Thursday, December 20, 2012

Meet the 65 F-35 test pilots

Over at "Intercepts" (Defense News blog), they have a list of the 65 test F-35 pilots.  These are the guys who are pushing the envelope in testing to ensure the aircraft meets all specs and requirements.  Some interesting short bios to peruse.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

F-35: Air Force approves formal start of pilot training

In another milestone, the USAF has formally approved the pilot training program for the F-35A and will begin the training process.

The Air Force on Monday approved the formal start of pilot training on the A-model of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at a Florida military base, paving the way for 36 expert pilots to be trained next year as instructors for the new stealth warplane.

Air Force General Edward Rice, the four-star general in charge of Air Education and Training Command, said an operational evaluation completed this fall showed that Eglin Air Force Base was ready to start training pilots to fly the radar-evading Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 jet in January.

"It's a milestone," Rice told Reuters in a telephone interview. "We are ready at this point to begin our formal training program." 
The program has had a good year, accomplishing a number of milestones, continuing to stay ahead of  its testing schedule and seeing the cost per unit continue to come down.  As many among DoD are saying, it appears the program has hit its stride.  Of course, there are still major milestones to accomplish but there's no denying the F-35's progress in 2012.  This formal approval by the USAF is a fitting finish for the year.


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

F-35: When compared to the alternatives, it is still the best option

Matthew Fisher has written a column which makes that case:
Although already nearly 15 years old, Boeing’s fourth generation F-18 Super Hornet is the only serious rival to Lockheed Martin’s fifth generation F-35 Lightning. But as argued by the National Post’s John Ivison, the clear leader on the F-35 story for months, the Super Hornet has far less of a cost advantage than the JSF’s critics have led the public to believe. In fact if Canada were to buy the two-seat electronic warfare variant of the Super Hornet or a mix of that model and the attack version, it might not be cheaper at all.

The “life cycle costs” of the F-35 — development, acquisition, sustainment, operations, attrition and disposal, including fuel and air and ground crew — have been described in Canada in apocalyptic terms. Here, the analogy to a car purchase is apt. When you buy a car for $30,000, you’re paying for the development of that car, a profit for those making it, and for the car itself. Few people budget for the fuel, maintenance or insurance costs over the vehicle’s “life cycle.” But they know keeping the car on the road for ten years will cost roughly double the purchase price. Since we buy military equipment for longer life cycles — in this case 42 years from 2010, although the international standard for measuring this has usually been 20 years — those costs increase in step. Hence, misleading headlines such as that the “F-35 costs five times original estimates.”

Nor have fair cost comparisons been done with other big government-funded enterprises such as the CBC, which as Sun Media has noted, will have cost taxpayers more by 2052 than whatever new fighter jets Canada eventually purchases.

 Also lost in the hullabaloo over life cycle costs was that number crunching by KPMG that was presented to Parliament last week indicated that cost estimates prepared several years ago by National Defence were accurate. 
Those same arguments have been made on this blog many times.  The critics essentially have taken a hypothetical cost that has never been used before for any weapons system (and certainly not over the span of years used to conjure this particular cost) and have declared the F-35 "unaffordable".

Yet when one objectively assesses cost it is clear that the 4th generation alternatives, which still don't begin to produce the same capabilities and advantages the F-35 brings to the game,  may cost as much or more than the F-35 when all is said and done.

Anyone with experience with these sorts of things has begun to note that critics have essentially gone into narrative mode.  They have a narrative, formed early and stocked heavily with misinformation, that they continue to push, despite overwhelming evidence of progress on all fronts for the program. 

Look at these numbers:
According the U.S. Department of Defense, Boeing’s Super Hornet costs $88 million per aircraft, which is identical to KPMG’s estimate for a F-35. According to Australian reports, the latest batch of Super Hornets that Canberra may buy will cost more than $100 million each.

 Britain’s Ministry of Defence lists the Eurofighter Typhoon at $115 million per aircraft. France’s Rafale costs from $80 to $120 million each depending on the model. Sweden’s Gripen E was just purchased by the Swiss air force for $100 million per plane.
As reported yesterday, this latest batch of F-35s contracted will cost around $107 million each.  And, again, those are costs represented in low production rates.  Once full scale production is approved and the expected economies of scale kick in, those costs should drop well below the $100 million mark.


Monday, December 17, 2012

F-35: Price continues to drop

It is fair to acknowledge that the price of an F-35 is still not in the range of some 4th generation fighters, but then two things should be considered - (1) it's not a 4th generation fighter and (2) DoD has chosen a "low initial production rate" or LRIP approach which negates many of the economies of scale full production will bring.  Despite that, the price continues to drop:
Each of the 22 conventional takeoff and landing jets in the fifth production contract will cost around $107 million, excluding the engine, said the sources, who were not authorized to speak publicly.

That compares to a price of $111.6 million for the F-35As to be used by the Air Force that were included in the fourth contract with Lockheed.
When full production finally kicks in we should see the price of an F-35 drop to the point of competitiveness with any 4th gen plane while having much more, in terms of advanced capability, than any of them can offer.


Friday, December 14, 2012

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

F-35B reaches 1,000 flight milestone

The positive accomplishments of the F-35 program continue to relentlessly pile up in 2012:

Marine Corps test pilot Maj. Russell Clift makes a vertical landing in F-35B test aircraft BF-01 at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, on 7 December 2012. This flight, the 268th in BF-01, marked the 1,000th flight for the short takeoff/vertical landing variant of the Lightning II. The first flight of the F-35B came on 11 June 2008 and the first vertical landing came on 18 March 2010. BAE Systems test pilot Graham Tomlinson was at the controls for both of those F-35B milestone flights.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

F-35 - A "huge leap in fighter capability" says pilot

On November 20th, as we reported earlier, the USMC stood up its first operational F-35 squadron.  The squadron, VMFA 121, is commanded by Lt. Col. Jeffery Scott, who talked about the fighter in a recent interview:
The F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter jet will be a strategic deterrent for the nation because of its “huge leap in capability,” a Marine Corps pilot said. Lt. Col. Jeffrey Scott, commander of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing’s Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., recently told the Pentagon Channel the F-35 will allow Marines to perform missions in high-threat areas, unlike existing aircraft.

The F-35 will be able to do every mission now performed by the AV-8 Harrier does now, but will be able to do it in more situations, said Scott, who is involved with flying and testing the new aircraft. The new fighter will provide access to more areas, he explained, and will allow more time for rolling back enemy defenses.
Something often ignored by criticsis the overall capability of the F-35.  It will not only do what the AV-8 now does, it will also do everything the F/A 18 does - and more.
“The sensors and systems are the big leap deploying the aircraft in terms of tactics,” he said.

“The Lightning will fulfill a lot of the functions of Marine Corps aviation — such as [our] air support role, antiair, targeting enemy ground locations and supporting the troops on the ground — as Harriers and [F/A-18] Hornets do now,” he added. “But it brings more in one aircraft in its ability to protect itself from the enemy.” 
The sensor suite, as recognized by Lt. Col. Scott, is the generational leap.  The sensor fusion, that is having the aircraft fusing the sensor data vs. requiring the pilot to do that, make the difference.   That difference means the pilot can concentrate on mission and defense.  Add to that the fact that the F-35 networks with other systems as well as other F-35s and one can begin to see the possibilities of those sorts of capabilities.   Additionally, all the roles mentioned by Scott are contained in one aircraft without necessitating reconfiguration for each mission or limiting it to one mission at a time.  That means fewer aircraft doing more missions.

That is a huge capabilities shift to the positive side.

Scott's squadron will now develop and test the squadron level tactics, maintenance and other critical items for the F-35 that will eventually become standard operating procedure for future USMC F-35 squadrons.
Scott said the F-35 will give the military “a huge leap in capability, probably five or six steps beyond what we now have.”

