Monday, July 30, 2012

F-35 provides access to denied airspace UAVs can’t

One of the frequent criticisms levied against the F-35 is that it and its cost aren’t necessary because UAVs can do everything that an F-35 can do (and more) and doesn’t risk the pilot.

According to the Air Force, that only counts where it doesn’t matter – “benign airspace”.  In contested or denied airspace, UAVs don’t cut the mustard:

Most current unmanned aircraft do not have the maneuverability or self-defense systems to adequately protect themselves in an A2/AD environment, the USAF says. In the future, the USAF needs to work on "developing better self-protection, increased maneuverability, smaller signatures, more robust/redundant network integration, and situational awareness inputs from other cross-domain sensors."

Eventually, unmanned aircraft will become capable of accomplishing more mission types, but will not necessarily replace manned aircraft in all mission areas, the service says.

The bottom-line, Schwartz says, of a day when unmanned aircraft might operate deep inside enemy airspace: "There are some things we're not yet prepared to do, and it's not that it might not happen at some point, but it's not a near-term eventuality."

To penetrate into the A2/AD environment, the USAF will rely on space, cyber and 5th generation fighters like the Lockheed Martin F-22 and F-35. But cyber-warfare will play an increasingly large role. "As we take down threats through kinetic or cyber-attacks, we open windows in the anti-access environment to fly our less robust systems, whether manned or unmanned," the USAF says.

Or, once the F-35s clear the way, then UAVs can be introduced.

The obvious argument to counter that is to fix those UAVs up so they do have the ability to go into contested airspace.  However, one only has to think back to a recent “robust” UAV program that was scaled back to provide an inkling into why that, at least at this juncture, is not likely.

Global Hawk.  Remember it?  Its cost grew to over a $100 million a copy.  It required a crew of 3 (yes, virtual crew members, but still required for each flight).  And what can’t it do?  Operate in an A2/D2 environment, something the F-35 is designed to do. 

Can anyone guess what it might cost in addition to it’s base cost, to equip it to fly in such an environment?  Yes, much more than an F-35.

And that’s the point.  Right now, those contending that UAVs can and will be able to operate in such an environment as may be demanded in future conflicts have nothing to point to with any credibility to make their point.

The F-35, however, does (see post on Northern Edge 2011).


Thursday, July 26, 2012

Northern Edge 2011 demonstrated the advanced capabilities of the F-35

As I pointed out yesterday, the F-35 is best evaluated on three axis compared to the traditional two.  It is the third axis, the “z-axis” which brings the capabilities that the legacy fighters can never match to the fore.  Critics of the F-35 tend to keep their criticism within the traditional x-y axis because that’s what they understand to some extent or another.  Where they rarely venture, other than to generally dismiss it with a hand-wave or two, is the third axis which, when combined with the other two, make the F-35 the most advanced and capable fighter in the world.

Instead of concentrating their attention on how many engines it has or the hiccups the program has gone through, they ought to be concentrating on learning what the future will bring with this aircraft and what that promises in terms of advancing our national defense.

It’s not like the information isn’t available.  For instance, last year an exercise named “Northern Edge 2011” was conducted.  It demonstrated – key word – the abilities of the F-35 in no uncertain terms:

The F-35 can be understood as a combat aircraft that can operate and manage combat space within a 360-degree radius for more than 800 miles. A recent operational test of the F-35 radar and the DAS occurred in Northern Edge 2011, a joint and combined exercise that serves as a focal point for the restructuring of U.S. power projection forces. As the results from the exercise are evaluated, military leadership and program managers should be able to make a definitive judgment on the way ahead for the program now, not in some distant future. In both Northern Edge 2009 and 2011, the air combat baseline was being re-normed and the limitations of legacy aircraft were well highlighted when compared to newer systems. Northern Edge validated, in real time, the ability of American and soon allied TacAir fleets to give total concurrent SA to each combat pilot. In a robust jamming operating environment, the F-35 radar and DAS separated themselves from the pack and have initiated a new era in thinking about combat operations.

SA refers to situational awareness, a key and major component in any sort of engagement.  The side with the best situational awareness can best quickly decide on decisive tactics and allocate its resources and combat multipliers where they will most influence and win the battle. 

