Lightning Rod: F-35 Fighter Family Capabilities and Controversies
July 24/15: The F-35’s GAU-22/A 25mm cannon has been tested on the ground at Edwards Air Force Base, with the General Dynamics-designed weapon having been developed for both internal and external gun systems of the Joint Strike Fighter. The cannon is mounted on an external pod for the F-35B and C variants, with the Air Force’s F-35A variant positioning the weapon internally. The four-barrel system allows the fighter to let loose just 180 rounds per reload, allowing for three short passes at best. That last problem featured heavily in criticism of the Air Force for floating the idea – since backtracked – that the F-35A could serve as the main ground forces protection platform. The program has been busy testing other weapons in recent weeks, including the Marines testing live JDAM bombs in early July. The Pentagon has been mulling what to include in future F-35 weapon tranches, with options including the Small Diameter Bomb II and Joint Strike Missile, as well as several others.
The $400 billion F-35 Joint Strike fighter program may well be the largest single global defense program in history. This major multinational program is intended to produce an “affordably stealthy” multi-role fighter that will have 3 variants: the F-35A conventional version for the US Air Force et. al.; the F-35B Short Take-Off, Vertical Landing for the US Marines, British Royal Navy, et. al.; and the F-35C conventional carrier-launched version for the US Navy.
This article will serve as DID’s central repository explaining and contrasting all 3 F-35 variants, detailing the fighter family’s core technologies and features, and laying out the core industrial framework whose “political engineering” has made the program almost impossible to kill. It will also summarize the core arguments that swirl around the fighter’s future capability, and provide useful background links regarding the program and its key technologies.
The F-35 Lightning II Fighter Family
F-35 Family Variants: Door A, B, or C?
The aircraft is named after Lockheed’s famous WW2 P-38 Lightning, and the Mach 2, stacked-engine English Electric (now BAE) Lightning jet. This table illustrates the key differences between the baseline F-35A, the Short Take-Off, Vertical Landing (STOVL) capable F-35B, and the catapult-launched F-35C naval variant:
Additional explanations follow…
The F-35A CTOL
The F-35A is sometimes called the CTOL (Conventional Take-Off and Landing) version. It’s the USAF’s version, and is expected to make up most of the plane’s export orders. It’s also expected to be the least expensive F-35, in part because it will have the largest production run. The USAF currently estimates its average flyaway cost after 2017 at $108.3 million, but early production models ordered in FY 2012 will cost over $150 million.
Its main difference from other versions is its wider 9g maneuverability limits, though its air-air combat flight benchmarks are only on par with the F-16. Canard equipped “4+ generation” adversaries like the Eurofighter, and thrust-vectored fighters like the F-22A, MiG-35, SU-35, etc., will still enjoy certain kinetic advantages. The F-35 hopes to mitigate them using its improved stealth to shrink detection ranges, the lack of drag from weapons in its internal bays, and its current electronic superiority.
The second major physical difference between the F-35A and the rest of the Lightning family is its internal 25mm cannon, instead of using a weapons station for a semi-stealthy and questionably accurate gun pod. The USAF removed guns from some of its planes back in the 1960s, and didn’t enjoy the resulting experiences in Vietnam. It has kept guns on all of its fighters ever since, including the stealthy F-22 and F-35. Many allies wanted the superior single-barrel 27mm Mauser BK-27 cannon, but ammunition standardization benefits trumped pure performance. Instead, the F-35 got General Dynamics’ 4-barrel GAU-22/A 25mm cannon and just 180 x 25mm rounds, good for 3 short passes at best. That compares poorly to 510 x 20mm rounds on an F-16.
The 3rd difference is that the F-35A uses a dorsal refueling receptacle that is refueled using an aerial tanker boom, instead of the probe-and-drogue method favored by the US Navy and many American allies.
The F-35A was the first variant to fly, in 2009. Officially, it’s now expected to reach Initial Operational Capability as a 12-24 plane squadron by December 2016 (Threshold), with a stretch goal of August 2016 (Objective).
GAO reports re: the F-35’s delayed software development suggest that this is extremely unlikely, however, and even a difficult late catch-up still leaves the problem of scheduling proper testing for Block 2B, the 1st instance with any combat capability. Even Block 3F’s 2018 target date for the end of the system development phase is at risk, which means that jets designated as Operationally Capable would have a wide array of deficiencies that would put them at added risk in serious combat.
The F-35B STOVL (Short Take-Off, Vertical Landing)
The F-35B is expected to be the most expensive Lightning II fighter variant. According to US Navy documents, even planes bought after 2017 are expected to have an average flyaway cost of $135 million each. It will serve the US Marines, Royal Navy, other navies with ski-ramp equipped LHDs or small carriers, and militaries looking for an “expeditionary airplane” that can take off in short distances and land vertically. To accomplish this, the F-35B has a large fan behind the cockpit, and nozzles that go out to the wing undersides. Unlike the F-35A, it will use a retractable mid-air refueling probe, which is standard for the US Navy and for many American allies.