“We’re going to have this aircraft for a long time,” he said. “As we get more and more of these aircraft in all of the services, we’re going to see a lot of the benefits that the aircraft has in terms of commonality. As we start operating tactically, some of the communications [and] capabilities will become more and more valuable to the services, … and it will be in demand to combatant commanders around the world.”
If you're interested in what this aircraft can do and will do, listening to those who fly it and maintain it is in your best interest.  The F-35 continues to develop well in testing and appears to be well on its way to fulfilling all those promised capabilities.  Lt. Col. Scott is obviously one of the Marine Corps top pilots, having been given command of its first F-35 squadron.  His enthusiasm for the aircraft and its capabilities, his understanding of what it promises, tell you a lot more than the critics who don't even understand why VMAF-121 was made operational.

The pilots apparently like what they see, feel and fly with the F-35.  They like the capabilities the aircraft brings to the fight.  It is their lives that will be on the line when it does go fully operational and is committed to combat for the first time.  They are looking forward to flying it for a long time to come. 

That should tell you all you need to know.


Monday, December 10, 2012

F-35: Cornerstone of air dominance for the next 30 years

Vice Admiral David Venlet, who has been in charge of the DoD side of the F-35 program retired today.  Deputy Secretary Ashton Carter said a few words about the F-35 program at the retirement ceremony which should give pause to critics who continue to beat the "failure" drum for the F-35:
The F-35 will be “the cornerstone of air dominance” for the U.S. for more than three decades, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said today at a retirement ceremony for Vice Admiral David Venlet, who has overseen the fighter program since February 2010.

At that time, the program was progressing technically “but it had some serious problems with execution -- both process discipline and cost discipline,” Carter said. “These issues were leading to an erosion of support here at home, internationally, in Congress and with the taxpayer.”

The F-35 program today “is operating on sound footing, making real progress” and will succeed “with continued careful program management,” Carter said. 
In 2012, the program has stayed ahead on all of its testing points.  It is making marked progress, prices, while not yet where they will be, continue to come down, and it appears the Pentagon is preparing to ramp up F-35 production:
The Pentagon’s current budget plan calls for 29 aircraft in fiscal 2014, rising to 44 in fiscal 2015 and 66 in fiscal 2016.
As the number of planes purchased continue to rise, pricing will continue to come down as economies of scale and production efficiencies learned during low production rate orders kick in.


Thursday, December 6, 2012

F-35: Program passes 5000 flight hour milestone

Here's a quick statistical dump on the 5,000 hour milestone:
The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II program surpassed 5,000 flight hours last month. This milestone was reached by the combined F-35 System Development and Demonstration aircraft flying at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., and the training aircraft flying at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. All three variants, the F-35A Conventional Takeoff and Landing, the Short Takeoff/Vertical Landing and Carrier Variant, participated in achievement of this goal. 

Since the program's first flight in December 2006, F-35s have flown 3,464 times. This total includes:
  • 91 flights from the original test aircraft, AA-1;
  • 2,510 SDD test flights; and
  • 863 production-model flights.
 In fact the program is concluding a very successful test year, not that you will hear that touted in certain circles.  But the multiple milestones accomplished this year attest to that fact.  The program has remained ahead of its testing schedule throughout 2012.  


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

F-35: A "three to four to one asset"

That's an interesting phrase in the title.  We're not talking loss/exchange ratios here.  We're talking about the F-35 vs. current assets.

It's a claim by Lockheed Martin VP Stephan O'Bryan that needs a little clarification.  But, if the F-35 lives up to its billing, and it appears it will, then it is a statement that needs to be understood.

Here's O'Bryan's explanation:
The fighter’s capabilities will make it a three- or four-for-one asset, said the Lockheed briefers, meaning that it will be able to simultaneously perform the roles of several different aircraft types—from strike to electronic attack, from command and control to battlefield surveillance.

O’Bryan pointed out an important truth about air combat: Fourth generation strike aircraft assigned to hit targets guarded by modern anti-access, area-denial systems (A2/AD, in military parlance) require the support of "AWACS, electronic attack, sweep airplanes, SEAD" (suppression of enemy air defenses) aircraft and cruise missiles. Such a package could run to dozens of aircraft.

The same mission, he claimed, can be achieved with just a quartet of F-35s. Each would be capable of operations that go well beyond air-to-ground missions. The four-ship would be a potent factor in any scenario calling for the employment of airpower, O’Bryan asserted.
One of the things any military planner looking at the future has to factor in is the possibility of fewer assets (budget constraints, etc.) available for missions.  So the obvious remedy for such a possibility is more efficient weapons systems.  By that I mean the ability to use fewer assets to do the same jobs.

That, of course is where a multi-role fighter can come in quite handy.  But our current multi-role 4th gen fighters have to be configured for each mission.  So a certain number have to be configured to do a sweep mission, others to do SEAD, some to do EW and then there are the strike aircraft.  Add AWACs (which may or may not always be available depending on the situation) and, as O'Bryan notes, you have a package that could run into dozens of aircraft.  

But "multi-role" is going to be defined differently between existing 4th generation fighters and the 5th generation F-35.  What if you could have an aircraft that could do sweep, SEAD (or DEAD), EW and strike all in one sortie?  Wouldn't that obviously cut the package size down considerably?  Instead of having dozens of aircraft configured differently to take on one of those missions, wouldn't it be more efficient and less costly to have a smaller package, say 4 to 8 aircraft vs. the dozens of others, that could do all of those missions as well as being VLO, networked and working with fused sensor data?

Seems that it would.  Obviously that all has yet to be proven.  However, if proven, it makes uncommonly good sense.  Critics, of course, disagree, saying that a single aircraft can't be good at all those roles.  The logic doesn't hold up.  Either the EW capability is state of the art and does a superior job or it doesn't.  If we can put an EW pod on a 4th gen multi-role aircraft and it does a "good job" in the mission, there's absolutely no reason that same EW equipment (or better) won't see the F-35 do an even better job.  Same with all the other missions.

The day of the dedicated platform seems to be coming to an end.  And it is clear, if the F-35 preforms as planned, it will be a much more efficient and survivable but at least equally deadly platform than what we have flying today.


Monday, December 3, 2012

F-35: DoD and Lockheed Martin reach agreement on LRIP-5

LRIP 5 being the 5th low rate production batch of F-35s.  A total of 32 aircraft will be built under this contract, 22 F-35A's, 3 F-35B's and 7 F-35C's.

The key part of the news release is as follows:
WASHINGTON, D.C., Nov. 30, 2012 – The U.S. Department of Defense and Lockheed Martin have reached an agreement in principle to manufacture 32 F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters as part of Low-Rate Initial Production 5 (LRIP-5). The contract will also fund manufacturing-support equipment, flight test instrumentation and ancillary mission equipment. 
Note the last sentence.  What that means is there's also a lot more to the contract that just buying jets.  So, and it's already out there among the usual suspects, simply dividing the number of F-35s by the amount of the contract is not - let's repeat that and underline it - NOT indicative of the unit recurring flyaway cost (URF).

Regardless of whose math you use, the cost of the aircraft in each of the LRIP's continues to come down and it is already well below the cost predicted by the people doing the incorrect math on this latest contract.

Just keep that in mind as you watch them flog this numerical strawman to death over the next few weeks.  Things are just not going the way they predicted, not that you'd know it by reading them.


Sunday, December 2, 2012

F-35: About those loss/exchage ratios

About all those claims that 4th generation and the Chinese and Russian 5th generation fighters will be able to shoot down F-35s, let's get serious for a minute and look at the probable reality of future air combat.  Will it be a dogfight or will aircraft be fighting at a distance (in many cases, Beyond Visual Range - BVR).  If it is at a distance, the F-35 should hold a decided advantage:
Because it was designed to maneuver to the edge of its envelope with a full internal combat load, the F-35 will be able to run rings around most other fighters, but it probably won’t have to—and probably shouldn’t.

"If you value a loss/exchange ratio of better than one-to-one, you need to stay away from each other," said O’Bryan, meaning that the fighter pilot who hopes to survive needs to keep his distance from the enemy.

He noted that, in a close-turning dogfight with modern missiles, even a 1960s-era fighter such as the F-4 can get into a "mutual kill scenario" at close range with a fourth generation fighter. That’s why the F-35 was provided with the ability to fuse sensor information from many sources, triangulating with other F-35s to locate, identify, and fire on enemy aircraft before they are able to shoot back.
The F-35’s systems will even allow it to shoot at a target "almost when that airplane is behind you," thanks to its 360-degree sensors.

