Lightning II: So Far, So Good

July 1, 2007

The F-35 Lightning II is starting to look like a fighter that will punch well above its weight. And that is good, because militaries around the world have quite a lot riding on this fifth generation warplane.

In the United States, the Air Force is counting on the F-35A, a conventional multirole variant, to provide next generation stealth and sensor fusion to go with the powers of its stablemate—the F-22. Introduction of the Lightning will let USAF start retiring its aged F-16s in a few years. Later, F-35s will take the place of ground-attack A-10s, too.

The US Marine Corps needs the short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) F-35B to replace its fleet of old F/A-18s and AV-8B Harrier jump jets. Marine Corps squadrons will, in fact, be the first to go operational with F-35s, in 2012.

The Navy, meanwhile, is eager to acquire the F-35C carrier variant of the Lightning. It will bring much-needed stealthiness to its big decks and allow retirement of older F/A-18C Hornets. The Navy’s premier carrier fighter, the F/A-18E/F, possesses no stealth capabilities.

Apart from the US services, many other nations are looking to benefit from the $300 billion F-35 program. Nine “partner” nations—notably Britain, which will equip both the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy with F-35s—now are in the queue for the aircraft over the next few decades.

All told, partner nations’ air forces and navies have booked orders for a total of 3,173 Lightnings. That may not be the end. Israel and Singapore have also signed on as “security cooperation participants” and could well wind up purchasing significant numbers. Essentially, every nation that currently flies the F-16 is considered a possible F-35 customer.

“We see the potential,” said Brig. Gen. Charles R. Davis, program director for the F-35. He added, “We’re getting great performance out of the system right now.”

Indeed, the first flying F-35 air vehicle, designated AA-1, is quickly accumulating test flights. It flew for the 19th time on May 3—the first flight took place late last year.

These flights represented the initial 20 hours of a rigorous, 12,000-hour flight-test plan for a program that will eventually produce three highly common stealth fighters.

In rapid succession, the fighter passed several milestones this spring. Pentagon acquisition chief Kenneth J. Krieg approved the program for low-rate initial production in April. More than half the developmental aircraft are now under construction, and plans call for AA-1 to fly an average of six times per month.

Program officials are evaluating a variety of key performance parameters, and results in most areas are better than planned. Reality is exceeding plan in the areas of combat radius, radio frequency signature, mission reliability, sortie generation rate, and logistics footprint. STOVL performance, meanwhile, is near the stated requirement.

Network readiness is an area that still needs some work. Many of the F-35’s early communications requirements were tied to Demand Assigned Multiple Access satellites that are going out of service, to be replaced by Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) satellites around 2014. With initial operational capability (IOC) in 2012, the program office has decided to build the F-35 to MUOS specifications.

This means, however, that F-35s will lack a direct beyond-line-of-sight communications capability until MUOS is operational. Until that time, Lightnings will have to route those communications through E-3 AWACS, E-8 Joint STARS, or other assets.

It was on Dec. 15 that AA-1 lifted off from Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth, Tex., facility for the first time to fly a 35-minute sortie. Pilot Jon Beesley took the aircraft to 15,000 feet, performed a series of maneuvers to test engine and subsystem operation, and returned to base.

The aircraft had no fuel leaks during ground tests or the first flight—unprecedented for a new fighter design.

No flight-test program makes it through without hitches, however, and AA-1 experienced what Davis described as a “fairly significant electrical problem” in May. It was the first problem of the sort. The pilot returned to base after a 45-minute sortie, and the redundant systems on-board worked as expected, said Lockheed Martin spokesman John A. Smith.

The F-35 team did not expect any delays in flight testing as a result of the incident.

The next aircraft to fly will be a Marine Corps version, in March 2008. That will be a highly important event.

The reason is that the toughest IOC target date is that of the Marine Corps—in the year 2012. Davis noted that, for various reasons, production has been pushed further into the outyears, meaning there will be fewer F-35s available in the target year. The Marine Corps, therefore, is concerned that airplane delays could delay IOC.

“They are on the ragged edge,” said Davis.

The Air Force’s 2013 IOC date offers more flexibility. The Air Force doesn’t always deploy full squadrons, so the service is now determining actual requirements for operational status.

Numbers Game

Air Force plans call for acquisition of 1,763 of the new strike fighters, but top officials have said USAF could cut that number at some point. Because the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will be more capable and reliable than the aircraft it is replacing, USAF might make do with fewer of them.Earlier this year, the Air Force reduced its expected maximum purchase rate. The old plan was to purchase 110 aircraft per year beginning in 2015. The new maximum buy rate is 80 F-35s per year, and a handful of aircraft were also cut from the near-term plans.

The moves reduce the amount of money the Air Force will have to spend on the program in any given year, but the resulting loss of scale economies will raise the overall program price. “I don’t think the Air Force, with all of its other competing priorities, [was] going to buy 110 airplanes a year,” said Davis. “They never had the budget capacity … to do that.” USAF is “struggling” to make sure it can “establish the budget capability to buy even the max rate they have now,” 80 aircraft a year at peak production, he added.