As an F-35 joint program office release underscores, this is not only about the ability of airpower to operate in a robust EW environment in which cyber conflict is a key dimension, but it is also about the ability of an airborne capability to support maritime operations:

This year provided an opportunity to observe the performance of the F-35 JSF systems in multiple robust electronic warfare scenarios. The AN/APG-81 active electronically scanned array radar and AN/AAQ-37 distributed aperture system were mounted aboard Northrop Grumman’s BAC 1-11 test aircraft. Making its debut, the AN/AAQ-37 DAS demonstrated spherical situational awareness and target tracking capabilities. The DAS is designed to simultaneously track multiple aircraft in every direction, which has never been seen in an air combat environment.

Northern Edge 2011 proved the abilities of a number of the systems on the F-35 in what is described as a “robust EW” environment.  Most likely that means an EW environment beyond what one would normally expect, even in a high threat environment.  What those systems demonstrated, in some cases, were abilities never before seen “in an air combat environment”. 

Additionally, it revalidated some of the F-35s older systems:

A return participant, the AN/APG-81 AESA, demonstrated robust electronic ­protection, electronic attack, passive maritime and experimental modes, and data-linked air and surface tracks to improve legacy fighter situational awareness. It also searched the entire 50,000 square-mile Gulf of Alaska operating area for surface vessels, and accurately detected and tracked them in minimal time.

Again, you’re reading about abilities and capabilities unknown until now.  Yet when critics address the aircraft, rarely if ever do they go here.  When you begin to build a list of what this fighter can do that legacy fighters can’t even dream of doing, and begin to understand the capability and synergy that will build for the entire force, you can understand why critics who’ve staked their reputations on calling the airplane a failure avoid it.

As implied below, that z-axis they avoid so studiously makes this more than an exceptional airplane.  It makes it revolutionary:

The C4ISR-D capability in each cockpit takes the F-35 out of the linear fifth-generation development path. The F-35 radar was validated in a tactically relevant environment. Until proven otherwise, America still has the most capable EW and, to use an older phrase, ECCM (electronic counter-countermeasures) fighting force in the world. So being tactically “validated” in an American-designed exercise is the gold standard. Northern Edge exercises provide operational—not test—environments. Block 2 is ready for Marine F-35B initial operational capability. In 2009, Block 2 was the first improvement up the z-axis, and pilots from MAWTS (the Marine equivalent of TOPGUN) are paying close attention. Block 3—the next step up the z-axis—demonstrated that the radar worked effectively in sea surface search and ship target track. If American TacAir forces afloat can see an enemy, they will kill that enemy. Block 4 is the next step up for “Three Dimensional Warriors” and a z-axis cockpit. A fighter pilot knowledgeable about Northern Edge, when asked about DAS, stated that it had a feature of “passive ranging.” When asked what that meant, he casually remarked, “Shooting people off your tail and all that stuff.”

A capability they’ve never had before.  Kind of nice, I’d think.  Note the first sentence in the paragraph, though.  That’s a key point.  This isn’t just an upgraded 4th generation fighter we’ve made stealthy and tagged with “5th generation’ (i.e. “linear progression”).  This is well beyond that as the cites above point out.

Unfortunately that sort of vital information about the abilities and capabilities of the F-35 don’t get the play in the defense media it deserves.  Perhaps, as I said before, it is because most of the principles have staked their credibility on taking the program down.  This obviously wouldn’t help their cause at all.  Or, as an alternative, maybe they simply don’t understand or feel comfortable with an axis that is “out-of-the-box” and prefer to stick with sniping about those things with which they do have marginal comfort.

I don’t know.  But what I describe above is the heart and soul of why this aircraft is a game changer.  The fact that it doesn’t get the attention it deserves is a true disservice to those making decisions about our nation’s future national defense posture.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The F-35 and the “Z-Axis”

The advanced systems and capabilities of the F-35 are so revolutionary, they’ll be reshaping the pilot culture.  So contend the authors of an excellent paper entitled “The F-35 and the Future of Power Projection”.

The authors note that historically, we evaluate fighter aircraft on a two dimensional “an x-y axis”.  By that they mean:

The design characteristics blended together prior to the F-35 have been constantly improving range, payload (improved by system and weapons carried), maneuverability (measured by “P Sub s”), useful speed, and range (modified by VSTOL [vertical short takeoff and landing]—a plus factor). The F-35 is also designed with inherent survivability factors; first, redundancy and hardening, and then stealth. Stealth is usually seen as the fifth-generation improvement.