Those capabilities gives the plane a unique niche, but a unique niche also means unique challenges, and the responses to those challenges have changed the aircraft. In 2005, the JSF program took a 1-year delay because the design was deemed overweight by about 3,000 pounds. The program decided to reduce weight rather than run the engine hotter, because the latter choice would have sharply reduced the durability of engine components and driven life cycle costs higher. Weight cutting became a focus of various engineering teams, with especial focus on the F-35B because the weight was most critical to that design. Those efforts pushed the F-35B’s design, and changed its airframe. The F-35B gives up some range, some bomb load (it cannot carry 2,000 pound weapons internally, and the shape of its bay may make some weapons a challenge to carry), some structural strength (7g maneuvers design maximum), and the 25mm internal gun.
The F-35B completed its Critical Design Review in October 2006, and the 2nd production F-35 was a STOVL variant. Per the revised Sept 16/10 program plan, the USMC’s VMA-332 in Yuma, AZ must have 10 F-35Bs equipped with Block IIB software, with 6 aircraft capable of austere and/or ship-based operations, and all aircraft meeting the 7g and 50-degree angle of attack specifications, in order to declare Initial Operational Capability.
Flight testing began in 2009, and Initial Operational Capability (IOC) was expected by December 2012, but flight testing fell way behind thanks to a series of technical delays. By 2013, the first operational planes were fielded to the USMC at Yuma, AZ. After several slips, it’s expected to reach IOC as a 10-16 plane squadron by December 2015 (Threshold), with a stretch goal of July 2015 (Objective).
Recent discoveries of structural cracking, and GAO reports re: software development, suggest that even using the new jets for full-scale training by then could be a challenge. Limited-capability Block 2B software is the best they can hope for, and it’s already significantly behind. The F-35B’s “combat capability” at IOC may end up being flatly untrue, and its best realistic case might be as a mere paper tiger. Korean-War vintage F-9 Cougar jets would be “combat capable,” too, in the sense that they could take off, land, and fire weapons. That isn’t an adequate standard for entrusting them with the safety of an MEU in 2016.
The F-35C carrier-based fighter
The F-35C is instantly recognizable. It features 30% more wing area than other designs, with larger tails and control surfaces, plus wingtip ailerons. These changes provide the precise slow-speed handling required for carrier approaches, and extend range a bit. The F-35C’s internal structure is strengthened to withstand the punishment dished out by the catapult launches and controlled crashes of carrier launch and recovery, an arrester hook is added to the airframe, and the fighter gets a retractable refueling probe. According to US Navy documents, average flyaway costs for F-35Cs bought after 2017 will be $125.9 million each.
The US Navy gave up the internal gun, and the aircraft will be restricted to 7.5g maneuvers. That’s only slightly lower than the existing F/A-18E Super Hornet’s 7.6g, but significantly lower than the 9g limit for Dassault’s carrier-capable Rafale-M. Tests have also highlighted issues with slow transonic acceleration.
The F-35C is expected to be the US Navy’s high-end fighter, as well as its high-end strike aircraft. This means that any performance or survivability issues will have a disproportionate effect on the US Navy’s future ability to project power around the world.
The F-35C was the last variant designed. It passed its Critical Design Review in June 2007, and the first production version was scheduled to fly in January 2009. The F-35C’s rollout did not take place until July 2009, however, and first flight didn’t take place until June 2010. After several slips, the F-35C is now expected to reach IOC as a 10-plane squadron by February 2019 (Threshold), with a stretch goal of August 2018 (Objective).
These are much more realistic dates than the other variants, given GAO reports re: software development progress, but the F-35C is expecting to hit IOC with Block 3F software, whose 2018 target date is already very much at risk. In March 2014, the USN added another layer of uncertainty with plans to stall F-35C orders for 2 years if there are further budget cuts.
Pimp My Ride: Weapons & Accessories
The F-35’s internal weapon bay gives it the ability to carry larger bombs and missiles, but the price is that F-35s can carry just 2 internal air-to-air weapons, instead of a maximum of 8 in the F-22A. As table above shows, development, testing, and software issues have also combined to give initial F-35 fleets a very narrow set of weapons. Indeed, the initial operational set that comes with Block III software has about the same weapon options as the single-role F-22A.