According to O’Bryan, the F-35 also can interrogate a target to its rear, an ability possessed by no other fighter. 
The key here is using the capabilities of the F-35 via its fused sensor information and ability to talk with other F-35s to take out the enemy.  And that leads to the next key for success - getting the first look.  That leads to the first shot and the first kill.  The vast majority of successful air-to-air confrontations go to the fighter pilot who locks on first and fires.   As O'Bryan points out, that loss/exchange rate goes down the closer you get, because the "mutual kill scenario" goes up.

So the F-35 is designed to have a small radar signature that is very difficult to pick up while having the ability (in conjunction with other F-35) of identifying targets first and having a missile on the way before the other guy is able to lock on (or in some cases, even knows the F-35s are in the area).

To empahized LM VP Stephan O'Bryan's other point, something you'll see critics ignore or pretend isn't true, a clean F-35 is going to outperform a 4th generation aircraft with all of its fuel and ordnance carried externally.  It isn't a matter of wishing and hoping, it's a matter of physics.

However, the preferable use of the F-35 is definitely at an extended range in order to maximize its advantages and to maximize the loss/exchange ratio in favor of US forces.


Friday, November 30, 2012

F-35: Enhance or erode pilot skills?

Here's an interesting question answered by test pilot Pete Wilson on "Test Pilot Tuesday", brought to you on Friday.  "Does the technology in the F-35 erode or enhance pilot skills?"


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

F-35's capabilities are unmatched by any 4th generation fighter

One of the more persistent myths out there is that 4th generation plus fighters are equivalent to a 5th generation F-35 because they can be made "stealthy".

The F-35 isn't defined by its stealth.  It brings a whole heck of a lot more to the fight than just it's stealth.  That said, unlike any version of any 4th generation fighter, its stealth or "Very Low Observable" (VLO)  configuration, is designed in.  Sorry, but adding a few "stealthy" pods and making a few design changes on later 4th gen models does not a VLO aircraft make.

Here's a recent description of the point from a Lockheed Martin spokesperson:
The F-35 is the only available Very Low Observable (VLO) stealth fighter.  VLO stealth must be designed into the aircraft from the very beginning.  It cannot be retrofitted into an existing 4th generation aircraft.  For the F-35, this means a full load of internally carried combat fuel and weapons, imbedded sensors, a curved/diverterless intake that hides the face of the engine, aligned leading and trailing horizontal/vertical edges, and a digital/computer controlled design that allows the aircraft to be manufactured and assembled to a very tight and exacting outer mold line tolerance.  These designed-in characteristics help to reduce the overall radar cross section of the F-35 and allow that signature to be maintained at a fraction of the cost compared to legacy stealth aircraft.
The emphasis makes the point.  While retrofitting 4th gen aircraft may make their radar signature less than one without the retrofits, it still doesn't even approach the small signature of the F-35.   The F-35 can go into combat with everything carried internally.  Very few if any of the 4th gen fighters have that capability.  And even if they did, they aren't designed to be VLO aircraft.  They simply have some adaptations that make them less observable than before.

As mentioned, stealth is simply one part of what the F-35 provides that 4th generation fighters, no matter how much "stealthier" they're made, can't provide.

Again, the LM spokesperson:
Inside the stealth vehicle, the F-35 has the most advanced array of sensors and mission systems ever integrated into a fighter aircraft.  Using the more than 9 million lines of software code resident on the F-35, the data collected from the APG-81 AESA radar, the electro-optical targeting system, the electro-optical IR missile warning distributed aperture system, and the highly precise emitter detection and location data is fused together and presented to the pilot to provide him/her with unmatched 360 degree situational awareness.  Finally, the data collected from one F-35 is shared with other F-35 aircraft across a high bandwidth stealthy data link, ensuring every pilot in a flight of F-35 aircraft has the same tactical view of the battlespace.  The corresponding cooperative battle engagement capability changes the dynamics of the air battle and allows the F-35 to dominate the battlefield, even in the most demanding threat environments that will face the U.S. and allied nations over the next 30+ years.  In short, the F-35 provides a quantum leap in capability over competing fighter aircraft. 
There is the thumbnail of what this fighter promises. The two paragraphs cited very succinctly explain why the F-35 is superior, in every way, to 4th generation fighters.  Unmatched and unprecendented data collection and fusion that will provide, as the spokesperson says, "unmatched 360 degree situational awareness" that our pilots simply don't have today.  What it will do is create a synergy among its systems via data sharing and fusion ("cooperative battle engagement") that will allow it to outperform rival aircraft and air defense systems on the battlefield. 

Detractors of the program try to ignore the second paragraph capabilities while claiming that existing 4th gen fighters can be made stealthy enough to fill a future role vs. the F-35 - i.e. trying to define the F-35 down as nothing more than a "steath jet".

It is much, much, much more than that.  And that is why, in simple terms, this program is so important.


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

F-35: Weapons integration testing begins in earnest

A little noted, but important event occurred recently that you shouldn't expect to see touted among the critics of the F-35 program.  The last AIM-120 AMRAAM deployed by the CTOL version of the F-35 during weapons testing was full up with electronics found in such a missile (although lacking a rocket motor) and it and the F-35 "talked" during it's deployment:
Prior to Oct. 26, mass models with no internal electronics were used during all F-35A weapons testing. The AIM-120 AMRAAM used during the integration test contained the same electronics as a full-up missile, but without the rocket motor.

“In October, we were able to begin weapons separation testing with the JDAM and AMRAAM. We proved we can carry them safely and that the shapes, which matched the exact mass properties of the real weapons, could separate from the aircraft safely. Now, with the integration testing, we’ve initially proved the aircraft can talk to the weapon and that the weapon can talk to the aircraft,” said Col. Roderick L. Cregier, 412th Test Wing, F-35 program manager.
Of course, that's obviously a critical task and just as obviously, the F-35's systems were up to the task.

Cregier had more to say on that:
“This was a very important milestone to get us over that hump, to move on to the next phase of the program, which is going to start very soon. This success was critical, now what we’re doing is putting the teeth into the F-35. It’s important that the jet can meet all the corners of its envelope, but what we’re really designing it to do is employ weapons,” said Cregier.

“Starting in February and continuing through the end of April, we are anticipating releasing roughly two weapons per week. This is going to be just the beginning of what I would characterize as the most ambitious weapons integration program in the history of tactical aircraft.”
So the "flying piano" is doing quite well, according to all the test results we've seen to date.   And it is developing teeth at a fairly rapid rate. 

However, there's been very little coverage of this and other important milestones (like the F-35 progressing to 50 degree AOA in four, count them, four flights) in the program ... not that it comes as a particular surprise given the reputations on the line of those who have chosen to call the program a failure right out of the box. 


Monday, November 26, 2012

USMC stands up first operational F-35 squadron in Yuma

The Marines stood up their first operational F-35 squadron last week.  That's a significant milestone, although to hear the critics talk about it, it's a sham and a waste.

However that's to be expected from those with a vested interest in the failure of the F-35.

The significance, of course, is what it will teach the Marine Corps and it's pilots, maintainers, tacticians and operations people how to operate with the F-35 at squadron level.
The US Marine Corps has officially stood-up its first operational Lockheed Martin F-35B squadron when VMFA-121 turned in its Boeing F/A-18 Hornets for the new jets in a ceremony earlier today (November 20).
It is in VMFA-121 that the "SOP" (Standard Operating Procedures) for all aspects of the F-35 will be developed at a squadron level.  These are the people who will be writing the book about how the aircraft should be deployed, maintained, and the like.  It will also give pilots and operations personnel the opportunity to develop tactics and techniques for the use and deployment of the F-35.  And, probably as important as any of that it will let pilots fly together and test those tactics and techniques while developing a relationship that is critical when the F-35 is finally combat capable.

But, of course, the critics would rather trot out headlines that mostly prove they have a good grasp on the glaringly obvious, like "Marines’ First Frontline Stealth Fighter Lacks Vital Gear".