Traditionally, the two dimensional depiction is that the x-axis is time and the y-axis is performance and captures individual airplanes that tend to cluster in generation improvement. Each aircraft clustered in a “generation” is a combination of ­improvements. Essentially, the aeronautical design “art” of blending together ever improving and evolving technology eventually creates improvements in a linear fashion.

However, evaluating the fighter on only these traditional “x-y axis” characteristics misses the bigger point of the F-35’s capabilities and development according to the paper.  The F-35 adds a new axis.  The “z-axis”. 

The F-35 is not a linear performance enhancement over legacy or fourth-generation fighter aircraft. When we consider information and the speed at which it can be collected, fused, presented, and acted on in the combat environment, those who possess this advanced decision capability will have a clear advantage.

While this is not a new concept, having been originally conceived in John Boyd’s famous OODA (observe, orient, decide, and act) loop, the information dimension of combat aircraft design now is so important that it forces us to gauge the value of such a weapons system along the z-axis, which is the pilot’s cockpit OODA loop axis. This OODA loop ability is measured as the combined capability the pilot gains from integrated command, control, communications, computers, ISR, and his resultant decision making (C4ISR-D) and employment or action. From Boyd’s theory, we know that victory in the air or, for that matter, anywhere in combat is dependent on the speed and accuracy of the combatant in making a decision. The better support the pilot in a combat aircraft receives from his information systems, the better the combat engagement outcome. The advantage goes to the better information enabled. Pilots have always known this, but the revolutionary fifth generation, designed in C4ISR-D, requires a similar advancement in how pilots approach their work.

In addition, today’s industrial learning curve to improve sensors, system capability, and weapons carried is likely flatter than that required to build another airframe, and it may be a new American way of industrial surging. The U.S. arsenal of democracy may be shifting from an industrial production line to a clean room and a computer lab as key shapers of competitive advantage. This progress can be best seen in movement out the z-axis. The Air Force F-22 pilot community has been experiencing this revolution for some time, and their lessons learned are being incorporated into a pilot’s F-35 training.

Essentially a major key to winning any battle, whether it be on land, sea or air, is to get inside the other guy’s decision loop.  It’s called many things in many of the services, but that’s essentially the goal.  If you are inside his decision loop, you are acting decisively before he can.  At best, he is reacting to you.  It is at that point, you have an almost overwhelming advantage.

What the z-axis provides, because of the way it gathers, processes and fuses information through its C4ISR-D capability, is that overwhelming advantage to our pilots.

How will it reshape the pilot culture?  Here’s Marine Corps General Jon Davis, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing commander, describing how three current pilot cultures will become one:

The F-35B is going to provide the USMC aviator cultures in our Harriers, Hornets and Prowlers to coalesce and I think to shape an innovative new launch point for the USMC aviation community. We are going to blend three outstanding communities. Each community has a slightly different approach to problem-solving. You’ve got the expeditionary basing that the Harrier guys are bringing to you. You have the electronic warfare side of the equation and the ­high-end fight that the Prowler guys think about and the [­communications] and jamming side of the equation, which the Prowler guys think about. And you have the multi-role approach of the F-18 guys.

That’s powerful.  Additionally, by bringing EW into every F-35B’s cockpit it will reshape how the USMC will use and deploy the V-22 Osprey as well:

The Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1 (MAWTS-1) is currently working to shape that new pilot culture. MAWTS-1 pilots and trainers are looking at the impact of the V-22 and F-35 on the changes in tactics and training generated by the new aircraft. MAWTS-1 is taking a much older curriculum and adjusting it to the realities of the impact of the V-22 and the anticipated impact of the F-35.


[T]he inherent capabilities of the emerging F-35 C4ISR-D cockpit with 360-degree SA may turn out with appropriately designed data links to be a force multiplier in the tactical employment of the MV-22 Osprey and the helicopter community, and reach back to Navy combat forces afloat.

The point, of course, is instead of specific aircraft designed to do specific missions, each F-35 will be capable of providing unprecedented data and situational awareness to future operations.

The “z-axis” – a reason why the F-35 isn’t just evolutionary, it’s revolutionary.


Monday, July 23, 2012

“Stealth” is an “enabler” for the F-35, not its central definition

That statement is found in the paper “The F-35 and the Future of Power Projection” and is a point that is often misunderstood.  Here’s the entire quote:

The F-35 joint strike fighter is often defined by its stealth characteristics, and the debate revolves around whether one needs “a high-end aircraft” or, if one is pessimistic, whether “stealth is really stealthy.” Although interesting, such discussions miss the point. Stealth is an enabler for this aircraft, not its central definition.

