UK’s F-35B fighter jets are now cleared for take-off from the Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth after they passed land-based ski-ramp trials.
This was announced by UK defence minister Harriett Baldwin who spoke on Tuesday before the House of Commons Defence Select Committee.
“Successful ski-ramp trials mean the F-35 is cleared to fly from the carrier as the momentum continues for this game-changing jet,” Baldwin said. “This milestone comes as our pilots and planes prepare to return from the States, ready for next year’s unforgettable flight trials from the deck of the nation’s new flagship.”
One of the other questions addressed at the Defence Select Committee were concerns raised in a Times report which said the UK F-35Bs would be too heavy to land vertically on HMS Queen Elizabeth under full load. During the hearing, Lockheed Martin UK CEO, Peter Ruddock assured MPs that the F-35B was capable of landing vertically with a full internal weapon and fuel load.
The UK currently has 12 F-35 jets out in the United States where they are being tested ahead of flight trials from the Royal Navy’s 65,000 tonne carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, next year. Two more aircraft are set to be delivered by the end of the year.
During today’s Select Committee session, the Defence Minister announced that the Integrated Test Force,, has now successfully completed ski ramp trials. That milestone clears the aircraft for take-off from the deck of the Carrier.
Speaking about the jet, Squadron Leader Andy Edgell, part of the F-35 Integrated Test Force which includes five British pilots, said: “The launch of the F35s from the HMS Queen Elizabeth is a once in a generation historical event. To be the first to fly off the carrier, to have a front row seat, would be an absolute privilege. It wouldn’t just be about the pilot – there are hundreds of people who have been working tirelessly behind the scenes to make this happen and the honour will be theirs too.”
There are already 150 UK personnel out in the US working with the jets.
The new home of 617 squadron, RAF Marham, continues to build towards the arrival of the jets next year, moving a step closer earlier this month when the runway intersection resurfacing was completed. 617 Squadron will be the first operational British F-35 unit.
The UK Royal Navy’s (RN’s) new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth is set to bring the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II on board for trials for the first time towards the end of next year.
Fixed-wing First Of Class Flight Trials (FOCFT) are planned to begin off the US eastern seaboard in October 2018. It is expected that two fully instrumented F-35B development aircraft will embark on the ship for two embarked periods each lasting approximately four weeks.
FOCFT test points are intended to define the safe envelope for the operation of the F-35B from Queen Elizabeth and sister ship HMS Prince of Wales. Test planning for FOCFT is already well underway using BAE System’s F-35B/QEC integration facility at Warton.
As well as ski-jump launches and vertical landings, it is expected that next year’s trials will include the first executions of a new manoeuvre known as a shipborne rolling vertical landing (SRVL).
An SRVL exploits the ability of the short takeoff vertical landing F-35B to use vectored thrust to slow the speed of the aircraft approach to about 35kt of closure relative to the carrier while still gaining the benefit of wingborne lift. The primary benefit of an SRVL is a significant increase in payload ‘bring back’ compared with a ‘standard’ vertical landing.
Queen Elizabeth is currently alongside in Portsmouth following arrival at her base port on 16 August. The ship is expected to resume trials in October, with handover to the RN before the end of the year.
UK branches of Lockheed Martin and Elbit Systems signed a teaming agreement to work together on the Royal Navy’s Maritime Electronic Warfare Programme (MEWP).
The MEWP is a project aimed at providing the Royal Navy with improved electronic warfare capabilities.
Delivered in increments, the upgraded system will be fielded on the Royal Navy’s frigates, destroyers and amphibious assault ships, with the program expanding to the wider fleet including submarines in due course.
The partnership between the two companies was announced at DSEI in London.
“By working together, both companies can use their extensive experience in maritime technology and systems integration to provide a highly capable, proven and value for money solution to address the immediate and evolving need for an upgraded Maritime Electronic Warfare capability for the UK’s Royal Navy,” said Paul Livingston, vice president of Lockheed Martin UK Integrated Systems.
“We are delighted to be working with Lockheed Martin to offer an innovative and comprehensive proposal to meet the Royal Navy’s future requirements, using our complementary skills and experience we believe we are a strong team able to propose a highly attractive solution to meet the program needs,” Martin Fausset of Elbit Systems UK Ltd said
Two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers are needed to keep the UK flight trials of the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II combat aircraft on schedule to allow the Royal Navy (RN) to declare its full carrier strike capability, according to the senior officer of the second in the class.