Well of course it does.  Who said it wouldn't?  The F-35 hasn't even completed its testing yet.  But, and here's that bad word again, here we see a "concurrent" event taking place.  As the aircraft continues it's testing, squadron SOPs, operations and tactics are being developed - concurrently.  The F-35 doesn't have to be fully combat capable to see that happen. But when it is, all of this will have been worked out previously.  Apparently that's not glaringly obvious and thus was missed.

My guess is they'll treat the first launch and recovery of a Chinese jet fighter from the deck of a Chinese aircraft carrier the same way.  Nothing to see here.  They're not capable of launching a carrier attack.  I guess that makes it all a big sham and a failure if their nonsense about the USMC squadron is any indicator.

Additionally their criticism carries the usual dated litany that appears in most of their shots at the F-35 program while they mostly ignore any progress.  For instance:
As such, the list of things the F-35 still doesn’t have is a long one.

A working helmet, for one. JSF pilots are meant to wear an advanced new visor, built by Vision Systems International, that displays streaming video from the plane’s nose-mounted sensors, in effect allowing a pilot to peer through the cockpit floor — as though the jet itself were invisible to the occupant. But the video lags, especially at night, forcing the Pentagon to commission a less sophisticated back-up helmet from BAE Systems.

The military still wants the original headgear and has dedicated one of the F-35 test models to flying only helmet trials. “We’re making great progress,” Tom Burbage, a Lockheed veep, said of the helmet last month. But he didn’t say when this critical gear might be ready for war.
As we reported the 1st of November, two of the problems with the helmet seem to have been solved and the third is in testing.  The latency problem is well within standard and the jitter problem appears to have a solution now in testing:
In the latest simulations, the device demonstrated a latency of only 130 milliseconds, against a 150-millisecond requirement. ... The “micro-IMUs” (inertial measurement units) that are designed to solve the “jitter” problem are already in-flight-test.
The final problem - night vision acuity - is also in testing at Pax:
He said two tests dedicated to the helmet's performance at night were taking place at Naval Air Station Patuxent River and initial reports were "quite good."
These represent engineering problems, not concept problems.  And, as seems obvious, at least to some, those engineering problems are close to resolution.  It would be nice if the critics at least tried to keep up if they're going to throw darts.

Speaking of critics, one critic was pretty happy with what he saw on November 20th as VMFA-121 became active.  That would be Sen. John McCain:
"I am – after many years of frustration and setbacks – encouraged that the overall program is moving in the right direction.nbsp;After several major restructuring efforts over the last two years, initiated by then-Secretary of Defense Gates, the Government Accountability Office recently found for the first time in the program’s history that the program is finally set up to produce more achievable and predictable outcomes."
He later noted, speaking of the F-35 program,  that "this ship now seems to be pointing out into the blue ocean."

Strong words of praise from a very vociferous former critic of the program.   And, one would guess, he's likely up to date on the status of the helmet as well.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Video: F-35 high angle of attack testing

Here's a video of the F-35's high angle of attack (AOA) testing.

Lockheed Martin says:

An F-35A Lightning II conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) aircraft rapidly expanded its high angle of attack (AOA) test envelope to its 50 degree limit in only four flights during recent flight testing here. F-35A test aircraft are limited to AOAs of 20 degrees until their controllability is proven at a higher AOA limit of 50 degrees. The ability to rapidly progress to the maximum AOA indicates a sound aerodynamic and flight control system design. High AOA testing will continue on the F-35A for several months testing the capabilities of all design loadings and the flight control system.


Monday, November 19, 2012

F-35's electronic warfare (EW) capability

There's a lot of speculation out there about the electronic warfare (EW) capabilities or, if you listen to critics, lack thereof, on the F-35.  Of course we're talking about a highly classified system, so getting precise information on the EW capabilities of the aircraft is somewhat tough.  But many times you can learn as much by what isn't said as what is said.

Here, Lockheed Martin VP Stephan O'Bryan talks about that EW capability:
Much speculation has swirled around the question of the F-35’s electronic warfare and electronic attack capabilities. The Air Force has resolutely refused to discuss any specifics. Yet experts have pointed out that, in its most recent EW/EA roadmap, USAF has failed to mention any plans for a dedicated jamming aircraft. It is a conspicuous omission.

O’Bryan certainly couldn’t go into the subject of the fighter’s EW/EA suite in any detail, or the way it might coordinate with specialized aircraft such as the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System, RC-135 Rivet Joint, E-8 JSTARS, or EA-18G Growler jammer aircraft.

He did say, however, that F-35 requirements call for it to go into battle with "no support whatever" from these systems.

"I don’t know a pilot alive who wouldn’t want whatever support he can get," O’Bryan acknowledged. "But the requirements that we were given to build the airplane didn’t have any support functions built in. In other words, we had to find the target, ... penetrate the anti-access [defenses], ... ID the target, and ... destroy it by ourselves."

O’Bryan said the power of the F-35’s EW/EA systems can be inferred from the fact that the Marine Corps "is going to replace its EA-6B [a dedicated jamming aircraft] with the baseline F-35B" with no additional pods or internal systems.

Asked about the Air Force’s plans, O’Bryan answered with several rhetorical questions: "Are they investing in a big jammer fleet? Are they buying [EA-18G] Growlers?" Then he said, "There’s a capability here."

O’Bryan went on to say that the electronic warfare capability on the F-35A "is as good as, or better than, [that of the] fourth generation airplanes specifically built for that purpose." The F-35’s "sensitivity" and processing power—a great deal of it automated—coupled with the sensor fusion of internal and offboard systems, give the pilot unprecedented situational awareness as well as the ability to detect, locate, and target specific systems that need to be disrupted.
Obviously O'Bryan is going to present the system in the best possible light for his employer.  That's to be expected and weighed when considering the system.  But he doesn't make those decisions for the USAF or USMC.   One assumes their decisions were made based on mission requirements and capabilities.  And it appears those two services see, in the F-35, an aircraft that fulfills their EW mission requirements with its EW capabilities.

Short and sweet, these two services apparently see what they need in the F-35s EW capability.  They know how important that capability is to success in any air battle and eventually, the ground battle.  The beauty of the F-35, of course, is it is configured not only to do the EW mission, but then upon completion, continue on with a strike mission without having to land and reconfigure the aircraft.

The point, of course, is this fighter is going to mean an entirely new way of thinking about how to employ and deploy multi-role fighters.  And the promise, of course, is a radical improvement in their capability and thus their effectiveness over similar 4th generation aircraft.


Thursday, November 15, 2012

F-35 program status update through Nov. 2nd

This blog posted the program status for F-35 flight testing through mid-October (19th) a few days ago.  Here's an update that carries it through November 2nd.

Cumulative flight test activity totals for 2012 as of Nov. 2, are provided below:

o F-35A conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) jets have flown 437 times.
o F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft have completed 352 flights.
o F-35C carrier variant (CV) jets have flown 222 times.

Since December 2006, F-35s have flown 3,253 times and accrued more than 5,117 cumulative flight hours. This total includes 91 flights from the original test aircraft, AA-1; 2,439 SDD test flights; and 723 production-model flights.

On October 4, BF-17 ferried to PAX and completed its first SDD flight on November 1.

On October 11, the CV variant achieved 400 flights.

On October 16, an F-35A CTOL aircraft completed the first in-flight weapons release of a 2,000 pound GBU-31 BLU-109 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM).

On October 19, BK-2 and BF-16 ferried to Eglin AFB.

On October 19, an F-35A test aircraft completed the first aerial weapon release of an AIM-120 AMRAAM (Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile) from a CTOL.

AF-4 completed the first F-35 Spin Recovery Chute taxi deployment on October 20, the first F-35 flight with the SRC on October 24, and the first High AoA mission at 26 and 30 degrees AoA on October 29.

On October 17, AF-7 performed the first in-flight SINCGARS (Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System) test on an F-35.

During the month of October, two days of record 19 F-35 flights were completed – October 19 and October 23.

On October 25, the SDD Fleet achieved 1000 flights.

On October 23, the entire F-35 Fleet (AA-1, SDD, and LRIP) achieved 5000 hours.