In fact, Lockheed Martin refers to the F-35 as a VLO aircraft, or “very low observable”.  What that means is the chances of it being detected and targeted are much, much less than those of the current generation of aircraft. That means it has a much higher chance of penetrating and accomplishing any of a multiple of missions in denied airspace.

Here’s a Marine F-18 pilot describing what that means within the reality in which he must work:

I would say low observability is a capability set or is an asset to the platform, but the platform as a whole brings a lot by itself. There are situations where low observability will be very important to the mission set that you’re operating in. And then there will be situations where the ISR package or the imaging package that comes with that aircraft, the ability to see things, will be more important; that will change based on the mission set and how you define the mission.

The authors of the paper then say:

Moreover, one of the challenges facing the F-35 is that it is often described using historical aviation words, generally obscuring the technological advance of stealth itself. As Lieutenant General David Deptula, USAF (Ret.), constantly reminded his Service and others, the “F” before the F-22 and the F-35 is somewhat of a misnomer. There are significant generational changes in the way individual combat aircraft and fleets of aircraft handle data and can make decisions.

Stealth on this aircraft is a function of the manufacturing process; it is not hand built into the aircraft and maintained as such. It is a characteristic of high-tolerance manufacturing, and as such, stealth will be maintained in the field, not in the factory or depot. This is revolutionary in character.

Unsaid specifically, but certainly implied, is the fact that low observability is designed into an aircraft, it can’t be retrofitted.

Think of the legacy 4th generation fleet.  Then consider this list of characteristics necessary for a very low observability aircraft:

  • Large capacity internal fuel tanks
  • Weapons carried internally
  • Low emissions radar and avionics
  • Low observable seams and RAM seals
  • Curved, diverterless inlets, “buried” engine
  • Embedded/Internal antennas (DAS/EOTS/IRST)
  • Aircraft shaping and edge alignment

The truth of the matter is that regardless of how hard we try, we can only do things that will make the current generation of fighter aircraft “stealthier”, but will never accomplish the mission of making them VLO aircraft. 

It’s in the design.  And that design increases the chances of survivability in denied airspace exponentially

The F-35 is the state-of-the-art in VLO aircraft, something which gives us quite an advantage over our possible enemies in future conflicts, make no mistake about it.


Friday, July 20, 2012

The F-35 and the future of power projection

Yesterday, the government of the UK took delivery of their first F-35B.  Minister of Defense Philip Hammond said:

“This hugely capable combat aircraft is now officially British and in the hands of our expert pilots.”

Key words?  “Hugely capable combat aircraft”.

It is how “hugely capable” the F-35 is that seems to somehow not have been transmitted well.  The fact is the capabilities are so outside the realm of how legacy 4th generation fighters are thought of that it is apparently hard for many critics to wrap their heads around them.  The advanced capabilities the F-35 brings to the future are revolutionary, not just evolutionary.

To understand that you have to drop the 4th generation legacy aircraft thinking and rethink the entire way our fighter aircraft will be employed.  To do that I suggest you read an excellent report by Robbin Laird and Edward Timperlake in Joint Force Quarterly entitled “The F-35 and the future of power projection”.

In it the authors lay out, about as well as anyone can, the generational changes that make the F-35 “hugely capable” as MoD Hammond mentioned.  And the capabilities they describe are as complete and total a change from traditional employment and use of fighter aircraft as can be imagined.  While most critics concentrate on the traditional attributes by which fighter aircraft have been evaluated previously, they mostly miss almost the entirety of the new capabilities that form the core of the F-35’s advanced technologies.

How big is the leap?  Well, in real terms, think of the 4th gen fighters as you would a rotary phone.  Then imagine the capabilities of the F-35 in comparison:

The F-35 provides a flexible architecture similar to a smart phone. With the F-35, we define a synergy space to draw on the menu of applications. And the F-35 combat systems are built to permit open-ended growing capability. In mathematical analogies, we are describing something that can create battlespace “fractals,” notably with a joint force able to execute distributed operations. The aircraft is a facilitator of a more robust combat environment than was available with legacy aircraft and command and control. This change requires pilots to rethink how to operate. F-35 performance and its pilot allow a revolution along the information axis of combat, or what might be identified as the “z-axis.”