Speaking ahead of the formal naming ceremony for the future HMS Prince of Wales on 8 September, Captain Ian Groom said the new carrier needed to be delivered to the navy during 2019 to allow the flight trails to continue while Queen Elizabeth is undertaking a scheduled period of certification inspections in dry dock.
“There is a further set of fixed-wing flying trials needed and HMS Prince of Wales has to carry them out,” he told Jane’s on 31 August. “HMS Queen Elizabeth’s re-certification period in 2019 means we need HMS Prince of Wales then.”
Senior naval sources told Jane’s they expected the entry into service of Prince of Wales to be more straightforward than for its sister ship. It does not require many of the first-of-class trials that are extending Queen Elizabeth’s entry into service. So after Prince of Wales is handed over, it will only require a short period of acceptance trials and then its crew will begin work-up training to allow it to reach an initial operating capability in 2020.
Martin Douglass, engineering director of the Aircraft Carrier Alliance (ACA) industrial consortium, which is building the two new 65,000-tonne carriers for the RN, told Jane’s on 31 August that they are currently “on track” to float Prince of Wales out of its dry dock next summer and begin sea trials in mid-2019.
He said the ACA was already applying lessons from the first-of-class build process and sea trials to the second carrier. This includes making improvements to the process of preparing its heat-resistant flight deck coverings and installing an improved F-35 landing light systems earlier in the build process, he said.
Comments by U.S. President Donald Trump about Finland’s fighter jet replacement program has lawmakers in that country baffled. At a joint press conference Monday with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, Trump announced that Finland had agreed to buy “a large number” of Super Hornets from Boeing.
One problem. Finland’s fighter replacement competition is still years away from selecting a winning aircraft. Finland has received responses to its request for information about fighter jets from a number of firms, which not surprisingly, were/are interested in any similar Canadian program.
Boeing provided information on its Super Hornet, Dassault Aviation gave details on the Rafale and the Eurofighter organization provided information on the Eurofighter Typhoon.
Other responses to the request came from Lockheed Martin, with its F-35, and Saab with the Gripen E. Finland’s Ministry of Defence denied Trump’s claims. It noted that the program is years away from a decision (2021 is when Finland is expected to select a winner).
“President Trump’s remarks are baffling,” Matti Vanhanen, chairman of the Finnish national parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, told Defense News.
“There are still years to run in the fighter replacement competition before a final decision is reached. If the leadership of the United States harbors the idea that the matter is a done deal, then this is not good.”
Dutch air force officers are updating their Canadian counterparts about their progress on the acquisition of F-35 fighter jets as the aircraft’s manufacturer tries to convince the Liberal government of the plane’s suitability as an interim replacement for aging CF-18s.
Lt.-Gen. Dennis Luyt, the head of the Royal Netherlands Air Force, said his organization has been providing updates to Canada on its F-35 purchase and aircrew training. “They are very interested in our experiences,” Luyt said in a recent interview.
“We’re on track,” he added. “It’s looking very promising.”
The Netherlands is purchasing the F-35A as the replacement for its F-16 fighter jets. The Dutch parliament approved an initial order of eight aircraft in March 2015.
The first aircraft are to be delivered in 2019 and Dutch pilots and maintenance crews are currently undergoing training in the U.S. The Netherlands will purchase up to 37 F-35s.
A Dutch air force F-35 was recently on display at the international air show in Abbotsford, B.C.
Luyt said if Canada does eventually buy the F-35, that acquisition would further strengthen the user group of nations operating the plane. Having allied air forces capable of being interoperable with each other is important, he added. “If we operate the same platform it’s obviously a big thing,” Luyt explained.
In a June 1 letter, Lockheed Martin offered the Liberal government the F-35 as an “interim” fighter aircraft.
Last year, the Liberals announced a proposal to buy 18 interim fighter jets from Boeing to deal with a capability gap facing the Royal Canadian Air Force. But that multibillion dollar plan to acquire Super Hornet jets has been thrown into limbo after Boeing filed a trade complaint in the U.S. against Bombardier of Quebec. The Liberal government broke off discussions with Boeing on the Super Hornet deal.
Lockheed Martin has seen opportunity in the rift and has told the Liberals it can deliver F-35s on a similar schedule that was being considered for the Boeing planes. Lockheed Martin president Marillyn Hewson said in the June 1 letter to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and then procurement minister Judy Foote, that Canada could acquire the F-35 at a cost of between $80 million U.S. and $85 million U.S. per aircraft.
Sajjan’s office stated that no decisions have been made about the interim fighter jet and that various options are being looked at.
Luyt said the Netherlands conducted an extensive process to purchase a new fighter jet. “The biggest thing we needed (was) to make a technology leap to a 5th Generation aircraft” he pointed out.