On November 2, Eglin completed their 500th sortie.


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Advanced capabilities define the F-35

There's a long and very detailed "must read" article about the F-35 in Airforce Magazine that will be covered here in a number of posts.  It does a very good job of discussing some of the capabilities the F-35 brings to the game that are usually left out of more critical reviews.  This is an aircraft that is not just a fuselage and engine.  It is a weapons system of advanced capabilities, and discussing it as anything else presents an incomplete picture of what it is designed to do.

Today, though, let's put another claim the critics attempt to use to bed, shall we?  That claim is the F-35 doesn't have the combat radius of 4th generation fighters.  It is usually used as a justification to keep the supposedly less costly (and implied "better) 4th gen fighters and dump the F-35.

But, the claim isn't true:
In combat configuration, the F-35’s range exceeds that of fourth generation fighters by 25 percent. These are Air Force figures, [Lockheed Martin VP Stephen] O’Bryan noted. "We’re comparing [the F-35] to [the] ‘best of’ fourth gen" fighters. The F-35 "compares favorably in any area of the envelope," he asserted.
It is more than an assertion, it is common sense.  What is different about a fully combat loaded 4th generation fighter and a fully combat loaded F-35?

One carries everything on the outside and the other carries all its ordnance and fuel on the inside.

That means two huge differences, both of which negatively effect only the 4th generation fighter.  1 - a tremendous increase in drag that requires more fuel, reduces combat radius and performance.   2 - an increased radar signature from the exposure of the external ordnance and fuel tanks.

And what other advantage does such a configuration by the F-35 bring?
Stealth also permits (and requires) internal fuel and weapons carriage. The Air Force F-35 variant, fully loaded for combat, can pull nine-G turns with a full load of fuel and missiles. This cannot be done by fighters lugging along external weapons and fuel tanks.
Advantage F-35. 

And it is only one of many advantages the F-35 enjoys over 4th generation fighters as will be discussed in future posts.  The 4th gen manufacturers can make all the claims they wish that their fighters can be made "stealthier".  But none of them are configured to carry extra fuel or ordnance internally.  That's a bottom line point that makes their claim moot.



Tuesday, November 13, 2012

USAF set to complete flying portion of F-35 OUE

In case you're not familiar with the acronym, "OUE" means "operational utility evaluation" in mil-speak.

What does that mean to the F-35 program? The OUE, if favorable, will validate not only the aircraft but the USAF's training system for the aircraft:
If there are no problems with the weather or aircraft, the 33rd FW expects to complete the OUE by either Tuesday or Wednesday. Once the flying portion of the OUE is complete, the evaluators can begin writing their assessment of the F-35 system and the training pipeline at Eglin AFB. The resulting report will eventually be forwarded to Gen Edward Rice, commander of the USAF's Air Education and Training Command. 
If Rice is satisfied that the F-35 and the 33rd FW is ready to start training operations, he will give his formal assent.
 Once his "formal assent" is given, assuming it will be, the 33rd FW will begin training F-35 pilots in earnest.  And, then, as more F-35s are received by the USAF, it will begin standing up operational squadrons (remember, the USMC is already standing up an operational squadron at Yuma this month).

Again, another milestone in the F-35 program is nearing completion.


Monday, November 12, 2012

F-35: C variant weapons testing continues to progress

Here's a nice picture of the C variant of the F-35 with open weapons bay at Pax. It is a pretty good look at CF1 loaded internally   This testing supports weapon bay environmental testing in preparation for upcoming separation tests.


Friday, November 9, 2012

A review of F-35 testing since July

In case you are interested in a detailed accounting of the progress of the F-35 program, here is a list of test points accomplished since July through the 20th of October with a short explanation for each point.
The F-35 Flight Test Update concluded with the record-setting month of June 2012 with the Integrated Test Force completing 114 test flights and 1,118 test points.

Since then, the team set new records of 135 System Development and Demonstration, or SDD, flights for 239 SDD flight hours and more than 1,100 test points in August 2012. With training pilot checkouts at Eglin AFB, Florida, and test pilot qualifications at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, fifty-four pilots have now flown the F-35 Lightning II.

Through 20 October 2012, the F-35 program had accrued 986 test flights for more than 7,800 test points in 2012.

 – 9 July 2012: First F-35B Night Flight US Marine Corps pilot Maj. Richard Rusnok took off in F-35B BF-2 at 9:57 p.m. EDT for the B-model’s first night flight. The one-hour flight from NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, in BF-2 evaluated the aircraft’s exterior lighting. It was Flight 204 for BF-2.

– 17 July 2012: First F-35C Flight With Block 2A Software The first F-35C test mission with updated Block 2A software was piloted by Navy Lt. Chris Tabert in F-35C CF-3 for 1.1 hours from NAS Patuxent River, Maryland. Block 2A software provides additional capabilities for the F-35, such as the Multifunction Advanced Datalink, the current Link-16, maintenance datalink, and a mission debriefing system. The mission marked CF-3 Flight 68.

– 27 July 2012: F-35A Airstart Testing Complete Lockheed Martin test pilot David Nelson completed airstart testing in F-35A AF-4 during Flight 131 over the Edwards AFB, California, test range. The 2.3-hour mission included the final four required airstarts, a critical step prior to the start of high angle of attack tests.

– 1 August 2012: First Air-To-Air MADL Exchange F-35As AF-3 and AF-6 accomplished a high data rate exchange with the first F-35 air-to-air communication over the Multifunction Advanced Datalink, or MADL. Air Force Lt. Col. George Schwartz flew AF-3 on Flight 128 for two hours from Edwards AFB, California. Mark Ward piloted the 1.8-hour AF-6 Flight 104.

– 7 August 2012: First F-35B Airstart Mission Marine Corps Lt. Col. Matt Kelly piloted the three first F-35B engine spooldowns over the Edwards AFB, California, test range to signal the beginning of F-35B airstart testing. The 1.3-hour mission marked F-35B BF-2 Flight 212.

– 8 August 2012: First Weapons Separation Flying at 400 knots at 4,200 feet altitude in F-35B BF3, Lockheed Martin test pilot Dan Levin dropped an inert 1,000-pound GBU-32 JDAM over the Atlantic test range. The 0.8-hour mission was the F-35 program’s first weapon separation. The milestone flight was BF-3 Flight 224.

– 10 August 2012: First F-35C Fly-In Arrestment Navy Lt. Chris Tabert accomplished the first fly-in arrestment into the MK-7 arresting gear cable by an F-35C at JB McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. Using an interim arresting hook system, an engineering team composed of F-35 Joint Program Office, Naval Air Systems Command, and industry officials conducted tests to assess cable dynamics, aircraft loads, and performance on F-35C CF-3. During testing, Tabert achieved five of eight attempts into the arresting gear. Completing these tests enabled the F-35 program to improve the redesigned arresting hook system. Engineering design reviews will continue, culminating in initial sea trials projected for spring 2014.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

USAF pilots and maintainers give F-35 high marks

Flight Global has an excellent, short article out about feedback from US Air Force pilots and maintainers who are giving the F-35 high marks so far:

Initial feedback from US Air Force pilots and maintainers operating the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at Eglin AFB, Florida, suggests the aircraft is performing better than its predecessors did at a similar stage of development.

The F-35 is in its infancy, but the stealthy type is already proving to be relatively stable from a maintenance standpoint, says Col Andrew Toth, commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing.
"The system right now is behaving as advertised, [although] occasionally, we will have some issues with it on the ground," he says. However, this is usually easily fixed by shutting the aircraft down and then restarting it.

Once the JSF is airborne there are "very limited" issues, with the aircraft's hardware, software and Pratt & Whitney F135 engine all performing well, he says. 

Emphasis mine.  That's a pretty significant statement given the song and dance one normally hears from the critics.  The maintainers seem to be very happy with the aircraft and the maintenance system with which they're working:

Sgt Skyler DeBoer, a senior maintainer with the 33rd Fighter Wing, who has previous experience on the Lockheed F-22 Raptor and F-117 Nighthawk programmes, says the F-35 has the edge on the Raptor. "Compared with the [F-22], this programme is way ahead of where the [F-22] was, software-wise, aircraft-wise," DeBoer says, "Lockheed has made great strides with this aircraft."