That’s expected to change, eventually. A large American order base, and a wide international client base, will provide huge incentives for manufacturers to qualify their weapons for the F-35. Norway is already developing its stealthy Joint Strike Missile for F-35 Block 4, including the ability to fit the precision attack and anti-ship missile into the plane’s internal bays. Denmark’s Terma has turned their 25mm gun pod into a multi-mission pod, which can accept a variety of sensors and equipment. MBDA has already pledged a compatible version of its long-range Meteor air-air missile at some undefined point, and Britain wants to add MBDA’s SPEAR Capability 3 medium-range strike missile to its F-35Bs as soon as possible. Lockheed Martin’s Israeli customer is already incorporating its own electronic counter-measures systems in their F-35i, and they are certain to push for a range of Israeli weapons, including the Python-5 SRAAM (Short Range Air-to-Air Missile) and various other smart bombs and missiles. Other manufacturers can be expected to follow.
The bottlenecks will be two-fold.
The 1st bottleneck is American insistence on retaining all source codes, and having Lockheed Martin perform all modifications at their reprogramming facility. Unless Lockheed produces a full development environment workaround, dealing with the growing queue of requests can easily become a problem. The firm’s new Universal Armament Interface could offer the foundation for a way forward, if they decide to take it. The other question involves conflict-of-interest issues, in which Lockheed Martin or the US government decides to use the bottleneck as a way of shutting competitors out of a potential export market. These kinds of concerns have already led to pushback in Australia, Britain, and Israel.
The 2nd bottleneck involves testing resources. The F-35 testing program has fallen significantly behind schedule, and IOCs for some versions have already slipped by 5-6 years. Test time required to qualify new equipment is going to be a very secondary priority until 2018-2019, and even the few customers buying their own Initial Operational Testing & Evaluation (IOT&E) fighters are going to need them for their assigned training roles.
F-35s: Key Features
Stealth. The F-35 is designed as an ‘affordable stealth’ counterpart to the F-22 Raptor air dominance fighter, one that can share “first day of the war” duties against defended targets, but can’t perform air-air or SEAD/ “Wild Weasel” missions to the same standard. The F-35 has a larger single engine instead of the Raptor’s twin thrust-vectoring F119s, removing both supercruise (sustained flight above Mach 1) and super-maneuverability options. The F-22A is also a much stealthier aircraft from all angles, and independent analysis & modeling has concluded that the F-35’s stealth will be weaker from the sides and the rear. Even so, the F-35 is a big improvement over existing ‘teen series’ fighters, and a step above Generation 4+ options like the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Eurofighter, Rafale, and JAS-39 Gripen.
Engine. The F-35 was set to offer interchangeable engine options. That has been an important feature for global F-16 and F-15 customers, improving costs and performance, while providing added readiness insurance for dual-engine fleets like the USAF, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, etc. Pratt & Whitney’s lobbying eventually forced GE & Rolls-Royce’s F136 out of the F-35 program, and made their F135-PW-100 engine the only choice for global F-35 fleets. A special F-135-PW-600 version with Rolls Royce’s LiftFan add-on, and a nozzle that can rotate to point down, will power the vertical-landing F-35B.
The US military had better hope that an engine design problem never grounds all of their fighters. While they’re at it, they should hope that both performance and maintenance contracts remain reasonable, despite the absence of any competitive alternative.
Sensors. The Lightning II will equipped to levels that would once have defined a high-end reconnaissance aircraft. Its advanced APG-81 AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar is smaller and less powerful than the F-22A’s APG-77v1; but still offers the strong AESA advantages of simultaneous air-air and air-ground capabilities, major maintenance & availability improvements, and secure, high-bandwidth communications benefits. The F-35 also shares a “sensor fusion” design advance with the F-22, based on an even more extensive sensor set embedded all around the airframe. Both planes will be able to perform as reconnaissance aircraft, though the F-35 will have superior infrared and ground-looking sensors. Both fighters will also have the potential to act as electronic warfare aircraft, though not to the same level as the Super-Hornet’s EA-18G Growler derivative.
These sensors are connected to a lot of computing power, in order to create single-picture view that lets the pilot see everything on one big 20″ LCD screen and just fly the plane, rather than trying to push buttons, switch views, and figure it all out at 6g. As part of that sensor fusion, the F-35 will be the first plane is several decades to fly without a heads-up display. Instead, pilots will wear Elbit/Rockwell’s JHMDS helmet or BAE’s HMSS, and have all of that information projected wherever they look. JHMDS is both a strength that adds new capabilities, like the ability to look “through” the plane’s floor, and a single point-of-failure weakness.
Maintenance. The F-35 has a large number of design features that aim to simplify maintenance and keep life cycle costs down. Since operations and maintenance are usually about 65% or more of a fighter’s lifetime cost, this is one the most important and overlooked aspects of fighter selection.