Part of the consideration in selecting the F-35 was interoperability with U.S. forces. If the Dutch air force goes into combat it will likely be with the U.S. “That (interoperability) is an important consideration but not the only one,” Luyt explained.
Every F-35 contains components manufactured by Dutch companies, Lockheed Martin has noted. On Aug. 16, the U.S. Department of Defense announced the overseas warehouse and distribution centre for parts for F-35s in Europe would be located in the Netherlands.
Luyt said one of the other main attractions of the F-35 is that it will be constantly upgraded. “It will be state of the art for decades,” he added.
Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford used his invite to the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo in Scotland to visit British bases in the area and speak with senior United Kingdom defense leaders on a wide range of defense topics.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was invited months ago by his U.K. counterpart, British Chief of Defense Staff Air Chief Marshal Stuart Peach, to visit the tattoo and take the salute from the British units participating in the event.
“I didn’t realize how big the tattoo was when I accepted,” Dunford said during an interview on a flight back to Washington. “I learned.”
The tattoo ceremony is held at the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle the month of August, and more than 210,000 attend the event with about 100 million viewing the event on TV, according to news reports.
Earlier in the day, Dunford met with British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon and Peach to discuss a full range of issues from the South Asia strategy to the situation in East Asia – specifically North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
“Both from my trip and the [positive] rhetoric that is coming out of Beijing is that the economic and political pressure is having an effect,” Dunford said. “It remains to be seen if the campaign will be successful, but there are indications that things are heading in the right direction.”
Chinese officials told North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that if he launched a missile toward Guam, he was on his own. China surprised the world by voting for sanctions against North Korea in the U.N. Security Council and now appears to be enforcing those sanctions, Dunford said.
Still, it is “much too early,” he said. “You can’t measure enforcement sanctions in weeks, but again the rhetoric has been positive from Beijing.”
Dunford also discussed opportunities for continued military-to-military engagement between the United States and the U.K. “We obviously have a very strong relationship with the U.K., and they are with us in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Dunford said.The chairman visited the future HMS Prince of Wales – a Royal Navy aircraft carrier being built in Rosyth, Scotland. The British ship will field American-built F-35B Lightning II aircraft.
“Any future fight is going to require a coalition, and interoperability is a critical and fundamental element of alliance and coalition warfare,” Dunford said. “This reflects the close nature of the alliance and bodes well for the interoperability.”
The chairman received positive feedback from the British leaders on the new strategy for South Asia announced earlier this week.
“It is fair to say that all of the nations that are currently contributing to the Resolute Support Mission, and certainly all of the nations who have been there since the very beginning like the U.K., … have received the strategy well,” Dunford said.
Coalition allies tell Dunford they believe the conditions-based approach is the right approach, “and that it will allow us all to have a longer-term horizon to assure our Afghan partners of our continuing support,” he said.
The strategy helps Afghan President Ashraf Ghani with his four-year plan to deal with corruption issues and economic development. “Instead of a one-year-at-a-time campaign, we can start to take a longer term approach and have confidence that the resources necessary to implement this longer term approach will be there,” the chairman said.
In addition to the British allies, Dunford spoke with other NATO allies, the Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, Czech Gen. Petr Pavel and other close partners. He noted that Army Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, Eucom’s commander and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, has also spoken to allies, as has Army Gen. Joe Votel, the U.S. Central Command chief.
“We’ve touched a lot of people this week and there has been universal support for the approach we are taking,” the chairman said.
Aug. 22 (UPI) — Lockheed Martin Aeronautics is receiving a $427.1 million order against an existing contract for ancillary and pilot flight equipment for F-35 Lightning II production, the Department of Defense announced on Monday.
The equipment will go toward low-rate Lot 11 F-35 construction for the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and foreign military participants in the program. The work will primarily take place in Inglewood, Calif., and White Plains, N.Y., with an expected completion date of December 2020.
The F-35 Lightning II 5th generation stealth fighter is slated to replace much of the U.S. fighter fleet and many foreign air forces. The U.S. is by far the largest customer, with an expected procurement of well over 2000 aircraft for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. Foreign customers are also expected to purchase hundreds of the aircraft, including key members of NATO.
The F-35 is the most expensive weapons program in U.S. history and has been marked by delays, cost overruns, and development problems. The Block 3F software package required to make it fully operational is still pending fixes and final verification, though Lockheed says the software issues will be resolved by the end of 2017.
The countdown is now on for the return of UK Carrier Strike. TIM ROBINSON reports from BAE Systems Warton on the behind the scenes activity to make the Lockheed Martin F-35B ready for the Royal Navy’s new Queen Elizabeth class.
