Wednesday, July 31, 2013

F-35: Why full production will net lower cost airplanes

I know I've beaten this drum before, but it is something the cost critics would prefer to ignore.  Full production means a lower cost airplane (or pretty much anything else) because production efficiencies are realize and economies of scale kick in (which is why the approval of lots 6 and 7 are good news).  In a good op-ed, Brian McGuire, president of the Tooling and Manufacturing Association of Illinois makes the point once again:
In complex production projects like the F-35, substantial investments are made by suppliers in the program's developmental stages and are only recouped when the program moves into full production. Full production occurs when the supply chain becomes more efficient at reducing costs and economies of scale are realized. Last year, F-35 program costs dropped by $4.5 billion. F-35 suppliers have already paid about one-third of the cost overruns in the first three lots of production and have committed to paying 100 percent of any overrun of the contract ceiling in the fourth lot of production and beyond. Even the congressional watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office, concluded that the program is moving in the right direction in a recent audit.

The cost issue cannot be truly addressed unless it is placed into a larger context of costs incurred versus costs saved. Once it is fully deployed, the F-35 will be used by the Air Force, Marines and Navy. The program would replace as many as seven legacy aircraft. The Pentagon projects that total maintenance costs for the legacy fleet would be four times the comparable maintenance costs of the F-35.
Note the other point he makes.  Cost overruns are being absorbed by the manufacturers.  That's a large incentive to not have any and that too leads to a less costly production cycle.  And there's no question that once deployed, the supply chain will be much less costly because you're not supporting multiple different aircraft types, all with different missions.

Finally, this program provides much needed jobs - high tech, good paying jobs, in a nation that is in sore need of them.  Seems like win-win to me.


F-35: Pentagon approves purchase of lots 6 and 7

As mentioned in a previous post, the DoD was trying to wrap up its negotiations with Lockheed Martin on production lots 6 and 7 before the end of July.  It appears to have been successful in that endeavor:
Lockheed Martin Corp and the Pentagon have reached agreement on orders for the next two batches of F-35 fighter jets, a deal worth over $7 billion, a person briefed on the discussions told Reuters on Monday.

The deal covers 71 of the radar-evading planes, with 36 jets to be purchased in the sixth production lot, and 35 in the seventh. The total includes 60 F-35s for the U.S. military, and 11 for Australia, Italy, Turkey and Britain. 
This approval will keep the production lines full and help drive the unit recurring flyaway cost down.  Add in probable foreign purchases outside the committed allies and it makes it even better.

However, the article mentions the impact of sequestration on testing:
Furloughs of civilian defense workers will likely result in a month-long delay in flight tests of the fighter plane, according to Joe DellaVedova, a spokesman for the Pentagon's F-35 program office.

He said the program had caught up with its testing schedule after two separate flight grounding actions earlier this year, but he added the furloughs were taking a toll.

Civilian employees affected by the furloughs work on flight test controls at Edwards Air Force Base in California and Patuxent Naval Air Station in Maryland, so their absence is shaving a day per week off the schedule of possible flight tests. "We don't know yet what the final impact will be,"
DellaVedova said. "We think we'll be at least a month behind." 
Not particularly good news.


Monday, July 29, 2013

F-35: 100th F-35, the first bound for Luke AFB, in final stage of production

In a milestone for the F-35 program, final production has begun on the 100th F-35.  Coincidentally, this particular F-35 is slated to be the first F-35 destined for Luke AFB:
The 100th Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, the first aircraft destined for Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, has entered the last stage of final assembly. The conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) aircraft, known as AF-41, is scheduled to arrive at the base next year.

During final assembly, the aircraft structure is completed, and electrical and hydraulic systems are added. Additionally, the systems are tested in preparation for fuel systems checks and engine runs. The final steps prior to acceptance by the Air Force include a series of checkout flights leading to the aircraft entering the service’s F-35 fleet. AF-41 is one of 126 F-35s in various stages of production worldwide.

In June, the Air Force announced its decision to increase the number of squadrons at Luke AFB to six with 144 aircraft, which will make it the largest F-35 base worldwide. In addition to training U.S. pilots, Luke will also serve as an F-35A International Training site. Currently, Luke’s economic impact on the state of Arizona is $2.17 billion. With 14 F-35 suppliers in the state of Arizona, the program has an additional economic impact of $98 million.


Thursday, July 25, 2013

F-35: South Korea reopens bidding for F-X project

In the news today:
South Korea said on Thursday it would hold a new round of bidding next month for its 8.3 trillion won ($7.43 billion) purchase of 60 next generation fighter jets, suspended after bids exceeded the budget.