Key phrases – “open-ended capability”; the aircraft is a “facilitator” as much as a fighter.  And it requires pilots and planners to “rethink” how they will operate with this aircraft in their inventory.

Another point to be made is how a 4th gen fighter operates vs. an F-35.  It can be found in the development and evolution of the legacy fleet:

The legacy combat aircraft have added new combat subsystems over a 30-year period. These evolved aircraft and their new subsystems are additive, iterative, and sequential. The resulting configurations are built over the core foundational aircraft.

And as each system was added, pilots had to learn how to use and then interpret the information that the system gave them.  It was then the pilot’s job to integrate or “fuse” the data.

The F-35 was built with a foundation that allows interactivity across the combat systems, permitting the forging of a combat system enterprise managed by the computer on the aircraft. Said another way, F-35 core combat systems are interactive with one another, creating a synergistic outcome and capability rather than providing an additive-segmented tool. The aircraft’s systems are built on a physical link, namely, a high-speed data bus built on high-speed fiber optical systems. To provide a rough comparison, legacy aircraft are communicating over a dial-up modem compared to the F-35 system, which is equivalent to a high-speed broadband system. The new data bus and high-speed broadband are the facilitators of this fully integrated data-sharing environment on the aircraft. While legacy aircraft have had similar subsystems, integration was far less mature.

Connected to the other combat systems via the high-speed data bus is the CNI system (communications, navigation, and ­identification). This is a flexible radio frequency system that enables the aircraft to operate against a variety of threats. The other core combat systems, which interact to create the combat systems enterprise, are the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, DAS, Electrical Optical Targeting System (EOTS), and electronic warfare (EW) system.

The fusion takes place in the aircraft and is presented to the pilot who can concentrate on the tactical mission. It also passes along information gathered by its sensors while integrating that sent by other sensor systems to give the pilot unparalleled situational awareness. The power of the integrated systems on the F-35 are much more flexible and interactive than anything on a legacy ship.

As a former pilot says:

“When this plane was designed, the avionics suite from the ground up, the designers looked at the different elements that can be mutually supporting as one of the integration tenets. For example, the radar didn’t have to do everything; the Electrical Optical Targeting System didn’t have to do everything. And they were designed together.

Fusion is the way to leverage the other sensors’ strengths. To make up for any weaknesses, perhaps in the field of regard or a certain mode, a certain spectrum, with each of the sensor building blocks, they were all designed to be multifunction avionics.

For example, the AESA is an MFA—a multifunction array. It has, of course, the standard air-to-air modes, the standard air-to-ground modes. But in addition, it’s really built from the ground up to be an EW aperture for electronic protection, electronic support, which is sensing, passive ops, and electronic attack.”

And, as mentioned, they’re open ended, meaning upgrading is mostly a matter of software.  In fact, the Navy is saying their future F/A-XX is likely to be an upgraded F-35.

There is much, much more in the report.  But the message is clear.  This isn’t your dad’s old Oldsmobile and thinking of it in those terms clearly causes one to miss the revolutionary changes this aircraft brings to the services.  Read the entire report.  It clearly points out why the F-35 is not only a fine aircraft in its own right, but is clearly the evolutionary fighter that will forever change how we think and fight in the future.

I’ll be covering more of the report in future posts.


Thursday, July 19, 2012

First Air National Guard pilot flies F-35

Of course it was a familiarization flight, but still, the pilot gave the aircraft high marks:

"It was a very easy aircraft to fly," said Air Guard Maj. Jay Spohn in a phone call with reporters Tuesday afternoon. "There were no surprises, there were no malfunctions."

Spohn went on to say:

"The F-35 is at this point really in the crawl stage where guys are just learning how to fly the airplane," he said.

Says the reporter:

Indeed, test pilots are still methodically working out the aircraft's flight envelope even as production planes are already being delivered – an overlap the F-35 program manager. Vice Adm. David Venlet, has called a "miscalculation."

The reporter then goes on to report later in the story:

And Spohn applauded the digital training he'd been given before the actual flight. "The aircraft flies just like the simulator, which is a good thing," he said. Thanks to that training, he said, "I felt more comfortable on my very first flight in the F-35 than I did two years ago on my first flight in the F-15 or ten years ago in my first flight in the A-10."

That all is a result of what the Admiral calls a “miscalculation” (i.e. “concurrency”).  Yet there is proof positive of its worth.