In just over a year’s time, one lucky UK test pilot is set to perform a historic flight – the first landing of a new fighter aircraft on a brand-new aircraft carrier – a double first that is a major milestone. “This is the SuperBowl of flight test – a once in a lifetime opportunity,” enthuses RAF F-35B test pilot Squadron Leader Andy Edgell. The majestic entrance of HMS Queen Elizabeth into Portsmouth earlier this week and the pride and excitement surrounding it, is an indicator of the importance that the first F-35B landing on the carrier will carry.
Indeed, while next year it will be eight years since the retirement of the iconic Harrier, you have to go back over 50 years to 1963 when Hawker test pilot Bill Bedford made the first jet fighter vertical landing on an aircraft carrier on HMS Ark Royal in the P.1127. The rest, as they say, is history with the Harrier, Sea Harrier and AV-8 being adopted for shipborne operations by the UK, USMC, Italy, India, Spain and Thailand.
Fast forward to 2017 and Edgell (UK MoD First of Class Flight Trials (FOCFT) Lead Test Pilot) is one of the UK F-35B test pilots embedded into the JSF Integrated Test Force at the US Navy’s Paxutent River flight test centre in Maryland.
His role in the US, (like his colleagues Cdr Steve Crockatt (RN and Team Leader) Cdr Nath Gray (RN), Sqn Ldr Ben Hullah (RAF) and BAE Systems’ own Pete ‘Wizzer’ Wilson) as a developmental test pilot is to define the edges of the envelope, investigate handling and focus on safety.
Edgell stresses that this developmental testing (higher, faster and, occasional, slowest) is separate from the F-35 work undertaken from the RAF’s 17(R) Sqn at Edwards AFB that concentrates on weapon employment, combat tactics and how to use the fighter operationally.
This team (along with UK engineers, maintainers and support personnel from the RN, RAF and industry) have been busy this year conducting the second phase of land-based F-35B ski-jump testing at Pax River – a critical stage in proving that the F-35B is ready to go to sea in 2018. Over 70% of the ski-jumps needed have now been completed with the team working on the toughest challenges, such as maximum stores asymmetry and crosswinds (One drawback of the land-based ski jump testing at Pax River is that the team have to wait for the wind conditions to co-operate for the correct speed and direction.)
These pilots are also tasked with developing and de-risking the new Shipborne Rolling Vertical Landing (SRVL) technique which will allow higher bring-back of stores in hot climates than the traditional hover. This uses a straight-in approach with the aircraft slowing from about 140kt to approximately 60kt over the carrier’s stern – with the aircraft still getting some aerodynamic lift from the wings. As well as allowing higher bring-back weights, SRVL also has side benefits, such as reduced wear and tear on the LiftFan and less damage on the same landing deck ‘spot’ from the powerful rear-nozzle exhaust.
While some critics worry that it could be more workload-intensive in bad weather or a fouled deck, others describe it as a ‘doddle’ in the sim. One F-35B pilot is sanguine about the technique, pointing out that a short, slow landing is nothing new for land-based Harriers and observes: “In fact, if we were still operating Harriers now, we’d probably be using it”. It will thus be for Edgell, Wizzer and the rest of the team to prove this concept at sea.
STOVL comes home
Then, in the fourth quarter of 2018, off the east coast of the US will be the main event – the first F-35B at sea testing aboard the Queen Elizabeth. Edgell says that four pilots will be assigned to the task, with two aircraft to be used over two four-week periods with a break in between. With a heavy flying schedule, a break in the middle will be welcome for pilots, engineers and deck crew to keep concentration at the highest. He expects that, after getting to grips with the ship and carrier qualifications for the pilots, the first four weeks will see ski-jump take-offs and vertical landings during the day/night and with the deck dry and wet to get comfortable.
The next phase in the second four-week period, will hopefully see the SRVL testing for real, as well as more challenging testing, including stores, asymmetric loads and high-deck motion STOVL operations. Inert stores will be used in these trials, as there is no requirement to conduct the testing with live weapons or do firings “We’ve already proved live weapons will fall off this jet” says Edgell. Following these two trials next year, a third development period is scheduled some nine months later in 2019.