DeBoer attributes part of the improvement to better maintenance training. F-35 maintainers have received far more extensive instruction at this early stage of the JSF programme than on the F-22, he says.

Contractor support, too, is far better on the F-35 than was the case on the F-22, he insists. Requests to address specific problems are processed far more quickly through the F-35's autonomic logistics information system, with responses often received within hours, he says.

Additionally, the F-35's stealth coatings are much easier to work with than those used on the Raptor. Cure times for coating repairs are lower and many of the fasteners and access panels are not coated, further reducing the workload for maintenance crews. 

Emphasis mine.  What you're essentially hearing is an outstanding example of "lesson's learned and solutions applied."

Much has apparently been learned by Lockheed Martin's development of the F-22 that has been applied to the F-35 causing DeBoer, who has worked on both aircraft, to comment, "this programme is way ahead of where the [F-22] was, software-wise, aircraft-wise."

Again,  a significant positive statement by someone who knows what he is talking about.

Another positive story among many recently that point to a program on the right track and performing very well, despite the negative comments of so many critics.


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

F-35 completes 500th sortie at Eglin AFB

The good news for the F-35 program continues to roll:
The Eglin Air Force, Florida based Integrated Test Force has completed 500 F-35 JSF sorties.

Operating both the CTOL F-35A and STOVL F-35B, the Integrated Test Force accomplished the 500 sortie milestone in 238 days, Lockheed Martin says, reducing the time between each 100th sortie from initially 123 days to currently 16 days. 
There are now 22 F-35s operating at Eglin.

As the increasing pace of sorties demonstrates, one of the criticisms of the aircraft, reliability, seems to be unfounded.

· 100th sortie – July 12 - accomplished in 123 days
· 200th sortie – Aug. 24 - accomplished in 44 days
· 300th sortie – Sept. 21 - accomplished in 28 days
· 400th sortie – Oct. 16 - accomplished in 25 days
· 500th sortie – Nov. 2 - accomplished in 16 days

As well as testing continues to go (ahead of schedule in every area), we're likely to find many more of the criticism of the aircraft and the program also fall away into the "unfounded" category.


Friday, November 2, 2012

China flies it's second 5th generation fighter

If the photos are true, China has flown it's newest 5th generation fighter, the J-31
Photos of China’s latest stealth fighter, the J-31, started appearing across aviation blogs in early October. Then reports surfaced that the J-31, built by the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation, completed its first test flight Wednesday morning in northeastern China.

The J-31 executed the test flight escorted by a J-11 Chinese fighter if the photos from the event are to be believed. The Chinese government has yet to put out an official statement confirming the test. Chinese military officials have kept most details about their stealth aviation program tight lipped.

J-31 photos indicate the fighter is significantly smaller than the J-20 — the other stealth fighter the Chinese unveiled. Aviation experts have speculated the J-31 could be used more so as an interceptor or a carrier-based aircraft. Thus, the J-20 would be used as a strike aircraft targeting ships and ground targets as it could hold more missiles. 
Here's one of the photos:

 One of the more important points in all of this, given the reports are true, is that both of our potential adversaries are well into programs of their own developing 5th generation fighters.  They're not content to keep or upgrade a 4th generation fleet and it remains a mystery to most why some critics think that's the way the US should go.

While the J-31 is obviously designed to be a stealth aircraft, no one knows of it's other capabilities.  Unlike the F-35, we have no idea as to whether it has the advanced capabilities that our 5th generation aircraft will have.  Stealth, of course, is only one aspect of the US's 5th generation effort.

But, when all is said and done, pretending that legacy airframes that were designed in the last century  and are older than their pilots are going to be adequate in the future is just the wrong course to pursue.

And the picture above, is worth 1,000 words making that point.


Thursday, November 1, 2012

F-35 helmet update - 2 problems down, 1 to go

Given recent statements by Lockheed Martin VP Tom Burbage, it appears that most of the problems that the F-35's advanced helmet have suffered have been solved or are well on their way to being solved:
Lockheed Martin Corp said on Tuesday that it was making progress on resolving technical issues facing the cutting-edge helmet being developed for use by F-35 fighter pilots, and it cited positive initial reports from night flight tests of the system.

Lockheed Martin Executive Vice President Tom Burbage said that night vision performance was the "only real question" left on the helmet, which was designed by a joint venture of Rockwell Collins Inc and Israel's Elbit Systems to display all the information F-35 pilots need to fly the plane.
There were three key problems with the helmet this past spring.  Latency, jitter and night vision resolution.  If "night vision performance" is the "only real question" left, one must assume that the latency and jitter problems have been solved.  Neither was considered a show stopper and there was a report recently that the latency problem was well within standard now and that the "micro-IMUs" were being tested for jitter..
In the latest simulations, the device demonstrated a latency of only 130 milliseconds, against a 150-millisecond requirement. ... The “micro-IMUs” (inertial measurement units) that are designed to solve the “jitter” problem are already in-flight-test.
If you recall, that same report said that  "a new near-infrared camera to improve night-vision acuity is being tested at MIT Lincoln Laboratories and will be flight-tested next year. "

As mentioned, none of the problems were ever considered insurmountable, but more of an engineering challenge.  It appears that 2 of the 3 challenges have been met with the third well on the way to resolution.

Good news for the program.


Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Why Japan chose the F-35

A few weeks back, Flight Global ran an extensive article discussing Japanese air power and how its qualitative edge had eroded since China had begun it's military modernization in earnest.  Until then, Japan's fighter fleet was qualitatively superior to the Chinese.

However, as that began to change, the Japanese began looking at replacements for it's aging fighter fleet.  Initially it focused mainly on air superiority.  Of course the F-22 was out of the running, so Japan began by considering Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Eurofighter Typhoon in its F-X competition for 42 aircraft.

But then something happened to change that:
In January 2011, the Chengdu J-20's maiden flight revealed China's ambition to further enhance the quality of its air force. Although little is known about this type's radar cross section, avionics or intended mission - pure fighter or long-range strike aircraft - the J-20 raised the spectre of China deploying a credible stealth aircraft by 2018. In mid-September, another advanced aircraft appeared at the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation airfield bearing all the characteristics of a stealthy airframe. Whether the type, variously designated the J-21, J-31 or F-60, is a rival programme to the J-20 or will be developed at the same time is impossible to know. Nonetheless, both programmes show how serious China takes air force modernisation. 
Suddenly, Japan was catapulted into the 5th generation.  It's main rival and potential enemy was developing not one but two 5th generation aircraft.

The focus in Japan's F-X competition shifted to stealth and advanced capabilities.  And the only aircraft available that provided both was the F-35.  There were obviously other considerations as well, but in the end, the F-35 was their fighter of choice.

Japan will also be working on its own version of a 5th generation fighter.  In the meantime, the F-35 will be the 5th generation mainstay for the Japanese Air Force.


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

F-35 program continues to make marked progress

As has been pointed out here numerous times, it appears the F-35 program is moving along nicely.  To reinforce that point, Reuters has a story out with a couple of interesting facts of which you may not have been aware:

Lockheed Martin Corp on Wednesday said it was making "great progress" on the F-35 fighter jet program, with F-35 deliveries exceeding those of F-16 fighters and C-130J transport planes combined for the first time in the third quarter.

Chief Operating Officer Chris Kubasik, who takes over as CEO next month, said there were 94 F-35 jets in various stages of production at Lockheed plants in Fort Worth, Texas and Marietta, Georgia, plus a final assembly plant in Italy run by Alenia, a subsidiary of Finmeccanica Sp.

Deliveries, for the first time exceeded those of the F-16 and C-130J.  94 F-35s are in production.  45 are flying. Cost is coming down.  The Marines are standing up their first operational squadron next month.  The testing remains ahead of schedule and pilot and maintainer training is going well.  Tailhook and helmet fixes underway.  Software moving along well too.  ALIS is 94% complete and being tested at Edwards AFB.

Sounds like a program hitting on all cylinders.


