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.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Marine Corps Air Station Yuma prepares for the F-35

We hear a lot of talk about infrastructure, but we most likely don't apply that to things like basing new fighter airplanes.  But when it was determined that F-35s were to be based at Yuma Air Station, infrastructure became one of the first areas that required upgrading.  Recently, the first hanger that will house F-35s was completed.  Hanger 80.

Phil Klendworth tells you why that was necessary:
In regards to Yuma, we initially did a site activation survey of that base back in 2008. During that Site Survey, we realized the infrastructure and facilities at Yuma were already 30 to 35 years old and being utilized at capacity. The JSF Team conducted a business case analysis and came to realization that it was more cost effective to not take any of the existing facilities out of service at this point and build new. The new construction will have all the JSF facility requirements incorporated to support 270 VDC electrical systems. The older facilities will be renovated or replaced when the AV-8 Harrier aircraft is retired.

The primary facility we focused on was the maintenance hangar. The hangar will be configured with internal aircraft electrical power, cooling air and a secure Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) infrastructure that is compatible with the JSF Air System to minimize the need for support equipment and stove piped computer systems. The ALIS infrastructure communicates across the base, Marine Corps and JSF Enterprise to manage the JSF Fleet.

The second facility we focused on was the aircraft simulator training facility that will house the JSF Full Mission Simulators. The FMS will provide realistic multi-aircraft tactical training to maintain pilot currency and minimize the number hours required in a real JSF. This saves operations and maintenance cost and reduces risk.
Hanger 80 is the first of the structures completed which is designed exclusively to support the F-35.  You have to remember, it was 30 plus years ago that the Marine Corps last got new fighter aircraft.  And, as is obvious, the requirement for the new aircraft is significantly different than those for the fighters being retired.

Klendworth mentioned the simulator training facility.  That too has now been completed:
A flight simulator for F-35 fighters is the latest facility for the new jets to be completed at the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma.

Work on the two-story, 43,150-square-foot flight simulator was part of $150 million worth of construction projects taking place at base. 
Yuma will begin getting its F-35s this year and will eventually base 88 F-35Bs at the facility.


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

F-35 development shows good progress

Air Force Magazine has an article out entitled "Slow Climb For The F-35".  In it the author chronicles what has happened in the development and testing of the JSF.  He obviously hits those points which have been a concern, but he also gives a pretty positive assessment of the F-35's progress.

One of the more interesting series of quotes comes from VADM David Venlet:
Vice Adm. David J. Venlet, the Pentagon’s program executive officer for the F-35, told a Senate panel in May that overall, he has "confidence in the resilience of the plan" to get the F-35 past its teething problems and into service with the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy. "My observations and assessments over the past year," Venlet told the Senate airland subcommittee in a budget hearing, "give me reason to believe the basic aircraft and engine designs are sound and will deliver."

Venlet reported "very good engine and airframe contractor responsiveness and progress" during the previous year. The tests on Wasp "exceeded plans and expectations," he said, adding that the F-35 has now flown "to its maximum speed and hardest turn limits." Carrier pilots, he said, are "highly complimentary" of their version’s handling characteristics in test flights at NAS Patuxent River, Md.
Those quotes are quite a bit different than those the critics have made about the aircraft.  And, it seems the pilots who are going to have to fly this fighter like it.

Concurrency, something the critics have harped about, also came up:
Concurrency—producing aircraft meant for operations while flight tests are under way, requiring rework when problems are discovered in tests—is a transient issue, Venlet said, and "will lessen over time." The two years of extra time and additional funding built into the revised schedule was necessary, he said; however, he doesn’t think further extensions will be needed. 

Neither did Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, then Air Force Chief of Staff. Asked in June if he thinks the F-35 program has had enough time to address concurrency issues, Schwartz answered, "Yes, for the A model," the conventional takeoff and landing version to be used by USAF.

"There’s always going to be some retrofit," Schwartz added. He pointed out this would be true of any combat aircraft. Schwartz acknowledged the issues with the STOVL and carrier models, but said the F-35A is generally meeting the Air Force’s expectations for this stage of the program. The launch of local area operations at Eglin shows the program’s progress, he said, and "we have a good sense of how it’s going."
Interesting statements, given the fact that concurrency has been characterized in much of the defense media as a mistake.  Of course Schwartz's only concern is the A model (the Air Force model) but it would be difficult to believe the same assessment wouldn't be true of the other two models as well (see Venlet statement about Wasp tests).

There's a lot more in the article and it will be discussed in more detail here in the coming few days, but those two points resonated, given the criticism you've likely read in the defense press.  It appears that while there were obviously initial program problems - which should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever watched one of these programs develop - they're pulling out of it and, as the article states,  in terms of testing, "the F-35 "is now ahead of the revised schedule in most categories, catching up fast in others."

Good news.