The Defence Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA), the country's arms procurement agency, suspended the auction earlier this month after 55 rounds. None of the entries, Lockheed Martin Corp's F-35, Boeing Co's F-15 and EADS's Eurofighter Typhoon, submitted bids meeting the required price.
Recap: none of the three bids met the "required" or budget price.   So we're back to square one and you might think then that competitors that weren't among the final three might see this as a chance to get back into the bidding by lowering price.   

In fact, that's very unlikely.  The three finalists are the aircraft under serious consideration.  I'd suggest those that were dropped earlier were dropped for other reasons than price.  Lowering the price will likely not put them in the final three.
And, in fact, if you read on a little further into the article, you find that while price is important, South Korea may show a little flexibility with their budget:

"We have decided at the defence project committee meeting to resume bidding for the F-X project," DAPA spokesman Baek Youn-hyeong told a briefing.

 Baek hinted at the possibility of increasing the budget, but offered no further details.

"If there is no entry with price within the project budget after the resumption of bidding, we will pursue the project again through reviews or increase in overall budget," he said. 
So there you have it.  I still think the final decision will be for the F-35, and the hint of a possible expansion or increase in the budget tends to make that a credible guess.


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

F-35: Negotiations near end for 6th and 7th production batches

Just to keep you up with where DoD is on the production of the F-35, this story appeared in the Chicago Trib:
Lockheed Martin Co is making "good progress" in negotiations with the Pentagon about the next two batches of F-35 fighter jets and hopes to reach agreement soon, Chief Executive Marillyn Hewson said on Tuesday.


Air Force Lieutentant General Christopher Bogdan told company officials he wanted to reach agreement on the contracts by the end of July, according to industry sources. It may take some time afterward to finalize and sign the agreements.

The total number of jets involved is 71, with 36 planes to be purchased in the sixth production lot, and 35 in the seventh, said Joe DellaVedova, spokesman for the Pentagon's F-35 office. He said that number includes 60 F-35s for the U.S. military, and 11 for Australia, Italy, Turkey and Britain. 
So, not only more for the US services, but the Aussies, Italians and Turks will get their first F-35s in these two batches (the UK has already received it's first F-35B).  Look for agreements to be in the news soon.


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

F-35: Critic ladles out thin gruel

If you haven't read or don't read the Elements of Power blog, you're missing out on some great analysis on many subjects.  But SMSgt Mac, who runs the place, is particularly harsh with F-35 critics.  Why? Because it is the same old song each time, just a different verse.   In today's verse, Mac takes on an Italian editorialist who thinks he's offering a "banquet" of an argument.  Instead, Mac reveals it for the thin gruel it is.

"The development program for the F-35 is not proceeding well. …"

“Not proceeding well”. One may argue the point using the “as compared to what?” other modern (last 50 years) and similarly advanced technical development efforts or even to simply other large, highly complex, government programs-- as the F-35 program fall into both categories. I would therefore challenge Mr. Albano to name one program in either category that did/has not experienced as many or more challenges than the F-35 program. I also challenge him to name any of them that did a better job of dealing with them than the F-35 program has to-date. This is the kind of simplistic thought that makes my Aerospace Engineer blood boil. But on the plus side, it provides me yet another opportunity to quote a favorite: J. R. Pierce.

"Novices in mathematics, science, or engineering are forever demanding infallible, universal, mechanical methods for solving problems."
"… In any case we are talking about a highly advanced aircraft not only for the use of new stealth technology — which basically means opposing radar has difficulty in detection — but also for new production technologies and the integration of a lot of electronics called sensor fusion — to put it simply, allowing better awareness of the situation around the aircraft. "

Mr. Albano obviously has no idea how important Low Observables and F-35-grade Sensor Fusion are to the modern air combat equation judging by how this entire piece is written. The “difficulty in detection” is a “damning with faint praise” fallacy. Low Observability disrupts the entire kill chain at every step, from attempts to detect to terminal weapon end game, and forces an opponent to have to begin the process all over again when the chain is broken. 
Do yourself a favor and read the whole thing, if for no other reason than to learn how to analyze critical reviews from those who think they're presenting reality, but are instead just advancing a position.  Mac utterly destroys this particular critics arguments in detail.


Monday, July 22, 2013

F-35: Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL)

A question that is continually asked by many curious about why we need the F-35 is "what makes it so special"?  The short answer is "its advanced capabilities" such as MADL (among many others).

I wanted to take this opportunity to feature a write-up about the Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL) made by Northrup Grumman.  We featured the EOTS and jamming system previously.  What MADL does is allow the F-35 to share data securely without compromising its position.  That allows an ability to build unparalleled situational awareness that is a distinct advantage.