Stealth aircraft have always had much higher maintenance costs, but the F-35’s designers hope that new measures can reverse that trend. Some of the plane’s stealth coatings are being baked into composite airplane parts, for instance, in the hope that customers will need fewer “Martians” (Materials Application and Repair Specialists) around to apply stealth tapes and putties before each mission. Technical innovations like self-diagnosing aircraft wiring aim to eliminate one of the toughest problems for any mechanic, and the fleet-wide ALIS information and diagnostic system is designed to shift the fleet from scheduled maintenance to maintenance only as needed.
Despite these measure, March 2012 operations and maintenance projections have the F-35 at 142% O&M cost, relative to F-16s, and subsequent reports have risen as high as 160%. It remains to be seen if the advantages of F-35 innovations manage to fulfill their promise, or if projections that they’ll be outweighed in the end by increased internal complexity, and by the proliferation of fault-prone electronics, come true. That has certainly been the general trend over the last 50 years of fighter development, with a very few notable exceptions like America’s F-16s and A-10s, and Sweden’s JAS-39 Gripen.
The F-35 Family: Controversies
The program’s biggest controversies revolve around 3 issues: effectiveness, affordability, and control. A 4th issue, noise, isn’t significant yet, but could become so.
Effectiveness: When the F-35 Lightning II is compared with the larger and more expensive F-22A, the Raptor is a much stealthier aircraft, and its stealth is more uniform. The F-35’s design is optimized for “low-observable” stealth when viewed from the front, with less stealth to radars looking at it from the sides, and less still when targeted from the rear. It also lacks the Raptor’s supercruise (sustained flight above Mach 1) and super-maneuverability thrust-vectoring options, which work with stealth to help the F-22 engage and disengage from combat at will. Lockheed Martin claims that the F-35 design is optimized for trans-sonic acceleration, but testing results question those claims, and the Raptor can cruise without afterburners at the F-35’s theoretical maximum speed. That’s important, because fuel usage skyrockets with afterburners on, limiting total supersonic time for fighters like the F-35.
These relative drawbacks have led to questions about the F-35’s ability to survive against the most modern aircraft and air defense threats, and against the evolved threats it can expect to face over a service lifetime that’s expected to stretch until 2050.
Where the F-35 does come out ahead of the F-22 is its internal carriage space. F-35A/C variants will offer larger capacity internal bays for weapons, allowing a wider selection of stealth-preserving internal ordnance. The price is that slight bulges were added to the production F-35’s underside profile in order to accommodate that space, making them less stealthy from the side than the original X-35 designs.
Sensors are another F-35 advantage. All F-35s also boast more embedded sensors than the F-22, with an especial advantage in infrared and ground-looking sensors. Though this feature has yet to be tested in combat, the F-35’s all-aspect Distributed Aperture Sensors (EO-DAS) reportedly allows 360-degree targeting of aircraft around the F-35. If it works, the inertial guidance and datalink features of modern infrared missiles like the AIM-9X Sidewinder and AIM-132 ASRAAM can already take full advantage.
Which customers can live with these relative disadvantages as an acceptable trade-off, and which will be badly hurt by them? Will the F-35 be a fighter that’s unable to handle high-end scenarios, while also being far too expensive to field and operate in low-end scenarios? Even if that’s true, could countries who want one type of multi-role fighter still be best served by the F-35, as opposed to other options? That will depend, in part, on…
Affordability: The F-35 family was designed to be much more affordable than the F-22, but a number of factors are narrowing that gap.
One is cost growth in the program. This has been documented by the GAO, and statements and reports from the US DoD are beginning to follow the same kind of “rising spiral of admissions” pattern seen in past programs.
The 2nd is loss of parts commonality between the 3 models, which the GAO has cited as falling below the level required to produce significant savings. In March 2013, the JSF PEO placed the figure at just 25-30%.
A 3rd is production policy. The US GAO in particular believes that the program’s policy of beginning production several years before testing is complete, only adds to the risks of future price hikes and operating cost shocks. It also forces a lot of expensive rework to jets that are bought before problems are found. Part of the rationale for accepting concurrency risks and costs involves…
The 4th factor: lateness. The program as a whole is about 5-7 years behind its ideal point, relative to the replacement cycle for fighters around the globe. F-35 program customers thus find themselves in the unenviable position of having to commit to a fighter that hasn’t completed testing, and doesn’t have reliable future purchase or operating costs, while buying from expensive early production batches. The program office hopes to drop the flyaway price of an F-35A to $90 million by 2020, but current Pentagon budget documents list an average production cost of $105-120 million per F-35A-C, from 2017 to the end of the program. If the plane’s cost leads to a cut in numbers, and early buyers like Canada and the Netherlands suggest that cuts could be as much as 50% of expected orders, those prices per plane will rise.
