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The Pentagon’s most expensive and highly-criticized weapons program finally showed progress as the Marine Corps established the first squadron of the F-35b jet fighters. The F-35b’s new operational squadron is stationed at an airbase in Yuma, Arizona.
Three F-35b jets have already arrived at the base with 13 more units will come over next year. According to the base spokesperson, the service built a new hangar for the planes as well as a high-end flight stimulator for the pilots and maintenance facilities. The new squadron will start its initial flights by December or early next year.
A ceremony was held for the unveiling of the new squadron. It was attended by top Pentagon and Lockheed executives as well as Arizona Sen. John McCain who sits at the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The F-35 is the replacement for the aging fleet of the F/A-18 Hornet and AV-8B Harrier jets. Lockheed Martin is building three variants of the jet fighter for the U.S. Military and other countries. The F-35b model has STOVL capabilities.
“This squadron will be the first, not only in the Marine Corps or the United States, but the first in the world to bring a fifth-generation, multi-role, (short takeoff vertical landing) stealth fighter … into an operational status,” Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos said during his speech at the unveiling ceremony.
The new F-35b squadron is fantastic addition to our military’s fleet. Start your own fleet of model airplanes from Warplanes. Warplanes has an extensive range of fighter jet models to choose from.
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The F-35A Lighting II Joint Strike Fighters can take to the skies with the Military Flight Release issued last February 28. The multi-million jet fighters has been stuck with test flights until the US Air Force Aeronautical System Center issued MFR. Now, the F-35A JSF can perform initial operations at the Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
Previously, all F-35A flights were limited to the test flights done by a select number of qualified test pilots at the Edwards Air Base in California and Naval Air Station Patuxent River flight test centers. Units of F-35A started arriving at the Eglin AFB in the summer of 2011, but stayed grounded while waiting for the MFR. Qualified Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps pilots can now fly the jet fighters starting with the Conventional Take-Off and Landing (CTOL) F-35A variant. Before the MFR clearance, these pilots can only perform taxi test and simulator flights, but could not fly the F-35A to the skies.
An airworthiness board assessed and evaluated the potential risks and corresponding remedial action for unmonitored flights of the F-3A, before issuing the MFR. The Air Force looks forward to finally see the F-35A Lightning II in the air. This will increase the pilots and maintenance staff familiarity with the aircraft, exercising the logistics infrastructure as well as develop the continued maturity of the aircraft.
“The Air Force, Joint Strike Fighter Program Office and other stakeholders have painstakingly followed established risk acceptance and mitigation processes to ensure the F-35A is ready. This is an important step for the F-35A and we are confident the team has diligently balanced the scope of initial operations with system maturity,” said General Donald Hoffman, commander of Air Force Materiel Command, the parent organization of ASC.
The Eglin Air Force Bas has two qualified F-35A test pilots. Air Force Lt. Col. Eric Smith and Marine Maj. Joseph Bachmann will act as the initial trainers for the rest of the pilots at the 33rd Fighter Wing.
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Acting Pentagon procurement chief Frank Kendall says it was “acquisition malpractice” to approve production of the Lockheed Martin F-35 years before the first flight of the single-engine stealthy fighter occurred.
“It should not have been done,” Kendall told an audience Feb. 6 hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But we did it.”
Then-procurement chief Kenneth Krieg approved the first lot of production in 2006. The contract for long-lead articles came in April 2006 for low-rate initial production Lot 1, and that aircraft rolled off of the production line in 2008.
At the time, program executives, including the incoming director of the program, Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Davis, argued that swift entry into production was of paramount importance to aggressively ramp up production numbers quickly, thereby attaining a low per-unit cost as quickly as possible.
Davis, now a three-star general, commands the Air Force’s Electronic Systems Center, which has oversight of such key programs as the Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program and the next-generation space surveillance fence. He and Lockheed Martin executives also contended that the use of new modeling and design tools dramatically diminished the likelihood of major problems being discovered in flight testing that could prompt a costly redesign.