So, here's the short version of what MADL is:
MADL is a digital waveform that is designed for secure transmission of voice and data between F-35s, with the potential of linking F-35s to ground stations or other aircraft, Northrop said.

Think of the system as a computer. The communications, navigation and identification (CNI) system on an F-35 can manage 27 different waveforms, including MADL. The data comes through the antenna, is turned into digitized bits, and is crunched by the on-board systems to get the relevant information to the pilots.
Okay, you say, sounds great.  But why is that so special? 
What makes MADL more than just a communications tool is its ability to connect with other planes and automatically share situational awareness data between fighters. The more planes in the network the greater the data shared and the more comprehensive a picture is formed.

Picture a group of jets flying in formation. The pilot farthest to the right will have a different situational awareness picture than the pilot on the left. But once they’re networked together, all the information is automatically shared amongst the pilots.

Prior to takeoff, planes would be designated with partners to form the network. When a plane gets within range, the network is automatically created.

“Like on your computer, your network into the local area, we’re building that network in the sky and it’s keeping up with all the dynamics and spatial changes,” said Bob Gough, director of CNI technology and programs at Northrop, said. “MADL has the smarts to keep up with all of that and keep the network in place so they can share the same data.”

 Gough declined to say how close jets need to be to trigger the network link but did say tests have shown “very fast” acquisition times once within range.

Live flight system tests at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., began late last year and have continued throughout this year. Initially, the tests involved networking a pair of planes, but recently, test pilots began regularly flying four-shipplane networks. Those tests are proceeding smoothly, said Joe DellaVedova, a spokesman for the Pentagon’s Defense Department’s F-35 JSF Joint Program Office.

“MADL testing is performing as planned,” DellaVedova wrote in an email. “Development of the advanced data link is currently tracking to deliver the phased capability expected by the end of development.”

The system is designed for plane-to-plane communications only, something Gough expects to continue for the near- term. But he did not rule out experimenting with data transfer to other terminals.
So, advanced situational awareness that is currently available for other aircraft with the obvious possibility of being shared with any number of other platforms in the area.  A definite advantage over, one would assume, potential enemies.

Another of the advantages the F-35's advanced capabilities will give our pilots (and military) in the future.


Thursday, July 18, 2013

F-35: Who can foretell what our future wars will be?

Certainly not any of us and certainly not a particular former Congressman:
"The F-35 is a great plane with only one problem - it has no enemy," former U.S. Rep Barney Frank, D-Mass., said last month at the NetRoots conference in San Jose. "We aren't likely to get into a war with China or Russia."
Really?  Says who?  How in the world, watching China and Russia both build up their militaries, can one make such an assured statement?  How can one watch each of those nations build 5th generation fighters and pretend we don't need them too?  Does Mr. Frank think that the sophisticated equipment that the Chinese and Russians create, such as a 5th gen fighter, won't be exported to proxies?  And does Mr. Frank actually believe that if a nation believes it has a perceived advantage and a grievance it won't act on that?

And what about treaties?  It doesn't require either Russia or China to attack the US for the US to end up in a shooting war with either of them.

As Gen. Petraeus said at his retirement, the US must be prepared for a wide spectrum of conflict from high intensity to low intensity.  Mr. Frank would eschew that advice, but my guess is that in 1999, Mr. Frank never even imagined we'd be fighting in Afghanistan today.

His sort of thinking is dangerous.  It's how you get behind the power curve and stay there.  It's also how we could easily lose our ability to impose both air superiority and air dominance - critical to winning whatever type fight we find ourselves involved in in the future.
Lockheed Martin F-35 senior manager Bob DuLaney said after Monday's briefing that threats change, and major powers could supply others with sophisticated equipment to deny U.S. air superiority. " You cannot predict the next combat," the retired Air Force lieutenant general and F-16 and F-4 combat pilot said. 
That is correct.  Mr. Frank, on the other hand, suggests a dangerous course that could ultimately lead to defeat.


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Italy approves purchase of 90 F-35s

In good news for the F-35 program, Italy's Senate voted to approve the purchase of 90 F-35s:
A majority of Italy's Senate approved the plans to buy F-35 jet fighters in a vote Tuesday but said future purchases should be approved by parliament. The controversial purchase passed by a vote of 202 in favour, 55 opposed and 15 abstentions. Having already passed the same vote in the Lower House, the purchase plans are now final. 
What that means, of course, is a) Italy will be a valuable ally in the future with its own fleet of 5th generation jets and the interoperability that comes with them, and b) more immediately, with this order they will help produce those economies of scale that has been talked about and make the F-35 less costly for everyone.