Control: This has been a big issue in the past for customers like Britain and Australia, and has now become an issue for Israel as well. Without control over software source codes, integration of new weapons and algorithms can be controlled by the whims and interests of American politicians and defense contractors. On the other hand, American officials aren’t wrong to see wider access to those fundamental building blocks as a security risk. Arrangements with Britain, Australia, and Israel appear to have finessed this issue, without removing it as a potential source of future conflict.
Noise: The F135 engine’s size and power are unprecedented in a fighter, but that has a corollary. Environmental impact studies in Florida showed that the F-35A is approximately twice as noisy as the larger, twin-engine F-15 fighter, and over 3.5 times as noisy as the F-16s they’re scheduled to replace. That has led to noise complaints from local communities in the USA and abroad, and seems likely to create a broad swathe of local political issues as customers deploy them. In some countries, it may add costs, as governments are forced to compensate or even to buy out nearby homeowners affected by the noise.
Each customer must weigh these issues above against its own defense and industrial needs, look at alternatives, and come to a decision. In-depth, updated DID articles that address some of these issues in more detail include:
- The F-35’s Air-to-Air Capability Controversy. A comprehensive look at the issue, and its consequences.
- F-35: I am Fighter, Hear Me Roar. Noise could become a serious political issue for the F-35.
- The Great Engine War II The Pentagon finally canceled GE/RR’s F136 alternative engine project to rely entirely on Pratt & Whitney’s F135, over the objections of its GAO auditors.
F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: Program Structure
Is the F-35 an industrial program for a fighter, or a fighter with an industrial program? Beyond the initial competition between Lockheed Martin’s X-35 and Boeing’s X-32, the Joint Strike Fighter was always planned as a program that would make sense using either interpretation. A wide set of consortium partners and national government investments would form an interlocking set of commitments, drawing on a wide range of global industrial expertise – and making the program very difficult for any one party to back out of or cancel.
The JSF program is ‘tiered,’ with 4 possible levels of participation based on admission levels and funding commitments for the System Design & Development (SDD) phase. All Tier 1-3 nations have also signed MoUs for the Production Phase. This is not a commitment to buy, just the phase in which production arrangements are hammered out – subject to revision, of course, if that country decides not to buy F-35s. Consortium partners and customers to date include:
- Tier 1 Partners: The USA (majority commitment), Britain
- Tier 2 Partners: Italy; The Netherlands
- Tier 3 Partners: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Turkey
- Security Cooperative Participants status: Israel (20 contracted), Singapore.
- Exports: Japan (42 contracted), South Korea.
Italy is receiving a Lockheed-Martin Final Assembly and Check Out (FACO) plant for European orders, and Fellow Tier 1 partner Britain is examining a FACO of its own for BAE. Their fellow Tier 2 partner the Netherlands will be a regional center for engine sustainment and in-depth maintenance.
The first test aircraft, an F-35A model AA-1, had its formal rollout on July 7/06. The F-35’s forced redesign for weight reasons has led to F-35 AA-1 being a unique airframe used to validate design, manufacturing, assembly and test processes. A total of 23 test aircraft will be built for various purposes (15 flight, 7 non-flight, 1 radar signature), but the exact order of build for the variants involved has shifted several times.
The testing phase was originally supposed to end in 2013, but is now officially scheduled to continue until 2018. Funding for the first sets of production-model aircraft is approved, parts fabrication began in June 2007, and component assembly began later in 2007. F-35As have already been delivered to the USAF – a sore point with the US Congress’ Government Accountability Office, which notes that overlapping testing with production increases project risks and leads to extra costs. Production will continue to ramp up year-to-year, and by the time the F-35 is expected to reach Full-Rate Production, the program intends to build 240 F-35s per year.
To do that, they’ll need orders. So far, only the USA, Israel, and Japan have placed orders for production F-35s that go beyond training & test aircraft.
Delays in fielding the initial set of test aircraft, fewer than expected flights, and questions about that ambitious ramp up schedule have reportedly led the Pentagon to re-examine these schedules. Steady cuts in the rate of American purchases are also sapping ramp-up plans, and the SDD development period is now expected to last into FY 2019 or later.
At present, F-35 production is led by Lockheed Martin, with BAE and Northrop-Grumman playing major supporting roles, and many subcontractors below that.
BAE Systems is deriving substantial benefits from Britain’s Tier 1 partner status, and Northrop Grumman is responsible for the F-35’s important ‘center barrel’ section, where the wings attach to the fuselage, and also provides many of the aircraft’s key sensors.
F-35 main production and final assembly is currently slated to take place in Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth, TX plant. To cut F-35 production cycle time, the team produces major sections of the aircraft at different feeder plants, and “mates” the assemblies at Fort Worth. This is normal in the auto industry, but it’s a departure from the usual fighter-building process.
The precise tolerances required for a stealthy fighter, however, are much more exacting than even high-end autos. In order to avoid subtly mismatched seams, which become radar reflection points, parts need to fit together so precisely that some machines are compensating for the phases of the moon!