Kendall, who is the acting procurement czar awaiting Senate approval, takes issue with that view.
“What we are seeing is that the optimistic predictions when we started the production of the F-35—that we now have good enough design tools and good enough simulation and modeling that we wouldn’t have to worry about finding things in test—were wrong,” Kendall said. “We are finding problems in all three of the variants that are the types of things, historically in a state-of-the-art, next-generation fighter aircraft, you are going to find, where our design tools are not perfect.”
These include so-called structural hot spots on all three F-35 variants that have yet to be fully understood or addressed. Today, the program has achieved only 20% of its flight-test program, and Pentagon procurement officials have sharply reduced the purchase numbers in recent years to curtail the potential of discovering major problems in testing that would cause a redesign and retrofit of a growing fleet.
This problem, dubbed “concurrency,” is frustrating senior Pentagon leaders because of its unknown scope. During an interview last year with Aviation Week, JSF program executive Vice Adm. David Venlet said the real risk of encountering major concurrency cost is retired around 2015 if testing goes as planned.
Meanwhile, after contentious discussions last year, he and Lockheed Martin executives agreed to equally split the cost of any concurrency modifications for low-rate-initial-production Lot 5 aircraft. This was the first such arrangement in the program and sets the precedent for burden sharing moving forward.
Despite institutional frustration at the Pentagon over the concurrency problem, Kendall says, “We don’t, at this point, see anything that would preclude continuing production at a reasonable rate.”
Testing, however, is not without its hiccups. After a grounding of six F-35 test aircraft at Edwards AFB, Calif., owing to poorly packed ejection seat parachutes, the Joint Program Office (JPO) announced that AF-1 resumed flying Feb. 3.
The aircraft were grounded because personnel at seat-maker Martin Baker installed some parachutes backward. The “head-box assembly” for AF-1 was installed the morning of Feb. 3 and a crew flew later in the day, JPO spokesman Joe Dellavedova says.
Three more head-box assemblies were expected to be delivered over the weekend and are slated for installation. The F-35 test jets are the first slated to undergo the fix, with the nine training aircraft at Eglin AFB, Fla., next in line. Training operations there have not been affected as the Air Force has not yet given the nod to conduct those flights yet.
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For the first time in the history of the Joint Strike Fighter program, a senior Pentagon appointee has raised the question of whether one of the three versions of the Lockheed Martin F-35 should be canceled to save money. The move comes as program leaders and Pentagon cost experts are trying to prepare for a long-delayed Defense Acquisition Board review of JSF, including a comprehensive effort to establish reliable predictions of acquisition and operating costs.
Navy Undersecretary Robert Work told the Navy and Marine Corps in July to provide lower-cost alternatives to the Navy’s current tactical aviation plan, and to examine the consequences of terminating either the F-35B short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing (Stovl) version or the carrier-compatible F-35C. Work is seeking decisions in time for the 2013 budget submission.
He also directed service leaders to study whether the Navy and Marines could operate fewer than the 40 squadrons of JSFs currently planned (supported by 680 aircraft, divided equally between Bs and Cs) and to look at the possibility of accelerating development of unmanned alternative systems.
The instructions were included in a July 7 memo from Work to Navy acquisition chief Sean Stackley, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert and Assistant Marine Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford. Work told the leaders to form a team to develop three alternative tactical aviation force structures, respectively representing cost savings of $5 billion, $7.5 billion and $10 billion across the future-years defense plan. Ultimately, Work expects to determine “the best value alternative, factoring in both cost and capability.”
“This relook must consider every plan and program,” Work wrote. “Even cuts to long-planned buys of JSF must be on the table.” The team was also tasked to define “the key performance differences between the Block II F/A-18E/F with all planned upgrades, F-35B and F-35C.”
The quick-look analysis was due to be completed three weeks after the memo date; that is, by July 28. That was also the date on which Marine leadership organized a high-profile demonstration of the F-35B’s Stovl capability at the Navy’s Patuxent River, Md., flight test center.