However, the age of the Air Force’s legacy fighters is such that the service simply must hold to the maximum production rate of 80 F-35s a year. Otherwise, it will not be able to fill out squadrons and allow aircraft to retire without being forced into unplanned service life extension programs.

In Davis’ words, “Eighty just kind of keeps their heads above water.”

USAF’s program has now been stretched; the last purchase, once planned for 2027, will now take place in 2034.

The Air Force program has taken at least one major new departure in recent times. USAF no longer plans to procure STOVL variants of the F-35 as its A-10 replacement.

“There isn’t a big payoff for us in STOVL,” Gen. Ronald E. Keys, head of Air Combat Command, recently said. “Our plan now is not to acquire the STOVL version.”

The Air Force determined that the increased utility offered by being able to operate from shorter or unimproved airstrips did not justify the added cost, the additional logistics, and the changes in operational doctrine that the F-35B would require.

For the time being the issue is dead. “I don’t think there’s any serious discussion within the Air Force about buying the STOVLs,” said Davis. “We’re certainly not responding to any questions, and I know of no activity.”

The lead opinion on whether USAF should buy the STOVL JSF seems to depend on who the Chief of Staff is at the time. Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, Chief of Staff from 1994 to 1997, first suggested acquiring the STOVL version to replace some A-10s. The proposal came back to life under Gen. John P. Jumper, Chief from 2001 to 2005. (See “The F-35 Gets Real,” March 2004, p. 44.)

Current modernization and structural improvement programs will keep the A-10 in service into the 2020s, giving the Air Force more than a decade to change its mind again, if it so chooses.

The Navy-Marine Corps team has an overall requirement for 680 Lightnings, with the exact split between the two services yet to be determined. The Department of the Navy still is sorting out the deck requirements for naval F-35s and Marine Corps STOVLs.

Vice Adm. James M. Zortman, commander of naval air forces, said last year that the carrier fighter requirement falls “somewhere between 360 and 380.” At about the same time, USMC Col. Robert Walsh, deputy commandant for aviation, said that, “right now,” the Marine Corps requirement was 420 aircraft.

Thus, the combined requirement ranges from 780 to 800 fighters. Yet to be seen is how the Navy Department will cover this demand with a buy of only 680 F-35s.

Davis characterized the ongoing discussions as a “healthy debate.”

The partner nations have thus far produced a combined requirement for 730 aircraft.

Foreign partners such as Britain and Australia are eager to ditch their obsolete fighter aircraft and move on to the sleek, stealthy Lightning. At present, both the RAF and Royal Navy fly Harrier jump jets, fighters that have proved effective and versatile but tend to be unreliable.

The F-35 schedule is critically important for the Royal Navy, which wants to retire the Harriers as planned and move the F-35s onto two new 60,000-ton-class aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, in 2012 and 2015, respectively.

Britain’s services plan to buy 138 F-35s, and it has been the strike fighter’s top foreign partner from the outset.

Australia, whose national air force still flies 1970s-era F -111 fighter-bombers, is up against a similar problem. However, as anxious defense leaders approached an internal deadline, they flinched, abandoning a plan to wait for the F-35’s arrival. Canberra, said Davis, made a “political decision,” to purchase a “gap-filler” group of 24 Boeing F/A-18 fighters.

Nine Partners

Australia did not want to take the risk that the F-35 would not be ready in time to replace the F-111.

Fortunately for the F-35 program, Australia still plans to buy a total of 100 Lightning aircraft.

The nine F-35 partner nations recently signed a memorandum of understanding reaffirming their commitment to participation in the production phase of the program. By the end of February, the US, Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, and Turkey all had signed the MOU codifying an agreement on the “common” portions of the production, sustainment, and follow-development.

These partner nations are committing more than $4 billion to develop the F-35. The MOU also spelled out each nation’s expected purchases.

For an aircraft program of this scope and magnitude, harsh questions about cost always will be close at hand.

One way to measure cost is the recurring unit flyaway cost, which excludes sunk costs such as research and development and test. Estimates now are $48 million for each Air Force F-35A, $67 million for each Navy F-35C, and $67 million for each Marine Corps STOVL F-35B. (These estimates are calculated in 2002 dollars, which are used as the baseline.) Air Combat Command notes that the conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) unit cost is less than the cost of a new F-16 with advanced radars.

Still, the F-35 program is in the grip of serious financial questions. Two recent developments illustrate the problems facing the F-35 program office.

The Pentagon announced earlier this year that the F-35 program’s price had grown by 8.5 percent in then-year dollars, which factor in inflation out to 2034. (Measured in constant dollars, the cost of growth is a more modest 4.5 percent.) The spike stems mostly from a decrease in the annual procurement quantities and stretch-out of the production, the April announcement read.