Even the best machines won’t do any good if the various components aren’t already an excellent fit. To cope, Manufacturing Business Technology reports that the JSF manufacturing team has turned to an integrated back-end IT system. It begins with 3D engineering models (Dassault Systemes CATIA CAD), and extends into production management, where the company has rolled out a manufacturing execution system to handle electronic work instructions, workflow and process modeling, serialized parts data, quality records tracking, etc. (Visiprise).
This combination has enabled greater use of techniques like automated drilling, even as other software (Siemens PLM, TeamCenter) enables product record management and electronic collaboration around designs. On the back-end, the team uses a custom system it calls Production & Inventory Optimization System (PIOS) for manufacturing resources planning and supply chain management; it began using ERP software (SAP) in January 2008 for financials, and may eventually use it to handle supply-chain functions too.
This ‘digital thread’ has been very successful for the team, with part fits showing incredible precision, and successful coordination of plants around the end schedule for key events like the Dec 18/07 F-35B rollout. The system’s ultimate goal is to cut a plane’s production cycle time from the usual 27-30 months to about 12 months, and shrink a 15-20 day cycle to just 6-8 days, from order creation to printed & matched manufacturing orders.
Additional Readings & Sources
- Lockheed Martin – F-35 Lightning II. Includes sections covering topics such as Earned Value Management, testing, partnerships, manufacturing, etc. See also their 2010 “F-35 Experience” video, made before the program’s managers acknowledged a host of problems.
- Air Force Technology – JSF (F35) Joint Strike Fighter, International.
- Aerospaceweb – F-35 JSF Weapon Carriage Capacity. Good discussion of the 3 versions and their specific limiting factors.
- DID – The F-35’s Air-to-Air Capability Controversy. A comprehensive look at the issue, and its consequences.
- Lockheed Martin Code One Magazine (May 15/08) – X to F: F-35 Lightning II And Its X-35 Predecessors.
F-35: Ancillary Systems
- DID – You Can Track Your F-35s, At ALIS’ Maintenance Hub. ALIS may be the F-35’s most important ancillary system.
- Northrop Grumman – AN/AAQ-37 Distributed Aperture System (DAS) for the F-35. “The only 360 degree, spherical situational awareness system”. See also YouTube video.
- Northrop Grumman – AN/APG-81 Radar. See also YouTube video.
- Lockheed Martin Code One magazine (Q2 2006) – The New Front Office: A Whole New View For Joint Strike Fighter Pilots. Describes the new cockpit and its related technologies. Missing: the classic Head Up Display.
- Northrop Grumman – Communications, Navigation and Identification (CNI) Avionics for the F-35 Lightning II [PDF]. 2014 snapshot.
- Lockheed Martin – F-35 Lightning II Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS). Mounted internally, and behind a stealth-maximizing window in the plane’s underside. Replaces the externally-mounted surveillance & targeting pods used on other fighters, and can also be used as an air-to-air IRST search & targeting system.
- Pratt & Whitney – F135. The F-35’s current engine.
- DID – The Great Engine War II The Pentagon finally canceled GE/RR’s F136 alternative engine project to rely entirely on Pratt & Whitney’s F135, over the objections of its GAO auditors.
- Vision Systems International – F-35 Gen II HMDS. Helmet Mounted Display System. All other fighters with HMDs also have front-mounted Head Up Displays on board, but the F-35 doesn’t.
- Martin Baker – US16E – JSF. Tough design, because the plane’s ejection seat must accommodate a very wide range of pilot sizes under its multinational charter, and the HMDS helmet-mounted display weighs more than a standard pilot helmet. The one problem complicates the other.
- General Dynamics – GAU-22/A [PDF]. The F-35’s 25mm cannon. Only the F-35A has an internal mount. The others will use gun pods made by Denmark’s Terma, which can reportedly be repurposed for other equipment.
- USAF Air University (2007) – The Need for a Permanent Gun System On the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter” [PDF] by Col. Moore. An email from POGO’s Winslow Wheeler notes that the F-35A’s 25mm cannon has just 180 rounds, compared to the F-16’s 510 x 20mm or the A-10’s 1,174 x 30mm rounds, and refers to inherent gun pod accuracy issues from in Vietnam and Desert Storm.
- Siemens – F-35 Case Study. Involves their FiberSim product, which helps with the design & coordination of composite parts.
- Fighter Country – Hundreds of F-35 aircraft suppliers coordinate with Teamcenter.
F-35: Peer Aircraft
Note that FOCUS articles require a subscription.
- DID FOCUS – A Higher-Tech Hog: USAF A-10C Upgrades and Refurbishments. The USAF is pushing to retire its A-10s in order to fund the F-35, and has delusions that the F-35 is a future replacement.