Under Work’s leadership, the Marines and the Navy signed an agreement in March under which the Marines would operate 80 F-35Cs and 340 F-35Bs. Earlier, the Marines had argued that all 420 of their JSFs should be F-35Bs.
Work did not direct the team to assess the economic or operational impact of F-35 program changes on the Air Force or international partners. A reduction in Navy Department orders for both the F-35B and F-35C would increase unit costs. Canceling either version would eliminate some remaining development costs, mostly in flight test, and could lead to increased production of the surviving variant.
The largest international JSF partner, the U.K., changed its plans in October 2010, switching from the B to the C model. If the F-35C were to be canceled, the U.K. would withdraw from the program and “look for a European solution” to its requirement for a carrier fighter, a senior U.K. official said in Washington earlier this month. Italy is the only international partner that plans to operate the F-35B.
Lockheed Martin declined to comment on the memo, saying that it was an internal Navy document. The F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) had no immediate comment.
As an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Work coauthored studies that supported the case for early development of a carrier-based unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) with greater range and better stealth characteristics than the F-35.
Currently, there is a debate in Washington about the characteristics of a future Navy UCAV system. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. is still proposing the 15,000-lb. weight class, moderately stealthy Avenger design, while Northrop Grumman confirmed earlier this month that it would be proposing a design similar to its larger and stealthier X-47B. The latter would potentially fill some of the deep-penetration missions that the F-35C is intended to perform.
Boeing, meanwhile, is continuing to work on an improved version of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which would reduce capability and performance gaps between it and the F-35C. The company plans to conduct wind-tunnel tests, late this year or early next, of the conformal tanks, which add 3,000 lb. of fuel, and a centerline weapons pod. General Electric is also offering an Enhanced Performance Engine variant of the Super Hornet’s F414, increasing thrust by as much as 25%.
The F-35B variant remains on probation, under a decree issued by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates in January. Gates said at the time that problems affecting the aircraft—including the need for a redesigned lift-fan door, driveshaft and clutch mechanisms—would have to be solved without increases in cost or weight. The U.K. government said, in switching from the B to the C variant, that the Stovl aircraft cost more than either the F-35A or F-35C, and U.K. government reports repeatedly described the F-35B’s “bring-back” performance—its ability to land vertically with fuel reserves and unused weapons—as marginal.
Last year, Work suggested in remarks to a Washington forum that forward basing and refueling on improvised airstrips—one of two pillars of the Marine case for the F-35B—would become much more hazardous in the presence of G-RAMM (guided rockets, artillery, mortars and missiles) threats.
The F-35B’s basing flexibility is also being called into question by unresolved issues about the effects of the fighter’s hot, high-velocity exhaust on ground and deck surfaces. Lockheed Martin and senior Marine leaders have downplayed these issues, stated that the environment under a landing F-35B is almost identical to that of an AV-8B Harrier, and claimed that early 2010 tests confirmed these characteristics.
Navy construction specifications continue to warn that the F-35B will impose temperatures as high as 1700F (several hundred degrees higher than a Harrier exhaust) on vertical-landing pads, with a transonic exhaust velocity. This is enough to cause standard concrete to “spall”—that is, shed surface flakes in a near-explosive manner—with a 50% chance of damage on the first landing.
Navy standards require F-35B landing pads to comprise 100 X 100-ft. slabs of special heat-resistant concrete, poured in one piece and continuously reinforced in two directions. At least one contract has been issued to these specifications since early 2010, when Lockheed Martin asserted that such measures were not necessary.
The Office of Naval Research still has an active program to develop a cooling system for the decks of LHD- and LHA-class ships that will carry F-35Bs, reflecting concerns that thermal expansion and contraction and consequent buckling will cause fatigue and premature failure.
The JPO has not responded to repeated inquiries about the discrepancies between Lockheed Martin’s statements and Navy specifications. Navy engineering organizations have referred all queries to the JPO.