Friday, October 26, 2012

Video: USAF Chief of Staff visits F-35 factory

It's not so much about the visit, but what Gen. Welsh says about the aircraft and, what he says the pilot's say:


Thursday, October 25, 2012

USMC to stand up 1st operational F-35 squadron in November

An indication of the positive direction of the F-35 program can be found in Yuma, AZ, where the Marine Corps will be standing up it's first operational squadron of F-35s (F-35B's) next month.  That's right, you read that correctly.  Next month:
The U.S. Marine Corps is preparing to begin operations for the first operational F-35 squadron next month at MCAS Yuma, Ariz., and officials are optimistic for a mid-month standup despite some challenges ahead.

Key to starting up squadron operations will be a small but growing cadre of maintainers, pilots and aircraft, says Col. Kevin Killea, aviation requirements branch head for the Marine Corps. The first F-35B is expected at Marine Fighter Attack Sqdn. 121 in early November, with the second slated for delivery mid-month.

These will be the first low-rate-initial-production aircraft delivered from prime contractor Lockheed Martin to the Defense Department, and these aircraft will include the 1B software. A total of 16 F-35Bs, the number needed for full operational capability, are expected at the base within the next year, Killea says. 

Thus far there are 11 F-35Bs at Eglin AFB where pilot and maintainer training are taking place.

Yuma has finished all of its infrastructure improvements in order to begin accepting F-35Bs for the new squadron.

IOC, while still a while away, is obviously much closer than critics have maintained it would be.  Even as this is happening, we continue to read dated criticism such as this:
Lockheed Martin first received the contract in 2001 to produce the plane, and there now is little hope that it will be ready for full production and deployment by the projected 2020 date, aviation analysts say.
If that is indeed true, it appears it will have little to do with the aircraft and a lot to do with cuts in spending, numbers of aircraft ordered etc.  It would be nice if critics such as this gave broad statements like this some context.  It might also be nice if they did a little independent research instead of just regurgitating what "aviation analysts say".


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Video: F-35 aerial release of AMRAAM

That's right, on the heels of its first live aerial release of a JDAM (Oct. 16) the F-35 has successfully released an AMRAAM (Oct. 19th).

Testing continues to go well and remain ahead of schedule.


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

So how is F-35 testing going?

Apparently quite well:
Flight-testing of the Lockheed Martin F-35 is ahead of the 2012 plan, and software development is making up lost ground, now standing at two months behind schedule. Steve O’Bryan, Lockheed Martin’s v-p for F-35 program integration and business development, told a meeting in London sponsored by The Air League that the F-35B STOVL version that the UK will buy is 40 percent ahead on flights and test points. Of the nine million lines of software code in the aircraft, 87 percent is now in flight test, with another 6 percent in laboratory tests. In response to earlier concerns, Lockheed Martin established a second software laboratory at its Fort Worth facility, at a cost of $150 million and employing 200 more people.
In fact, the 2nd F-35B for the UK (along with the 11th for the USMC) has been delivered to Eglin AFB.

There was also a helmet update made available:
O’Bryan also described the status of efforts to resolve development problems with the F-35’s unique helmet-mounted sight. In the latest simulations, the device demonstrated a latency of only 130 milliseconds, against a 150-millisecond requirement. A new near-infrared camera to improve night-vision acuity is being tested at MIT Lincoln Laboratories and will be flight-tested next year. The “micro-IMUs” (inertial measurement units) that are designed to solve the “jitter” problem are already in-flight-test.
Most people who were familiar with the problems the helmet was suffering also were confident that the fixes were available.  Apparently the latency problem is now well within standard and the night vision fix is close and the jitter fix is in testing.

The F-35 flight envelope has now been extended to 700 knots, 7g and 20 degrees angle of attack, with higher AOAs to be flown later this year, O’Bryan continued. An F-35A dropped a 2,000-pound GBU-31 BLU-109 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) for the first time this week, from the left internal weapons bay. This follows the first F-35 weapons release, of a 1,000-pound GBU-32, which took place in August. AIM-9X AAMs are flying on outboard wing stations. Forty five F-35s are flying today; another 15 have been rolled out, and the 112th aircraft is now on the final assembly line. Twenty aircraft are now at Eglin AFB, the initial training base; deliveries for the first operational units will be made to Yuma MCAS and Nellis AFB before year-end.
The F-35 also executed it's first AMRAAM relase (Oct. 19th).

Note the last sentence.  The plan, apparently, as has been mentioned in media accounts, is the first two operational F-35 squadrons will stand up in November - next month.  

This is a far cry from the reports that were in the media as little as two years ago, not that there aren't still those out there pushing dated criticism, a result one assumes of laziness and an unwillingness to actually research the current status of the program.


Thursday, October 18, 2012

F-35: First JDAM in-flight release

From Lockheed Martin:

An F-35A conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) aircraft completed the first in-flight weapons release of a 2,000 pound GBU-31 BLU-109 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) from a 5th Generation fighter, Oct. 16. The flight was conducted by U.S. Air Force Maj. Eric Schultz. The aircraft, known as AF-1, jettisoned an instrumented GBU-31 over the China Lake test range from the left internal weapons bay. The F-35A 5th Generation fighter is designed to carry a payload of up to 18,000 pounds using 10 weapon stations. The F-35A features four internal weapon stations located in two weapon bays to maximize stealth capability. The CTOL aircraft can also utilize an additional three external weapon stations per wing if required.


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Some perspective on F-35 costs

One of the more aggravating things about discussing the cost of the F-35 program is the misinformation that frequently gets published as fact.  Dr. Loren Thompson takes a swing at that in a Forbes article he's written.

Have there been cost increases to the program?  Yes.  But the conventional wisdom is they're all driven by the contractor - Lockheed Martin.  In reality, that's not true:
So let’s analyze where the cost estimates came from, starting with the acquisition cost — the cost to design, develop, test and produce 2,443 planes in multiple variants for three different military services.

It’s true that the defense department’s official estimate of what the price-tag will be to acquire the F-35 program of record has risen from an original baseline of $177 billion to $331 billion in fiscal 2012 dollars, but it isn’t true that most of the increase is due to screw-ups by the prime contractor.  The contractor is responsible for about 40% of the increase, resulting mainly from the need to change the original design in response to excessive weight and other problems encountered in development.
But 25% of the increase is traceable to changes in the way the government projects future costs in a program where the vast preponderance of acquisition costs still lie in the future.  Even though prime contractor Lockheed Martin has delivered each production lot to date at a lower unit cost than the government predicted, the official “parametric cost estimates” are grounded in experience from legacy programs that does not match up well with the actual F-35 experience.

Another 22% of the cost increase has resulted from delays in development of the F135 engine that will power the fighter.   The engine is provided to the prime contractor as “government-furnished equipment” and thus its part of the cost increases can’t be blamed on Lockheed Martin.  And then there are the spare parts and so-called non-recurring items the government simply forgot to include in its original cost estimates; those account for 7% of the increased costs.  An added 4% of cost increases result from growth in the scope of the development program at the behest of the government, and additional costs for war reserve spare parts.

In other words, most of the increases in the acquisition cost of the F-35 have nothing to do with the performance of the prime contractor.  And at least a third of the increases were caused by choices the government made in calculating the cost — estimating methodology, overlooked items, increases in scope, etc.  Lockheed Martin certainly made its contribution to the increases, but the reflex of politicians and pundits to blame the prime contractor for rising costs misses most of what is going on in terms of the acquisition price-tag.
The point, of course, is accurate reporting concerning the program and its costs, none of which has been particularly good in either area, is missing in most discussions.

Thompson makes another valid point about a number thrown out there that has been used repeatedly to bash the program with little context since it was first published:
As for the trillion-dollar estimate for operating the F-35 during its years of active service, that number is ridiculously misleading.  For starters, the government decided to provide a “then-year” estimate, which means it had to undertake the heroic task of estimating what the inflation rate would be for every year between now and 2065.  Most of the trillion-dollar support bill is nothing more than imaginary inflation estimates that are unprovable and tell us nothing about the program’s claim on military buying power.
Drop the inflation estimates and the number drops to $417 billion dollars - over 50 years.  Quite a difference.  And Thompson argues, and supports his argument, that even that number should be lower.