While this testing will mark a milestone in the RN’s next-generation Carrier Strike capability, earlier in 2018 will also see the first UK F-35Bs with 617 Sqn roar into RAF Marham. This opens a new stealth chapter in the Services history and, appropriately enough, the RAF’s 100th anniversary year. Last month (July) saw another UK aircraft (BK-11) delivered to 617 at MCAS Beaufort, with the squadron expected to have 14 by the end of this year. In another sign of a transition to a front-line operational squadron, the first four UK ab-initio pilots, direct from fast-jet training at RAF Valley have just joined the squadron. Initial Operating Capability is expected at RAF Marham by the end of 2018.
These, the final steps in a journey that started many decades ago with the question: ‘What replaces the Harrier?’ and has passed through projects like JAST, CALF, X-35/X-32 and now the JSF are thus nearing the finish line and will see the RN, RAF, MoD and industry working together to deliver the UK’s new potent carrier strike in around 2020.
Honing vertical landings in Warton
Supporting the UK developmental flight test team at Pax River is BAE Systems, where some 50+ years of Harrier experience is being brought together to make the F-35B the easiest and safest VTOL fighter ever to operate from a ship. Just opened earlier in March, BAE Systems F-35/QEC simulation facility at Warton, Lancashire is a key part in testing and de-risking fixed wing naval operations. Simulation and modelling is highly critical for the Queen Elizabeth and F-35B, not just because of the increased fidelity and processing power available but also with the UK having been out of the fixed-wing carrier game for seven years – nothing and no detail too small is being taken for granted. For example, CFD modelling of wind interaction around the distinctive twin islands is incorporated in the simulator.
The most challenging area to model, notes BAE’s David Atkinson in charge of the new facility, is in the F-35Bs transition phase between conventional wing-borne and vertical flight.
BAE says that the £2m facility, which includes a moving platform F-35 cockpit, dome visual system and a simulated QEC FLYCO (Flying Control), is its most sophisticated flight simulator yet. It uses 64 processors and 1TB RAM and allows test pilots to practice, train and rehearse safely before they even get to the ship. The inclusion of a FLYCO in the room next door also allows Royal Navy LSO (Landing Signal Officers) to experience, train and develop CONOPS in controlling F-35B launch and recovery operations. Cameras give a gyro-stabilised view of pilots’ approach with gradient and centreline guides marked. BAE is also trialling video gaming virtual reality headsets to allow LSOs to immerse themselves in a virtual FLYCO and see exactly what they would see onboard the real ship.
So, what is the value of this facility to highly experienced test pilots, some of whom have already taken the F-35B to sea, albeit on US Navy assault ships? Says Sqn Ldr Edgell: “As testers you are inherently cynical. However good the modelling is, we have to do it for real. However, it builds confidence and tells where we need to focus our efforts. It also potentially allows us to take bigger steps towards the edge of the envelope.”
Hands on with the F-35B
So, what is the F-35B like to fly? Thanks to the pioneering work of UK’s DERA (now DSTL/QinetiQ) VAAC Harrier testbeds and test pilots like Justin Paines and John Farley in developing advanced FBW software for VTOL aircraft – it is extremely simple. Whereas the Jedi-like skills are needed to control the Harrier in the hover requires movement of throttle, nozzle control and stick and has been likened to ‘balancing on the top of a pencil while needing three hands’, the F-35B’s fly-by-wire controls are just a sidestick and throttle HOTAS – with the flight computers doing all the hard work. (It is noteworthy that the UK is the only country after the US to have its own lines of code in in the F-35 software).
To assist pilots coming into land, there are two velocity vectors – a traditional one, and a ship-shaped one – showing where the ship will be. The ship’s speed is also entered into the flight management computer via the touchscreen display.
Approaching the ship from behind at around 170kt and 500ft, once at 200ft the pilot hits the ‘brake’ deceleration button and the aircraft begins slowing and transitioning to a hover, with the LiftFan engaging and the rear nozzle swivelling down for vertical flight. Once slowed down, the pilot can swing to the left side of the ship. The aircraft’s flight computers now cleverly match the ship’s speed, with the pilot pushing forward on the control sidestick (or inceptor) to go down. At 100ft and about a wingspan across from the deck, the pilot is thus ready to transition sideways over the deck, with fine hovering control being provided by the moving rear nozzle, LiftFan and the STOVL roll jets at the tips of the wings. At this point, with the flight controls engaged and the aircraft happily matching speed with the ship, the pilot can even take his (or her) hands off the controls – a move that would most likely be suicidal in the Harrier for the average squadron pilot.
Hitting another thumb switch on the HOTAS throttle engages a translational controller mode, enabling the pilot to slide across in the hover and line up with the centreline. Once in position – it is a case of pushing forward on the sidestick to a software-controlled stop to descend and put the aircraft firmly on the deck. At this point, control of the engine thrust and vertical motion has passed to the right hand, rather than the left hand – which on the first occasion is slightly disconcerting to push full forward on what is normally a pitch control, some 50ft above a deck.