And another important point was made in the article.  The F-35 is touted as an aircraft that is easier to maintain.  Said one of those being trained to maintain the F-35, it is easier:

The chief of Spohn's ground crew also said the digital systems make the plane easier to manage. "It's a lot simpler than the F-15C, which is what I came off," said Master Sergeant Brian Rowlands. For example, Rowland said, one set of test equipment for the F-15C involves four 50-pound boxes of gear; the equivalent for the F-35 is one 30-lb box, he said, "and the test can be done in half the time."

Again proving that what has been claimed for the F-35 seems to be true.

Finally, speaking of the cockpit and helmet:

"Some of the new 'glass' [i.e. instrumentation] in the F-35 is easier to use and presents you more situational awareness," he told reporters. "The biggest thing that jumps out at you is their remarkable lack of switches compared to the previous generation of aircraft, and those two big touchscreens [instead]," he said. "Ergonomically it's quite a bit different."

Spohn also flew wearing the high-tech helmet developed by Vision Systems International (VSI), which is being reworked for jitter in the images it displays. "There has been talk of issues, but I didn't have any issues," he said – although he was not using feeds from all the aircraft's sophisticated sensors.

All in all a very positive review from an old F-15 pilot.


Monday, July 16, 2012

If the F-35 is such a costly turkey, why are 25 foreign nations interested in it?

That is certainly a question anyone who has been reading the defense media must be asking themselves these days:

More than 25 countries have expressed interest in Lockheed Martin Corp's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, including Singapore, which is still evaluating its options, and South Korea, which is due to pick a winner in its fighter competition by year's end, top Lockheed officials said on Wednesday.

If you’ve read the critics of this aircraft, you have to be surprised to know that many countries are still interested.  According to the critics this aircraft is an underpowered hanger queen and money pit which can’t do any of the missions it is supposedly designed for even half well.

Yet the military analysts in 25 other countries see something in the design, performance and promise of this fighter that at least have them interested enough to inquire.

Then there’s the Israeli air force which has a reputation for pretty rigorous analysis of potential weapons systems before they’ll accept them.  They were offered one squadron of F-35s.  They said, “no, we want two”.

Japan also had a fighter competition and did an analysis which found them deciding on the F-35 for their fighter of the future.  Again, a country not known to accept anything but the best.

Perhaps the F-35 isn’t at all what the critics claim.  Instead, given the interest and acceptance, it is the opposite of what they claim.

One has to admit, given the interest and the recent orders that reality seems to be siding with proponents of the aircraft and not the critics.


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Video: Inside the cockpit of the F-35

Here is a great look inside the cockpit of the F-35.  This video was shot by Engaget at Lockheed Martin's flight demonstration center.  It gives a very good overall view of the capabilities of the jet as well as how the cockpit of the advanced fighter is, well cutting-edge.  There's also a look at the new helmet's capabilities at the end:


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

June F-35 test results–still ahead of schedule and flying Block 2A software

A couple of highlights over and above the rest of the highlights have been emphasized by me.  Most test points in a single month and, surprise, Block 2A software is being flown as well as the highest daily sortie rate to date.

From Lockheed Martin:

As of June 30, the F-35 Lightning II 5th Generation multirole fighter had conducted 595 test flights in 2012 versus a plan of 445 and accrued 4,830 test points against a plan of 3,901.

In June, the F-35 program accomplished several flight test and production milestones:

During June, the F-35 test program accrued the most test points in a single month, 1,118, in program history.

On June 5, BF-5 became the first F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) jet to fly with Block 2A software.

On June 13, the first F-35C carrier variant (CV) night flight was completed at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.

On June 13, F-35A conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) weapons pit drop testing was conducted for the first time at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

On June 14 at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., BF-2 completed the first test flight for the F-35B STOVL variant with an asymmetric weapons load.

On June 25, AF-1, an F-35A CTOL test jet, accomplished the first F-35 weapon pit drop from an external station, a GBU-12 from station 2.

On June 27, the program achieved the highest number of F-35 flights in a single day, 12.

Cumulative flight test activity totals for 2012 through June 30 are provided below:

F-35A CTOL jets have flown 260 times.

F-35B STOVL jets have completed 202 flights, 134 of which began with a short takeoff. Additionally, F-35B STOVL aircraft have conducted 55 vertical landings.

F-35C CV jets have flown 133 times.

