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.