- DID (Sept 26/06) – The Major’s Email: British Harrier Support in Afghanistan, Revisited. He preferred A-10s, and so did his troops. This article offers an in-depth look at close air support requirements, and some of the limitations of traditional fast jets in this role.
- DID FOCUS Article – Eurofighter’s Future: Tranche 3, and Beyond
- Boeing – F-15E Strike Eagle. The F-15SE Silent Eagle has a number of improvements, including internal weapon capacity and lower radar signature.
- DID FOCUS Article – Super Hornet Fighter Family MYP-III. The F/A-18E/F, Advanced Super Hornet, and EA-18G.
- DID FOCUS Article – EA-18G Program: The USA’s Electronic Growler. A Super Hornet variant that performs high-power jamming and air defense suppression – but at least one of them has killed an F-22 in a dogfight exercise. The F-35 may get limited electronic warfare capabilities after Block 4, using its APG-81 radar, but it has been removed as an initial Next Generation Jammer target platform.
- DID FOCUS Article – The JAS-39 Gripen: Sweden’s 4+ Generation Wild Card.
- DID – France’s Rafale Fighters. Their land and naval versatility makes them the F-35’s closest peer, but they’re based on a different design philosophy.
- DID – Russia’s SU-35 Super-Flanker: Mystery Fighter No More. The Su-35, and the Su-30SE/MKx, can be seen as 2 different approaches to Su-30 modernization.
- The DEW Line (November 2008) – USAF pilot describes IAF Su-30MKI performance at Red Flag-08. Video Briefing – really enlightening re: tactics, and aircraft performance of a very relevant peer competitor (SU-30-MKI, 22-23 degrees per second sustained turn) as well as the F-22 (28 degrees/sec).
- Air Power Australia (2007) – Sukhoi Flankers: The Shifting Balance of Regional Air Power. Complements the 2008 RAND Power Point and its “This is Not Your Father’s Flanker” section. Includes program history, details, regional procurement notes, and analysis of the SU-30 family’s current capabilities and likely future upgrades. Unlike RAND’s study, it concludes with a speculative look at how the F-35 will stack up.
- DID – F-22 Raptor: Capabilities and Controversies. In-depth coverage looks at both sides.
- Wikipedia – Chengdu J-20. Fast air superiority fighter and AWACS/ tanker killer, fighter-bomber, or both? Seems to share the same distribution of stealth strengths & weaknesses as the F-35, but needs to make changes to achieve the same stealth levels. See also SinoDefence, which has good pictures. Unless rushed, not expected to be operational in numbers before the mid-2020s.
- DID – PAK-FA/FGFA/T50: India, Russia Cooperate on 5th-Gen Fighter. Likely to become the Su-50. Early assessments suggest stealth around F-35 levels, with aerodynamic performance near F-22 levels. Likely to achieve an American IOC equivalent in Russia around the time the F-35 completes SDD, around 2019 – 2020.
Note that FOCUS articles require a subscription.
- DID FOCUS Article – F-35 Lightning: The Joint Strike Fighter Program, 2012 – 2013
- DID FOCUS Article – F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: 2009-2010. At present, there is no coverage for 2011.
- DID FOCUS Article – F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: Events & Contracts 2007-08
- DID FOCUS Article – F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: SDD Contracts & Events FY 2006.
- F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program site. For other news that includes testing results and other areas not covered by contracts, see the news section.
- JSF Program Office – JSF Production, Sustainment and Follow-on Development MoU [PDF], update 4. Signed by the partner countries in 2010.
F-35: Individual Country Coverage
DID is covering some country competitions individually, but not all.
- DID – Future Fleet: Australia’s F-35 Commitments – and Choices. See also “Australia’s 2nd Fighter Fleet: Super Hornets & Growlers,” which covers an interim buy that grew into a long-term fleet; and The Australian Debate: Abandon F-35, Buy F-22s?
- DID – Canada Preparing to Replace its CF-18 Hornets.
- DID – Israeli Plans to Buy F-35s Moving Forward.
- DID – Japan’s Next F-X Fighters: F-35 Wins Round 1. After Japan tried for several years to buy the F-22.
- DID – F-35 Lightning II Wins Norway’s (Fake) Competition.
- DID – Big Rig: South Korea’s Reboots F-X-3 Fighter Buy to Allow only F-35. F-X-1/2 were F-15K Strike Eagles. Now they want to keep up with the Kawasakis.
- US GAO (March 24/14, #GAO-14-322) – F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: Problems Completing Software Testing May Hinder Delivery of Expected Warfighting Capabilities.
- US GAO (March 11/13, #GAO-13-309) – Current Outlook Is Improved, but Long-Term Affordability Is a Major Concern.
