is tight.

  5. Gaby

    A very fine, well researched post.

    You might have dealt with this somewhere and, if you have, apologies. My question is when do you expect to see a fully operational carrier, complete with a full aircraft complement, all sea trials completed and ready to go. Will it be 2020 or later?

    My worry is that if "Ocean" is to go in 2018/19, then there could be a window of opportunity for would-be adversaries for a whole two years. What would happen if another Falklands or something similar did blow up during that window. We'd have no serviceable carries in service at all, would we?

    How much do you think it would cost to convert "Ocean" to a hospital ship cum air training vessel to replace "Argus"and give the manning of it over to the RFA, to be brought back as a carrier if the need arose?

    1. Come 2020 there should be a (small) air wing capability. Up to a squadron in real emergencies (it'll be less otherwise, i'm afraid), and hopefully helicopter-wise all certifications will have been obtained.

      As for how much it could cost to run on HMS Ocean, i have honestly no idea.

  6. Gaby

    Many thanks for your reply.

  7. Nice post as always :)

    Cooperative Electronic Warfare I see there on the upgrade path list. Sounds very exciting. Is this a natural progression of sensor fusion ?

    Do you know much about it ? We have all seen the blurb on the EW\ECM abilities of this APG Radar, but are they saying they may tie them together in a more Active way ?

    Very interesting idea.


    1. They are certainly looking at more EW capability going ahead. In the past, integration of Growler-like EW functionality was on the cards. That seem to have taken a bit of a back seat for now, but the new "cyber warfare" pod in development aims not to just jam and hamper, but to break into enemy weapon systems controls.
      Of course, they are not sharing much detail.

    2. Ah yes, in the 'gun pod' housing. That is only approved for the centreline fixture isn't it ?

      So im assuming no gun for us then if we take that option.

      Im going to wait an see on that one, Somehow in not seeing the F35 taking control of enemy hardware and what controlling it ?

      Ill be happy enough if the advertised EW capabilities come to pass. Jamming but also taking out enemy radar with a high intensity radar pulse on just the right frequency. That one should be a stretch goal anyway.


  8. The NAO (UK National Audit Office) MoD Major Projects Report 2014 and the Equipment Plan 2014 to 2024, it states total UK spend currently forecast for the F-35B at £5,036 million to Dec. 2018. For that we get one squadron, not stated if twelve or fourteen aircraft, with full operational capability expected by 2027. Please note this was before $ strengthened against most currencies including sterling.

    Of interest the contract for the F-35 was awarded to Lockheed in November 1996, so by the time it reaches full operational capability it will hitting it's 30th. anniversary.


    1. That amount includes the 2 billion contribution to development and 150 million to assessment phase, and the test fleet, too.

      As for the dates, i think you got them wrong by a fair margin. The JSF as it is now was born as a programme in 2001, and the first F-35 first flew in 2006. The X-35 flew earlier and was built, like Boeing's own offering, after the 1996 contract, but the prototypes are very, very different from what then went ahead.
      Are you also counting Typhoon's age all the way back from EAP, or even further back from the earlier "contracts" and prototyping work...? Because that is what you are doing with the F-35.

      The 2027 date is clearly not relative to the first squadron, but to the whole acquisition programme, of which only the first part has been detailed in public.

  9. Gabriele thanks for reply.

    My point is that for UK PBT contribution of £5 billion is out of all proportion to end up with a single operational squadron of twelve aircraft.

    The Israelis who have the the most current operational experience of 'real' warfare criticised the F-35 for its lack of range, payload and maneuverability. They cut their recent order from 31 to 14 F-35I though they were free under the US foreign aid of $3.1 billion per year, they decided there were better ways to spend the aid money. They paid $2.85 billion / £2 billion for the 14 aircraft, plus a contract for IAI to produce the F-35 wing sets, 800 plus, worth a possible $2.5 billion and earlier the Elbit HMDS (helmet mounted display) which has given problems, so the UK paying out £2 billion contribution to development does not look very clever as the only major contract rec'd from Lockheed was for BAE to manufacture the horizontal and vertical tails. Assuming the UK F-35B is a third more expensive than the F-35I that would be £2.7 billion and we are paying £5 billion, not exactly apples for apples but near enough.

    As for dates it is a moot point as Lockheed won the the contract with the X-35 for the F-35 over Boeing with the X-32, the problem is that due to its length of time to be fully operational the advanced technology will be just so so. As an example just a week ago Netanyahu was on the phone for over hour urging Putin in vain not to supply Iran with the advanced S-300 missile defenses specifically developed to counter stealth aircraft, they now use the longer wave band radars to see the so called invisible stealthy B2, F-22 and F-35.


  10. Hi Gabriele,
    Off topic. Had an air display over head today. So far;
    2 Apache
    3 Merlin, (RM)
    1 Chinnock.
    I often see military helicopters fly over, but today was a record!


  11. Gabby,
    What are your thoughts on a report that the US Marines might deploy F35 into HMS Queen Elizabeth before any UK air embarks?

    1. It is pretty possible. It has been the plan all along that HMS Queen Elizabeth will head to the Atlantic coast of the US to begin trials with F-35Bs... and while a few british ones will no doubt be involved, it is fully to be expected that USMC will be involved. In the longer term, it is also definitely a possibility that USMC will be a quite regular presence. QE carriers are specifically mentioned in USMC aviation plans, for example. And for the Royal Navy, embarking the USMC is another mean to put pressure on the RAF to ensure the british F-35Bs are not held back on land too much. Whatever they say, that is a real risk, and i'm sure the RN is aware of it.

  12. Thanks. I was unaware of QE's planned deployment to US East coast. It will be interesting to see if eventually the USMC deploys some back up to the UK as they have recently to Australia.
    There must be an advantage for UK-US-Australia- and other players to integrate F35's with interoperability. It hugely increases the potential of establishing a form of seacontrol/ expedition task groups etc.
    This reinforces the need for marinized F35's to be the only models of real value whether they be the B or C versions when you look at it globally.

  13. Some interesting comments and difficult decisions to come in the next defence review I think. Personally, I still like the idea of the C type being the best joint aircraft for the RAF / FAA. Is it too late for this? What if one of the carriers was fitted with cats and traps at the first refit to have one strike and one commando carrier?

    The first squadron of B 's could transfer to the FAA with the RAF building up 3 squadrons of C 's in the 2020s with a view to replacing the second tranche of typhoons by 2030. USMC could surge either carrier with the B or C type and the UK can maximize aircraft at sea or on land according to circumstances.

    Probably won't happen but just hope the next defence review is truly strategic!

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