Finally, the cost per copy:
[T]he plane is meeting all of its key performance criteria in tests, and the government’s own cost projections indicate that by the time it reaches full-rate production at the end of the decade, it will cost about what current fighters do — while delivering big gains in survivability, range, payload and other measures.

There’s good reason to think this will happen, because the average cost of each plane in the first four production lots has been below what the government predicted.  As the program has progressed rapidly down the learning curve, the “unit recurring flyaway” cost — the production cost — of the most common variant has been cut in half, from $200 million to $100 million.  The main reason the contractor and customer are still wrangling over terms for the next lot is that the government wanted to reduce the unit cost again to below $90 million by demanding an improbable decrease in labor costs.
If someone isn't talking about "unit recurring flyaway cost", then they're not talking apples to apples when they try to compare F-35 costs to 4th generation fighter costs.  And a $90 million a copy URF would indeed put the F-35 comfortably in the cost range of current 4th generation fighters.  In fact, in some cases it may end up being slightly less costly than a 4th generation fighter.  Why?  Because that 90 million a copy price buys a combat ready fighter, day one.  When it rolls out of the production plant it is ready to go to war.  Not so with the 4th gen fighters which have a base price and then an additional price to add those items to the aircraft to make it mission capable.

Keep all of this in mind next time you see someone talking costs on the F-35.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Italy commits to order 4 more F-35s

More good news for the F-35 program.  On the heels of the Norway order, Italy has committed to ordering 4 more F-35's.
Lockheed was awarded a $28.6 million contract modification from the Pentagon on Tuesday to begin placing orders for parts and materials for four F-35A aircraft in production Lot 7, which won’t be produced for at least a couple of years.

It’s the second batch of F-35s Italy has placed on order, following three in production Lot 6. 
The commitment from Italy comes at a time when sequestration promises to cut as much as much as a billion dollars from the F-35 program.


Monday, October 15, 2012

F-35 not just a "stealth airplane"

One of the tendencies of those who try to denigrate the capabilities of the F-35 is to attack the idea that "stealth" isn't as effective as it once was.

Obviously, as with every other advantage one side develops, those who might oppose it attempt to develop counter-measures.  It's a constant battle that develops whenever something new and advantageous is developed by one side.  The other side works to counter it.

But the F-35 is not just a "stealth airplane".  In fact, stealth is only a part of the aircraft's capabilities.

Popular Mechanics has an interesting piece that makes the point that while stealth may not have the effect that it once had, given advances in radar technology and the like.  However, as mentioned, it isn't what defines the F-35:

The F-35's approach to radar-absorbent material (RAM) is more reliable than that of any earlier warplane. The F-22's surfaces are made of aluminum, which are covered in RAM that must constantly be reapplied. This is, of course, a nightmare for maintenance crews. But the F-35 is made of carbon-fiber composite; Lockheed engineers bake RAM into the airplane's edges in an effort to soak up inbound radar.

But the Lightning II's key to survival is its own radar, the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) installed in its nose. Conventional radar systems turn their gaze mechanically—imagine a dish spinning or a flat surface tilting to aim radar beams. Electronically steered radar does not move, but its beams can broadcast in different directions, thousands of times a second and across many frequencies. This agility allows AESA to map terrain and track hundreds of targets.

AESA is built to do more than scan—it can reach out to enemy radars and scramble their signals. A combination of radar and electromagnetic warning sensors alert an F-35 pilot to the threat of enemy radar; he can then dodge the threat or use the AESA to jam the signal, no matter what frequency the radar is transmitting.

And, if a missile is launched, the F-35 can track it with 360-degree infrared-sensor coverage and then, in some cases, overwhelm the missile's guidance system with the AESA. "Stealth works in conjunction with all those other techniques to make the F-35 what is probably the most survivable airplane of all time," O'Bryan says. 

That last statement by Steve O'Bryan (Lockheed vice president and former F/A-18 pilot) is the point - stealth is only one aspect of the capabilities the F-35 has which works in conjunction with other advanced systems to increase the survivability of the aircraft.  And, of course, our side will be developing counter-counter measures to those developed by our potential enemies and designed to better detect our aircraft.  Those will be incorporated in later upgraded versions of the F-35 as they become available.

The point, of course, is to understand that stealth is an "enabler" not a definition of the F-35.  It is one of many systems designed to make the aircraft hard to detect and therefore much more survivable than our 4th generation legacy aircraft.

Keep that in mind when you see critics trying to separate out stealth as the "definition" of the F-35 and then panning it as not as effective as it should be.  They can only do that if they ignore all the other capabilities the aircraft brings to the fight.


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Video: F-35B and C in flight

Nice composite video of the F-35B and F-35C taken from various other videos.  This is a Lockheed Martin produced piece touted as a "salute" to Marine Corps and Naval Aviation:



Tuesday, October 9, 2012

F-35B pilots execute 1st two aerial refulings

Another test point passed as the F-35 continues to progress through its testing very nicely:
Two U.S. Marine Corps F-35B pilots executed the first two aerial refuelings for the stealthy aircraft from the service’s KC-130J during an Oct. 2 mission.

During the flight, an instructor pilot, Maj. Ty Bachman, and student, Maj. Paul Holst, each connected with the KC-130J and took on fuel, a first for the 33rd Fighter Wing, which handles F-35 pilot training at Eglin AFB, Fla. The aircraft took on only about 2,000 lb. of fuel at a speed of about 230 kt. and altitude of 15,000 ft., Holst tells Aviation Week.
Eglin Air Base, of course, is where F-35 pilot and maintainer training takes place:

Twelve F-35B pilots are in training at Eglin now; the Marine Corps plans to stand up its first squadron in Yuma, Ariz., in November. Italy and the U.K. are also expected to buy the F-35B.

You can read about Yuma's preparations to receive the first F-35B squadron in the post below.

And the F-35 program marches onward.


Friday, October 5, 2012

F-35 software progress report

From a recent Air Force magazine article:
There are three major blocks of software associated with the F-35. The Block 2 software, flying now, allows for safe operation of the jet to the edges of the test envelope. The Block 2A software will include basic weapons capability—what Venlet called "initial warfighting" capacity. The full-up software is called Block 3 and will include "full capability" of weapons and electronic warfare, he said. Block 3 "will finish development testing in 2016 and be released to the fleet in 2017." A Block 4 version, which will include both software and hardware changes to improve the aircraft’s performance, will constitute the first major upgrade for the F-35. The content of that upgrade is classified, but will likely include increased internal carriage of AIM-120 AMRAAM radar guided missiles, among other changes. 
So there you have the schedule of the upcoming software blocks.

Just as important was something VADM David Venlet said about the program in general:

Venlet told the airland panel that experts from Air Force Materiel Command and Naval Air Systems Command have "looked me in the eye and confirmed for me they believe we have what it takes in time and money" to adapt to any new discoveries in flight test without derailing the program. 
"Every issue that we have in view today is very much in the category of normal development for a fighter tactical aircraft," Venlet said in testimony. "Good old-fashioned engineering is going to take care of every one of those."

Given that statement, it would appear those associated with the F-35 program feel they've identified most of the possible future problems and are pretty certain they'll be able to tweak or fix them with "good old-fashioned engineering."
Something Venlet said, however, that critics ought to pay attention too is where he points out that what's going on with the F-35 isn't at all unique or unprecedented.  It is, instead, issues that are "very much in the category of normal development for a fighter tactical aircraft."

That's the point that many have been trying to point out for years to those critics who have been hysterically claiming the program was a failure.


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Norway orders first 2 F-35s

More good news for the F-35 program:

Norway has placed orders on its first two F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets. In all, the country plans to buy 52 warplanes.

"Today, we are living in deep peace in Norway, but no one can say exactly what’s going to happen in the next 10-20 years,” said Norway'sState Secretary Roger Ingebrigtsen during a recent visit to Lockheed Martin's Fort Worth assembly plant.
The latest numbers released by Lockheed show the United Kingdom, Turkey, and Australia all plan to buy 100 jets or more.
Looking good.