The Defense Acquisition Board review is required in order to renew Milestone B approval of the JSF development and low-rate initial production program—granted in 2001 but rescinded automatically after last year’s critical breach of Nunn-McCurdy cost limits. In May, the review was expected in June, but it was abruptly delayed into the fall.
Any changes in the Navy’s plans will also factor into the board’s review. Among other factors being considered is a trend among international partners to delay deliveries, driven by last year’s slip in the completion of development testing, which will have an impact on production rates, ramp-up plans and costs.
JSF test aircraft were cleared to return to flight on Aug. 18, after a two-week grounding caused by a failure in the integrated power pack (IPP). Production aircraft, including two at Eglin AFB, Fla., and F-35s being prepared for delivery at Fort Worth, remain grounded and restricted from engine and IPP runs.
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Lockheed Martin has received a $13 million contract to incorporate a shipborne rolling vertical landing (SRVL) capability with the short take-off and vertical landing F-35B, with the work to be performed on behalf of the UK.
The US Navy announced details of the Joint Strike Fighter award on 6 October, just two weeks before the UK’s coalition government will disclose the details of its Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) process. This has assessed the nation’s long-term military requirements, including major equipment acquisitions such as the F-35 and two future aircraft carriers.
Developed by the UK, the SRVL technique will enable the F-35B to return to an aircraft carrier’s deck carrying more weapons or fuel than possible when making a vertical landing.
Qinetiq has supported previous development work, including the use of its VAAC Harrier demonstrator aboard the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious.
A research simulator installed at the UK Ministry of Defence’s Boscombe Down site in Wiltshire has also been used to model the SRVL performance of the F-35B with the UK’s 65,000t Queen Elizabeth-class future aircraft carrier design.
The US Marine Corps has also shown interest in potentially using the SRVL technique with its own F-35B fleet.
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Lockheed Martin continues to struggle with some parts reliability issues affecting the Harrier replacement so short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing (Stovl) F-35 testing will force slippage in the 2012 in-service date for the U.S. Marine Corps.
Tom Burbage, Lockheed Martin executive vice president for F-35 program integration, states that 251 Stovl flights are expected by the end of this year. And at the end of August, 122 were executed of 153 that should have been conducted by that time. “Where we are short is in some specific testing, mostly in Stovl vertical landing unique test points,” said Burbage.
During a teleconference this month with investors, Lockheed Martin CEO Robert Stevens to acknowledge a potential “re-phasing” for the Stovl flight-test plan. Acknowledging the restructuring to the program announced this year, Stevens adds that “the early corrective actions . . . are showing some beneficial outcomes [but] my sense is that it is not going to be enough.” The multinational Joint Strike Fighter will eventually comprise the lion’s share of the company’s profits.
The Marine Corps, however, stands by its plans to declare initial operational capability (IOC) with a Block II F-35 in 2012. The U.S. Air Force and Navy are expecting to declare their aircraft operational in 2016.
However, further delays in Stovl testing could have a dangerous ripple effect on the program. There is little margin to ensure that enough of the flight-testing envelope and software work will be ready to allow pilots to begin training in time for a 2012 IOC. Officials at the training center at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, say they expect their first Block II aircraft to arrive in spring 2012.
Much of this ongoing delay is a result of parts reliability problems for BF-01, the only Stovl test aircraft instrumented to conduct vertical landing trials. BF-01 is needed to clear the envelope for vertical landing, after which other Stovl aircraft can contribute to more flight testing. Five vertical landings were executed in August. Ten have been done since the first one in March. Also, last month 26 Stovl flights were conducted, the most in any month to date, Burbage says.
F-35B Thrust Vectoring Nozzle and Lift Fan
About 80% of the parts on the aircraft have completed qualification requirements. Of those, 100% passed for safety-of-flight; half were deemed suitable for the life of the aircraft. The remainder must be redesigned.
Burbage says the target-sortie-generation rate for each test aircraft is 13 flights per month. Last month, each aircraft averaged six.