Those raised on Call of Duty Xbox controllers will have no problems. Feet on the brakes and the aircraft lands itself. Effectively with these flight controls you are flying an aeroplane that cannot stall and where intuitive pull back/go up and push forward/go down still work – even when hovering. Says BAE: “The control philosophy is such that the left-hand commands go-faster / go-slower whilst the right-hand commands the aircraft to go-up / go-down and go-left / go-right. Each hand commands a response in the same axis in both wing-borne and jet-borne flight.” It is not quite the ‘take me home and land the aircraft automatically coffee bar button’ that legendary Harrier test pilot John Farley often joked about as something that a future VTOL fighter would need, but it is close.
Taking off is even simpler. Line up on the centreline for the ramp. Hold feet on brakes – move throttle to detent and then to full and it will take-off, with just rudder pedals used to keep on track. No sidestick control movements are needed – although pilots will guard the control stick with a hand.
Interestingly, for those wondering about the SRVL and stopping a heavy aircraft without an arrestor wire on a short deck, this correspondent found that the carrier’s deck proved remarkably ‘sticky’ with a fair bit of throttle needed to get the aircraft moving. BAE says the modelling in the simulator includes dry, wet and flooded decks – and it has also carried out friction studies with F-35 tyres and the deck material.
The UK – a vital part of the global F-35 supply chain
But it is not just in-flight test and simulation where the UK is deeply involved with F-35. Down the road from Warton at BAE Systems’ factory in Samlesbury is evidence of the huge industrial and supply chain involvement in this programme – with the company machining and building aft fuselages, horizontal and vertical tails for almost every F-35 made. While all eyes were on Portsmouth earlier this week, Wednesday also saw a significant industrial milestone passed for the F-35 – with the 318th rear fuselage section produced at Samlesbury rolled off the production. This represents just 10% of the final global production total.
Inside BAE’s Samlesbury facility, a highly automated, cutting-edge facility building and assembling precision components for F-35 the sheer scale of the programme is apparent. After a slow start Samlesbury is now in the middle of production ramp-up, as the F-35 programme goes into high-gear – supplying assembly lines in Fort Worth, Texas, Italy and now Japan. This year it will ship 92 aft fuselages, 78 horizontal tails and 83 vertical tails (other facilities in Australia and Canada building the difference in HT/VT and aft fuselages). This represents a 30% increase in the production rate, with another 30% increase in 2018.
This is just part of the UK’s involvement in the gigantic global F-35 programme – which eventually could see over 3,000 aircraft produced. As well as the aft empennage and wingfold for the F-35C carrier variant, BAE provides the EW system, HOTAS (or active inceptors) and vehicle management computer, as well as being the lead design authority for the fuel system, crew escape system and life support, with 1,525 people directly employed by BAE on the F-35. Looking wider, it is estimated that the F-35 will sustain some 25,000 UK jobs in 500 companies when it hits peak production rate in 2020. These range from big names like Rolls-Royce (LiftFan), Martin Baker (ejection seat) MBDA/Raytheon (UK weapons integration) to smaller SMEs.
All told, some 15% by value of the F-35 is made by UK companies. Additionally, because the UK invested early in the programme as a Tier 1 partner, it also receives royalties for every FMS F-35 sold (eg Israel and South Korea).
A hidden benefit – enhanced competitiveness
While the sheer scale of the F-35 programme will keep British companies busy for the next 30 or more years producing parts and systems, there could another useful spin off – increased global competitiveness.
For example, a machining subcontractor for BAE Systems, Hyde Aero Products based in Stockport, notes how its $7m investment in precision machining in 2006 needed to satisfy the stringent requirements of F-35, means that it is now a step or “half-step” ahead for meeting its other customers’ requirements for civil aerospace, such as Airbus. UK companies and SMEs involved in F-35 thus have all had to raise their game in precision, quality controls and even cybersecurity (and continue to do so) while driving down the cost. These exacting standards for a military stealth fighter thus may bring wider benefits for UK companies, improving their overall competitiveness on the aerospace global marketplace. The F-35’s massive production scale also means that these companies have the opportunity to hone their manufacturing skills and invest heavily for the future, in comparison perhaps with other products or aircraft where production runs are extremely low.
This is particularly important post-Brexit, when UK aerospace firms in the Airbus supply chain may have to fight harder and demonstrate enhanced levels of competitiveness to win (or retain) work on new programmes.