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

F-35: The beat goes on

Not much in the news these days concerning the F-35, however it is worth noting that the program continues to progress:
A US Air Force major has become the 100th pilot to fly the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. Maj Robert Miller, assigned to the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base, undertook the 90-minute familiarisation flight after academic and simulator instruction on the F-35 at Eglin Air Force Base’s Integrated Training Centre.

Maj Miller is a 1,300 hour F-16 pilot, including 369 combat hours.

Lockheed Martin says the F-35 joint service partners at Eglin Air Force Base have flown 2,292 F-35 hours and have 28 aircraft assigned, representing the largest fleet of F-35s to date.
So the pilot base, just as with the aircraft base, continues to expand.  That's all good.


Sunday, July 14, 2013

F-35: 100th EOTS delivered for F-35

The fleet continues to build as does its capability:
Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) recently delivered the 100th Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS) for the F-35 Lightning II. EOTS provides affordable, high performance multifunction targeting to the F-35's full spectrum of military operations.

EOTS is the first sensor that combines forward-looking infrared and infrared search and track functionality to provide F-35 pilots with situational awareness and air-to-air and air-to-surface targeting from a safe distance. This technology allows aircrews to identify areas of interest, perform reconnaissance and precisely deliver laser and GPS-guided weapons.

"F-35 pilots can use the imagery to determine exactly where to strike while staying out of harm's way," said Ken Fuhr, director of fixed wing programs at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control. "Delivering our 100th F-35 EOTS is one step closer to ensuring all F-35 pilots can perform their missions and return home safely."

 Lockheed Martin is currently producing EOTS under the seventh low-rate initial production contract. Planned production quantities for the F-35 exceed 3,000 aircraft with deliveries through 2030. 
It is systems such as EOTS which help make the F-35 more than a revolutionary fighter, it is, in fact, an evolutionary fighter.


Thursday, July 11, 2013

F-35: Raytheon wins next generation jamming system award

Loren Thompson reports in Forbes:
The future of electronic combat came into focus on Monday, and it looks like Raytheon will be leading the way. The Massachusetts-based technology company won a very tough competition to develop the defense department’s next airborne jamming system, defeating two other world-class teams. If Raytheon performs as expected, it will dominate the arcane world of electronic warfare for decades to come, generating many billions of dollars in revenues.
In case you wondered: 
Jammers are tunable, high-power transmitters that deny adversaries use of the electromagnetic spectrum so that friendly forces can operate without having to worry about hostile radars or communications networks. The Next Generation Jammer that Raytheon will develop was conceived to replace a Vietnam-era family of jamming pods carried on the Navy’s new EA-18G Growler. 
Why is that important? Because the Raytheon jammer, will likely also be used on the F-35.  And that will make the Growler - a single mission 4th gen plus aircraft - obsolete, won't it?


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Will government furloughs effect F-35 testing?

According to Reuters, the answer may be "yes":
Flight testing of Lockheed Martin Corp's new F-35 fighter jet will fall short of planned totals for the year due to budget cuts that will keep the Pentagon's civilian workers off their jobs for 11 days, a top U.S. Navy official told Reuters on Monday.

"It's going to fall short because we're going to lose a day a week, roughly," Sean Stackley, assistant Navy secretary for research, development and acquisition, said in an interview.
Of course this isn't good news for the program which needs every day possible to push on with testing to meet the recently set IOC dates.  Testing has been going well, but there's still a lot of it to do.  A 20% cut in time for testing would certainly upset the fighter's testing time table.

According to an update to the Reuters story, DOD is trying to find a way to mitigate the effect of these sequestration furloughs on the program.


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Video: Electro Optical Distributed Aperture System (EO DAS) for F-35

Nice little video that does a good job of explaining the capabilities of the EO DAS and why that gives the F-35 any number of advantages:


Monday, July 8, 2013

F-35 training continues to expand at Eglin

Not much news out on the F-35 over the long holiday weekend, but I found this interesting:
Flying in formation with the Navy F-35C was the final compliment of the third F-35B for the United Kingdom based here as part of an Initial Operational Test & Evaluation Implementing Arrangement. The U.K. trains with the U.S. Marine Corps Fighter Attack Training Squadron-501 and fly each other's jets interchangeably.

This latest United Kingdom F-35B has upgraded software, defined as Block 2A, making it the first such for the combined Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and United States Marine Corps assets at the VMFAT-501.

 Having the enhanced software for both the Navy fighters here and now the VMFAT-501 means pilot training curriculum steadily grows as capabilities come on board.