While each parts supplier is responsible for designing parts to withstand the stresses of vertical flight for the life of the aircraft, it is the prime contractor’s responsibility to ensure that the aircraft as a whole meets its requirements. There are “some parts that just fail when you get them on the aircraft until you understand the root cause,” Burbage says, noting that experts are still characterizing the thermal and acoustic environment for these specific items during vertical landings.
Meanwhile, government officials are conducting a thorough independent technical baseline review for the entire program, which includes the conventional-takeoff-and-landing and carrier variant aircraft. This is due to the Pentagon’s Defense Acquisition Board in November.
Burbage says it is likely to include alternate paths for the program depending upon varying levels of funding. Government officials are also building the first cost estimate for the aircraft, including the operating price.
Of 394 flights planned for the three variants for the year, 233 had been flown by the end of August. Burbage says 2,361 test points were complete by that time; a total of 3,772 are expected by the end of the year.
As a result of the restructuring earlier this year, Lockheed Martin is required to stand up an additional facility for testing software to ensure this portion of the F-35 program stays on schedule. Burbage says the equipment for this laboratory will be delivered in mid 2011 and be ready to conduct testing by fourth-quarter 2011.
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Israel is in negotiation to build the wings for the United States’s new F-35 stealth fighter aircraft, an Israeli official said on Monday.
An Israeli official who declined to be named said state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries would build the wings for Lockheed Martin’s 3,200 F-35s costing about $96 million each.
“We are in advanced talks for the IAI to produce around 800 sets of wings,” he told Reuters.
Lockheed Martin declined to comment on the details of a possible deal involving the aircraft, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).
Earlier this month Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak approved in principle the purchase of 20 of the radar-evading fighters, in a deal worth $2.75 billion.
Israel would be the first foreign country to sign an agreement to buy the F-35 outside the eight international partners that have helped to develop the plane.
Israeli and U.S. officials with knowledge of the deal said Israel has an option to buy a further 55 aircraft.
“Israel possibly will end up building a significant portion of the F-35,” said one U.S. official familiar with the deal.
An Israeli official said reciprocal purchase deals worth $4 billion had been secured for Israeli companies for their participation in the plane’s manufacture and might be increased to $5 billion although it would be conditional on Israel exercising its option to buy the additional 55 planes.
The F-35 is designed to avoid detection by radar and could play a role in any Israeli effort to knock out what it regards as the threat to its existence posed by Iran’s nuclear program. Tehran denies Western and Israeli allegations that it is trying to produce atomic weapons.
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Lockheed Martin is negotiating to cut the price for the next group of its new F-35 fighter planes to at least 20 percent less than Pentagon officials projected last fall, chief executive Robert J. Stevens said last week.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates recently revamped the F-35 program and removed the general in charge, after long delays caused the Pentagon’s projected costs to soar by 64 percent to $382 billion for 2,457 planes.
Mr. Stevens told reporters that the contract would start a transition to fixed prices for the stealth planes two years earlier than planned. He would not say what that price was likely to be for the next group of 32 planes.
He also said Lockheed was confident enough that it was regaining control of the F-35 program, the Pentagon’s largest, to start bearing more of the risk instead of leaving the federal government obligated to cover any cost increases.
Bruce L. Tanner, Lockheed’s executive vice president and chief financial officer, said in an interview that it could save hundreds of millions of dollars through the cost-cutting, which began in February.
The Air Force, the Navy and the Marines are all buying their own versions of the F-35, known as the Joint Strike Fighter. Eight other nations have invested in developing the F-35 and could buy hundreds of the planes.
Mr. Stevens said on Thursday that the $382 billion estimate over 25 years “shows the potential” if nothing changed in the program. But, he said, “we’re determined to beat the government cost estimate.”
Mr. Stevens said that if the Pentagon kept buying the planes at the planned pace, Lockheed believed it could bring the cost down, by 2014 to 2015, to a level comparable to updated and fully loaded versions of older fighters. That would mean reducing the price of each F-35 to $65 million or less.
- The New York Times