Friday, August 20, 2010

Naval Joint Strike Fighter variant reaches next significant milestone

Almost one year since the US Navy’s first-ever stealth fighter, the F-35C Lightning II was rolled out at Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth plant, the aircraft yesterday performed its first successful flight at the neighbouring Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base. Tom Burbage, Vice President and General Manager of F-35 Programme Integration for Lockheed Martin, said in July 2009 that the carrier variant of the Joint Strike Fighter still has a long way to go before it can take to the skies as part of the Navy’s fleet of combat aircraft. Expected to join the Navy in 2014, indeed, the aircraft still has a long road ahead, especially considering the challenging mission systems integration as well as the introduction into aircraft carrier operation.

However, as the JSF programme is making good progress on all fronts after a long row of schedule problems and political turmoil on funding and requirements, the F-35C logs a significant milestone with yesterday’s maiden flight. Another key stepping-stone of the naval part of the programme was achieved in mid-April when the F-35C completed drop testing at the Vought Aircraft facility in Dallas, aimed to simulate the strains of carrier-deck landings (see:

The Commander of Naval Air Forces, Vice Adm. Thomas J. Kilcline, said on the occasion of the F-35C’s maiden flight: “I am thrilled the F-35C has attained this milestone. This flight marks the beginning of a new chapter in Naval Aviation. The mission systems in this aircraft will provide the Carrier Strike Group Commander with an unprecedented ability to counter a broad spectrum of threats and win in operational scenarios that our legacy aircraft cannot address.”

Lockheed Martin test pilot Jeff Knowles took to the air in the F-35C on Monday morning for a 57-minute flight. Acknowledging the important signal of this successful maiden flight, Tom Burbage said: “Sunday's flight marks the beginning of the true introduction of a next-generation weapon system capable of providing joint, coalition striking power on Day One, from both land and sea bases.” He further explained: “For the first time ever, and from now on, wherever on the world’s oceans we position a 98,000-ton nuclear carrier, we can launch a long-range, lethal, stealth strike fighter with the ability to defeat the most sophisticated air defences.”

According to Lockheed Martin, the F-35C is unique in its uncompromised carrier suitability, with a larger wing and control surfaces for safe, precise handling and low approach speeds to the carrier, excellent over-the-nose visibility and additional structural strength for at-sea operations. The aircraft's stealth materials are designed to withstand harsh carrier conditions with minimal maintenance. The F-35 program has about 900 suppliers in 43 American states, and directly and indirectly employs more than 130,000 people. Thousands more are employed in the F-35 partner countries, which have invested more than $4 billion in the project. Those countries include the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway.

First Mission Systems-Equipped F-35 Joins Patuxent River Fleet

Meanwhile, the short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) branch of the comprehensive development programme, which saw the first vertical landing of an F-35B on 19 March, is further progressing on the East Coast of the US. Also on Monday, the first F-35B test jet equipped with mission systems (or avionics), designed and expected to be introduced by the US Marine Corps, the UK Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, and the Italian Air Force and Navy, arrived at Naval Air Station Patuxent River. It is the fourth F-35 to begin thorough testing at the Naval Air Systems Command site.

As Lockheed Martin’s Tom Burbage explained: “In addition to validating the aerodynamic capabilities and flying qualities of these jets, we will have the opportunity to confirm the performance of what we expect to be a transcendent avionics capability – the most capable ever in a fighter.” The company expects a fifth F-35B as well as the F-35C to join the fleet of test aircraft at Patuxent River later in 2010.

The F-35's next-generation sensor suite makes it possible to collect vast amounts of information, and present the data on state-of-the-art cockpit and helmet displays. This allows the pilot to make faster and more effective tactical decisions and transfer information to other aircraft and to maritime and ground forces.

A Challenging Transition

Recently, the US Navy leadership reassured industry of its commitment to buy the JSF, describing the aircraft as the centrepiece for the future of naval aviation. The director of air warfare on the Chief of Naval Operations staff, Rear Adm. Michael C. Manazir, said in late May: “I want to dispel the contention that the Navy is soft on the F-35C. The Navy has had the F-35C in her horizon for more than a decade. As we built the path from F/A-18 aircraft to the carrier to fifth generation, we grew the E/F Super Hornets in the limits of fourth generation capability. We now need to move into the F-35C to realize our vision for TACAIR (tactical air) coming off the carriers.”

The scheduled replacement of ageing F-18 models in parallel with the introduction of the F-35C, however, is confronted with a tight (if not unrealisable) timetable. It is difficult to believe that the 480 F-35C’s will be delivered and introduced into service on time, in order to fully complement the tasks of the Navy’s premier strike fighter, the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets, as planned. The Department of the Navy earlier acknowledged that the purchases planned for the next five to ten years will be unable to keep pace with the retirement of today’s Hornets as they reach the limit of their service life.

In this case, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) listed four alternatives for the retirement/replacement process which the Navy will inevitably have to face during the next decade। These alternatives, which can be viewed in detail at, all include the extension of the service life of existing Hornets while two also look at both the reduction of purchased F-35s and the purchase of additional Super Hornets. Naturally, any extension of service life (projected by the CBO between 600 to 2,000 flight hours beyond the current 8,000-hour limit for different numbers of aircraft, depending of the proposed alternative) would entail significant additional costs, reportedly reaching up to $13 billion.

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