- Pentagon OT&E (Feb 15/13) – F-35A Joint Strike Fighter: Readiness for Training Operational Utility Evaluation [PDF].
- Pentagon OT&E (Jan 17/13) – FY2012 Annual Report: F-35 Joint Strike Fighter [PDF].
- Dutch Rekenkamer Audit Agency (Oct 24/12) – Uitstapkosten Joint Strike Fighter,” incl. links to full reports [all in Dutch].
News & Views: The Future of Stealth
- Airbus Defence and Space – Passive Radar: to see without being seen [PDF]. In frequencies that may not be stealth friendly.
- RUSI (Sept 9/14) – The Limits of Stealth. “The general idea behind [Russia’s] Nebo-M design is the fusion of radar information provided by metre-, decimetre-, and centimetre-band radars into a single data matrix which forms the command-and-control centre of system….”
- The Diplomat (Aug 21/14) – The F-35 vs. The VHF Threat. Including lessons from the shootdown of an American F-117 stealth fighter over Serbia.
- The Daily Beast (April 28/14) – New U.S. Stealth Jet Can’t Hide From Russian Radar. Co-published in Aviation Week. Overstates things a bit, but this is what people really mean when they talk about “perishable” stealth.
- Aviation Week (Sept 13/13) – Commentary: Do Russian Radar Developments Challenge Stealth? By Bill Sweetman.
- AOL Defense (Nov 27/12) – Will Stealth Survive As Sensors Improve? F-35, Jammers At Stake.
News & Views: Other
- DID 5-1-15 – The Navy awarded United Technologies a low-rate initial production contract valued at $157 million for variants of the F-135 engine, the propulsion system of the F-35. The initial production of 90 engines is split between the F-135-PW-100 and -PW-600 variants, with Thursday’s LRIP contract consisting of 76 of the former and 14 of the latter, with 35 of the systems earmarked for foreign partners and Foreign Military Sales.
- DID 4-23-15 – The Marine Corps is altering its aerial combat techniques to introduce F-35Bs alongside older F/A-18s. The Hornet Standard Game Plan will see the Corps adapt air-to-air combat tactics to maximize the new jet’s capabilities. Additionally, the plan will see the Marine Corps change the language used by pilots to better align with both the Air Force and international partners.
- DID 3-26-15 – The F-35’s 2B software requires a testing extension in order to debug flaws, according to media reports. This extension will likely lead to Lockheed Martin losing a portion of the contract’s $300 million incentive fee. This latest speed bump in the F-35 program will reportedly not delay the Marine Corps’ use of the aircraft, with the Corps planning on steaming ahead with the current software package with a view to modifying and/or restricting the use of the aircraft as appropriate until the patch becomes available.
- DID – F-35: I am Fighter, Hear Me Roar. Noise could become a serious political issue for the F-35.
- RUSI (Sept 9/14) – Integrating Typhoon and F-35: The Key to Future British Air Power. The dilemma offers lessons beyond Britain and Italy, who will own both types. The same principles can be applied to non-stealthy fighters in general.
- Bloomberg (July 30/14) – Software to Power F-35 Running as Much as 14 Months Late. The F-35’s dependence on software means that this isn’t just a schedule issue, it’s a capability issue. So far, the program has delivered 7.4 million lines of code for the earliest version software to test. That number is in the same range as Google Chrome or Windows NT 3.5, and it will grow to over 8 million. As a point of comparison, the F-22 has grown to about 3 million lines of code, and Boeing’s 787 has over 13 million.
- Alpha Foxtrot (May 31/14) – 7 Things The Marines Have To Do To Make The F-35B Worth The Huge Cost. The F-35B has compromised the F-35A/C design, but it can justify itself by being much more than a Harrier replacement for the US military’s LHA/LHD Expeditionary Strike Groups. New USMC V-22 roles and variants (KC-22/MV-22K tankers, EV-22 AEW&C, and CV-22 CSAR) will be needed to complete that transformation.
- The Daily Beast (May 26/14) – Why Can’t America’s Newest Stealth Jet Land Like It’s Supposed To?. Bill Sweetman again, noting the evasions surrounding the F-35B’s ability to operate from remote airstrips without destroying them.
- War Is Boring (Jan 1/14) – Is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter the New F-4?.
- ELP (July 19/13) – UPDATE – F-35 Gun Concerns. Links back to USAF Col. Charles Moore’s 2007 essay “The Need for a Permanent Gun System On the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter” [PDF], which includes analysis of front-line fighter gun use.
- AFA Air Force Magazine (Feb 22/13) – Looking Beyond F-35. Gen. Hostage briefly outlines what would be required if the F-35 program was killed.
- Joint Force Quarterly (July 2012, #66) – The F-35 and the Future of Power Projection. Discusses organizational shifts, as well as technological shifts.
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