With Britain set to be the home for F-35 avionics MRO in Europe, sustainment and upgrades will also be key opportunities over the long life of the programme. Steve Simm, from UK defence lab DSTL, which has been involved from even before F-35 in giving independent technical evaluations, airworthiness and projects like VAAC, notes that there are three areas that might offer opportunities for the UK in future F-35 upgrades – sensors, all round survivability and interoperability. Can the UK exploit some of its aerospace and defence technology innovation to keep the F-35 at the very tip of spear over the rest of what could be a long service career?
Rough water ahead?
This is not to say that it will all be plain sailing for the UK and F-35. Questions still remain about the affordability of the full buy of 138 F-35s – particularly given that being priced in US dollars means that the jet is getting more expensive for Britain – with the MoD spending on the jet rising by 10% in the past year. Extra hidden costs, such as 200 early aircraft that need to be modified and re-worked to raise them to a common standard, also threaten to increase the price for customers.
There are also concerns about the connectivity and networking of UK F-35Bs and whether enough attention has been paid to allow it to share the vast amounts of data outside of its own circle of other Lightning IIs. Crowsnest, for example, the organic Merlin AEW is a critical part of the carrier group’s air wing and vital in exploiting the F-35’s sensor fusion. These communication and data networks are perhaps less ‘sexy’ than flying hardware itself, but all as important to get right and invest in.
Some worry too that, in the pursuit of its long-awaited two huge flagships, the RN has hollowed itself out and that it now so short of frigates and destroyers it is unable to perform even basic missions. Others argue that the rise of supersonic cruise missiles have now rendered the flatdeck obsolete. Meanwhile, some critics point that while the F-35 is certainly lucrative to UK plc, it does little to create onshore IP for Britain.
Other news might be less important, but still make for embarrassing headlines. It is ironic that a football stadium in London has reportedly more effective anti-drone jamming defences than the nation’s flagship – even if the carrier was not at sea at the time. There is also likely to negative publicity if, for example, the first operational detachment of F-35Bs on HMS Queen Elizabeth turns out to be USMC F-35Bs – despite the strong historical links between the US Marine and UK Harrier forces and cross-decking in the past.
Worth the sticker price?
Worries about the rising cost have plagued the programme from the beginning (and indeed are not unique to F-35). However, the US lead, slick marketing and opaque claims of this fighter’s secret capabilities has fuelled criticism that the jet is an expensive white elephant.
Of course, until the F-35 has blooded itself in actual combat, the jury is still out and it is difficult for external observers to judge some of the claims and counter-claims. While Lockheed Martin’s publicity machine has boasted of 10-to-1 kill ratios in classified simulations, the results of the F-35’s combat effectiveness in mock battles are now leaking out into the real world, as the jet matures, more pilots fly it and it takes part in more joint exercises.
One example – earlier this year at the first outing of the USAF F-35As at Red Flag saw one morning where a glitch in the cryptography codes meant that no F-35As could fly that day. Having raised the simulated threat levels to give the F-35As a peer-level challenge, the result, says LM, was that flying without F-35As that day, the rest of the entire ‘legacy’ Blue Force was massacred outright.
Other Red Flag exercises with the USMC F-35B also are backing up these results and hint, that if anything, that estimated kill ratios in favour of the Lightning II may have been underestimated. It is worth noting, that Red Flag and similar exercises are designed to provide pilots with the most challenging threat scenarios that (short of aliens invading) can be imagined. In the past, pilots have reported that, apart from enemies with live weapons, actual combat seemed to them ‘easier’ that the final punishing Red Flag scenario.
Today’s sophisticated PC simulations, such as CMANO, (though using unclassified data), can also help explain why, being on the receiving end of a stealth fighter is (in the words of one player) like ‘being in a dark room with a tentacled monster while it decides which orifice to explore’.
However, it is important to remember that stealth is not just a LO airframe but a combination of aircraft and tactics. It is here where the UK’s unique access and position, (not only in the industrial, flight test and development areas) will pay off, in helping to shape the tactics that will enable operators of the F-35 to dominate tomorrows battlespace. As new UK Lightning Force Commander, Air Commodore David Bradshaw, RAF observes: “We have played a fundamental role within the F-35 programme, the world’s largest single defence programme. As the only Level 1 partner we have had incredible influence and access”.