"An increased use of the digital aperture system, one of the key sensors of the joint strike fighter, marks one such step forward for F-35 training," said Col. Todd Canterbury, commander of the 33d Fighter Wing and overall spearhead for joint and international training here. The Air Force's 58th Fighter Squadron here also trains with the enhanced software, he said.

The fleet continues to grow toward 59 aircraft scheduled to fly at the F-35 Integrated Training Center, part of Eglin's 33rd Fighter Wing. By the end of this calendar year, the team is planning for 42 of those joint strike fighters to be here, he said.

To date, the three services and the United Kingdom have seen 53 pilots and 857 maintainers qualified to fly and maintain the F-35 as the training progresses. All training is geared toward F-35 initial operating capabilities, according to Canterbury. 
So block 2A software is being added to the curriculum as the new fighters come in.  Obviously, the older fighters will be upgraded soon as well, or so one would think.  Also interesting that the UK, who will have F-35Bs exclusively, is training with the Marine Corps.  Makes sense.


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

F-35: Sustained turn performance on par with F-16?

You probably remember that sustained performance standards for the F-35 were one of the latest targets of critics.  SMSgt Mac over at the Elements of Power blog has done a masterful 4 part series on why the critics have it wrong.

His conclusion:
Depending on amount of fuel carried by each aircraft, the F-35A is capable of sustained turn performance on a par with the F-16A. Assuming the F-16A is still the ‘best’ in a sustained turn that there’s ever been at 15K feet and M.8, then that means the F-35A is capable of holding its own against all comers in a sustained turn when flown properly in competent hands. 
Now I'll warn you, the series is very technical.  SMSgt Mac backs his conclusion with facts and figures you're likely not to see anywhere else (especially among critics).  I recommend you review the whole series.  My guess is, in the end, you too will agree with his conclusion.


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

UK receives 3rd F-35B and Brit pilot makes first vertical landing

A British pilot has completed the first vertical landing in an F-35B for the RAF:
Squadron Leader Jim Schofield has become the first Royal Air Force pilot to complete a vertical landing of a Lockheed Martin F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) Lightning II military aircraft. Following the flight, Schofield commented on the F-35B’s handling capabilities:

“The F-35 has truly revolutionized STOVL flying. With legacy types, such as Harrier, the pilot was always working hard to land the aircraft onto a hover pad or ship. Now with F-35B, at the press of a button the aircraft transforms into ‘short take-off or vertical landing’ mode whereupon the aircraft can take off or hover hands-off. This means pilots will require less training and operating the aircraft will be much safer than legacy types. It’s a fantastic aircraft to fly.”
Listen to any old Harrier pilot (who, by the way, loved those old birds) about the ease of landing in this compared to the Harrier and you will hear a fan of the F-35.

Additionally, the Brits took delivery of their third F-35B this week.


Monday, July 1, 2013

F-35: Pentagon mulls delays to program for short term savings?

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported:
The Pentagon is weighing a delay to its most costly and controversial weapons program, the F-35 stealth fighter plane, as part of a short-term cost-saving move, according to defense officials.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is considering the delay as one option presented by a task force to cut Pentagon spending over the second half of this decade.

But officials stressed no decisions have been made and that senior advisers to Mr. Hagel are recommending against the option, noting that it wouldn't save enough money to justify the move.

Defense analysts said delaying full production of the F-35 would save between $1 billion and $2.5 billion a year between 2015 and 2019, the time frame being examined by the Pentagon.
That set off a flurry of reporting echoing the WSJ take.  Others, however, say that's not the case:
The Pentagon has no plans to delay full-rate production of the F-35 fighter jet under development at Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth plant, a top Pentagon official said Friday.

The possibility of a delay was raised Friday when the The Wall Street Journal reported that the Pentagon was weighing a delay as one option put forward by a task force to reduce spending over the second half of the decade in response to sequestration.

While a task force report may raise a recommendation to delay production, “it sounds like 180 degrees from reality,’’ said the Pentagon official, who did not want to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. 
Everything I've read up to the point of the Wall Street Journal report says pretty much what the "Pentagon official" is saying.  Their report seems "180" out from "reality."   The program has put up great testing and development numbers, IOC dates have been set, squadrons are being formed, pilot training is up and suddenly to save a few billion short term (it will likely cause a higher per aircraft cost to do so), they're willing to risk all of that?

Probably not.  Pentagon planners have an obligation to put every option available before decision makers.  That's likely the case here.   The fact that something is an option, doesn't mean it is a viable or serious option.  And, in the case of the F-35 program, my guess is the option to delay is not either viable or serious.