Not all the recent cost growth is due to DOD budget adjustments, however. The F-35 program is now using much more titanium than previously expected, and this change occurred at the same time that the cost of titanium shot up in the world market. This added billions in cost to the program.

The Government Accountability Office, for example, isn’t happy with the F-35’s acquisition strategy, Davis said. In a recent report, the Congressional auditors recommended that the Pentagon limit annual procurement quantities to 24 aircraft per year until the flight-test program proves each variant’s flying capabilities, around 2010.

GAO’s concern is that the concurrent development, procurement, and test schedules will force delays or require large numbers of aircraft to be retrofitted as problems are identified.

Davis feels that GAO wants the F-35 to be purchased “like the F-16: Put a block out there, fly it for a few years, put another block out there—do very simple increments.”

He continued, “That can be done, but that can be a very costly process, too. I am concerned about the concurrency” between the F-35’s test, development, and acquisition schedules, but the program is building on the lessons from the F-22 program, which was “a great risk-reducing pathfinder for us.”

F-35 radar development is “at least a year ahead of where the F-22 was at this point in their program,” said Davis. “They had to figure all this out on their own.” While development will certainly be difficult, “we think we’re going to be able to overcome a lot of those concurrent challenges.”

The F-35’s alternate engine program suffered a more dramatic fate, and its future is now in the hands of Congress, after the Pentagon moved to kill it.

Currently, the JSF program has two engine programs in place: Pratt & Whitney is developing the aircraft’s primary F135 power plant, which is derived from the F-22 Raptor’s engine. Also under development, as a competitor, is the GE-Rolls Royce F136 engine, intended as an interchangeable but alternative power source. The Pentagon zeroed out funding for the alternative engine in its Fiscal 2008 budget request, again strictly for financial reasons.

“I believe there is always value in competition, and there’s value in having additional sources,” Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Chief of Staff, told Congress earlier this year. “At the end of the day, this is about money. It’s $2 billion that we don’t have.”

Davis said his hope is that Congress will fund whichever engine development programs it finds appropriate. The worst-case scenario would be for Congress to order the alternate engine program to proceed but not provide funding, requiring the money to come from the program’s general account.

Such an unfunded mandate would force the Air Force and Navy to each give up $800 million to $900 million worth of airplanes. “That is my biggest concern,” Davis said, “If Congress uses this program as a source to fund this engine, … we will have serious problems.”

Fact of Life

Every budget perturbation is a problem because affordability is a hallmark of the program. “We have probably lost, cumulative, over a billion dollars’ worth of buying power just due to normal budget adjustments over the years,” said Davis, a fact of life in Washington that is hardly unique to this program.

Affordability is why JSF was created in the first place, to create efficiency out of what historically would have been three separate fighter programs.

“The biggest thing that concerns me … is just trying to keep these production numbers stable,” said Davis. “The single most damaging thing that can happen to the program right now is continued degradation of the numbers of airplanes. That just drives cost.” (See “Struggling For Altitude,” September 2006, p. 38.)

Program stability is key. “I need to keep the budget stable; I need to keep the production schedule stable. … You can very easily force this program into a situation where it rapidly becomes unaffordable and you have schedule problems. It’s the old story: We’ve proven time and time again that the [cost] to the program is at least three or four to one for every dollar you take out.”

Davis said, “We’ve got to deliver to the services what we’ve promised, but on the other hand, I need the department and the services to try to provide us stability.”

The program has an opportunity over the next year to prove its progress. One variant is in the air, and the F-35B is next. This was the variant that forced the radical redesign in 2004, as the STOVL aircraft had grown 3,000 pounds overweight. (See “The F-35, Ready for Prime Time?” June 2005, p. 28.) The F-35B still has the tightest development schedule.

Davis is confident the program can prove that performance is on track with the first STOVL flight next spring. Many of the world’s air forces are hoping he’s right.

The Great Engine Debate

The Defense Department zeroed out funding for the F-35’s alternate engine program in the 2008 budget request. Now Congress has to determine whether to order the GE-Rolls Royce engine program to continue, or to let the Pratt & Whitney engine be the sole JSF engine supplier.

Three independent studies of the engine issue are in the works this year.

In the first, the Government Accountability Office determined that “competitive pressures” from two engine suppliers make it “reasonable to assume that competition on the JSF engine program could yield savings” that offset the cost of the second program. There are also likely to be nonfinancial benefits from competition, GAO found, such as better engine performance and reliability, industrial base stability, and “more responsive contractors.”

By press time, other engine studies by the Pentagon’s Cost Analysis Improvement Group and the Institute for Defense Analyses had not been released.

David G. Ahern, a senior official in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, testified in March that “the CAIG analysis of JSF engine alternatives showed relatively modest additional life-cycle costs or savings” resulting from a competition. The CAIG also found benefits in competition “other than cost savings,” but did not evaluate them in its analysis.

In April, Air Force officials told Congress that IDA officials have “not yet indicated which alternative their study will support.”