Cumulative flight test activity totals for the duration of the program through May 31 are provided below:

F-35A CTOL jets have flown 907 times.

F-35B STOVL jets have completed 791 flights, 553 of which began with a short takeoff. Additionally, F-35B STOVL aircraft have conducted 334 vertical landings.

F-35C CV jets have flown 325 times.

Since December 2006, F-35s have flown 2,355 times and accrued more than 3,700 cumulative flight hours. This total includes 91 flights from the original test aircraft, AA-1; 2,023 SDD test flights; and 241 production-model flights.


Monday, July 9, 2012

How much does an F-35 cost?

Well that’s actually a very good question.  For the most part, reading about it in the media won’t satisfy your curiosity because you never know which cost they’re talking about as they sling figures around.

If you read the media you’ll find various costs used without identifying which cost category the number is based upon.

What am I talking about?  Well when talking about the costs of fighter aircraft, there are many different cost categories that can be cited.  But without being specifically identified, the reader has no idea what those costs include.

Here’s a handy-dandy chart to give you an idea of what I’m talking about that I found on a blog post that pretty well explains the cost categories and why you have to be careful when quoting numbers but not knowing the cost category it comes from.

f-35 cost

Quite a list, isn’t it?

What brought this all to mind was an article by AIN in which the cost of the F-35 is discussed.  They actually do what I find to be proper – they identify the cost category (even describe it) when they put out a number:

According to the latest GAO report, the program acquisition unit cost (PAUC) of the F-35 will be $161 million. That figure includes amortization of the development cost across the expected production run.

But that brings us to point two.  Very rarely, when discussing the cost of an aircraft, is the PAUC used.  Instead, that number is traditionally expressed as the URF or Unit Recurring Flyaway cost.  The cost to the service to buy the aircraft from the producer and fly it away.

So what is the current URF of an F-35?  Well according to Lockheed Martin:

In the latest U.S. selected acquisition report (SAR), the average URFC is given as $78.7 million for the F-35A, $106.5 million for the F-35B and $87 million for the F-35C,in 2012 dollars. That assumes a total production run of 2,443 aircraft for the U.S. plus 697 for the international partners and 19 for Israel.

Well, you say, that’s significantly higher than buying, say, an F/A 18.

Not necessarily.  As production of the aircraft ramps up and assuming a full buy (over 3,000 aircraft total), the URF will continue to come down as production efficiencies kick in.

Additionally, when talking about buying legacy aircraft, you’re again not necessarily talking apples to apples

Prime contractor Lockheed Martin has said it expects that in today's dollars, the unit recurring flyaway cost for the Air Force variant of the F-35 would be $60 million - about what the latest version of the F-16 costs. You can get a Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet for less, but it isn't stealthy like the F-35, and its price tag doesn't include the cost of mission equipment, such as targeting pods, which are included in the F-35's price tag.

The F-35 comes mission capable as a part of the URF price.  The legacy fighters do NOT come mission capable at that price.  Mission equipment is then added to the price after the fact, driving up the cost to that much nearer to the F-35’s URF.

So when talking cost and throwing around figures, it pays to be careful to understand upon what basis the figure was calculated.  Don’t be afraid to ask.  Is that a PAUC, URF, APUC or Total Ownership Cost.  My guess is most won’t know.  If not, please refer them to this post.


Friday, July 6, 2012

UK to receive first F-35B on July 19

A month of firsts for the F-35 on the international scene. 

According to Dew Line:
The British will be accepting their first Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II, aka the Joint Strike Fighter, at the company's Fort Worth plant on July 19. That will mark the first international delivery of an F-35, Lockheed says.
So in the last month, Norway has submitted a firm order for 2 aircraft, Japan has come on board the F-35 program with a firm order for 4 and the UK will be getting their first F-35B.

Not bad.


Thursday, July 5, 2012

F-35C flies for the first time with external weapons

More good news on the F-35 testing and development front:

The carrier variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter flew for the first time with external weapons June 27. Navy test pilot Lt. Christopher Tabert flew CF-1 with inert AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missiles on port and starboard pylons to measure flying qualities and aircraft vibrations. The F-35C carrier variant of the Joint Strike Fighter is distinct from the F-35A and F-35B variants with its larger wing surfaces and reinforced landing gear to withstand catapult launches and deck landing impacts associated with the demanding aircraft carrier environment. F-35C is undergoing test and evaluation at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., prior to delivery to the fleet.