Finally, there is the changed geopolitical environment that the UK and other partner air forces now find themselves in. A decade ago, with a focus on COIN and Afghanistan, it may well have been a valid question as to why Britain needed an expensive stealth fighter to strike an enemy without an air force. Today, that certainty has changed and peer and near-peer threats and competitions are evolving fast – along with the proliferation of advanced radars, SAMs and fighter weapon systems. The Baltics, Ukraine, Syria, the South China Sea, Korea and even the Arctic are now actual and potential flashpoints of the future. Who knows where the HMS Queen Elizabeth, PoW and their F-35s will sail in the future in the next half century?
The return of Carrier Strike marks a new chapter for the UK. Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales will give the country a multirole floating airbase, able to project power, deploy transport and attack helicopters and operate fixed wing aircraft – and, most probably one day, UAVs.
While the F-35 is by itself impressive as the first exportable ‘fifth generation’ stealth fighter – the F-35B should be recognised as a British engineering marvel. It is a supersonic stealth strike fighter that goes to sea – all enabled by British developed and designed STOVL technology, flight controls and the R-R LiftFan.
Some might argue, that the B model is the runt of the litter, with a reduced range and payload compared to As or Cs. However, it is notable that Israel, Singapore and Taiwan (as well as the UK, USMC and Italy who are acquiring the B) have all been mentioned as having an interest in the STOVL model. In this age of precision missiles able to easily target runways and hangars with almost 100% accuracy, could the ultra-flexible B variant one day, be the only jet fighter that a country is able to operate from small pieces of concrete while other airbases are filled with smoking wreckage?
The road has been a long one and is not over yet but, finally Great Britain is set to return to its place as a foremost exponent of naval air power. The UK, which in the post-WW2 era invented the carrier angled deck and landing mirror – making jet carrier aviation at sea viable, along with the iconic jump jet which provided a flexibility never seen before, is thus on the final circuit and approach to Carrier Strike. Indeed, it needs to be remembered that smaller, cheaper Harrier and Invincible class were originally consolation prizes for the supersonic, radar-equipped Hawker P.1154 jump-jet and the RN’s CVA-01 super carrier being axed in the 1960s. Half a century later, with F-35B and Queen Elizabeth, the wheel has come full circle.
One would like to imagine, that a certain famous Scottish naval test pilot, now sadly no longer with us, will be watching that first landing with a twinkle in his eye.
ARLINGTON, Va. — The Navy is looking at ways to accelerate the phase-out of F/A-18C “Classic” Hornet strike fighters from its carrier air wings and replacing the last few squadrons with F/A-18E Super Hornets, a Navy spokeswoman said.
“As we balance operational requirements and our initiatives to build the most capable and ready forward-deployed force, we are identifying the most efficient and effective way to safely transition the last four Navy operational Hornet squadrons to Super Hornets,” Cmdr. Jeannie Groeneveld, public affairs officer for commander, Naval Air Forces, said in an e-mail to Seapower.
“In order to provide our most capable warfighting force forward, the Navy began the first of the final transitions of our four operational F/A-18C Hornet squadrons to F/A-18E Super Hornet squadrons in July, with an expected completion in [fiscal] ’19. Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 131, was the first of the four squadrons to begin the transition last month.”
The other three F/A-18C squadrons, all based at Naval Air Station Oceana, Va., are VFA-34, VFA-37 and VFA-83.
“Accelerating the transition to Super Hornets will allow cost savings and reduce depot maintenance workload,” Groeneveld said. “As the Navy approaches the end of the extended service life for Hornets, the cost per flight hour continues to increase. Additionally, there are shortages in the Department of the Navy’s spare parts and supply system that have contributed to flight line readiness challenges, as well as our ability to extend the service lives of these airframes.”
She also said the transitions give the Navy the opportunity to select its best-condition Hornets for use by the Marine Corps and by Navy support and reserve units, such as Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center, Fighter Composite Squadron 12, Reserve squadron VFA-204 and the Navy’s Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels.
The Navy is confident it will be able to continue to support all operational requirements as it completes transition of the Hornet fleet to Super Hornets,” she said.
Congress has supported the Navy’s requirements for increased Super Hornet procurement to bridge the gap to the fleet introduction of the F-35C Lightning II strike fighter. The first fleet squadron to make the transition to the F-35C will be VFA-147 in 2018.
Last year, the Liberals announced a proposal to buy 18 interim fighter jets from Boeing to deal with a capability gap facing the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Lockheed Martin has offered the Liberal government the F-35 as an “interim” fighter aircraft, a move sure to turn up the heat on rival U.S. aerospace firm Boeing still embroiled in a trade dispute with Canada.
Last year, the Liberals announced a proposal to buy 18 interim fighter jets from Boeing to deal with a capability gap facing the Royal Canadian Air Force. But that multibillion dollar plan to acquire Super Hornet jets has been thrown into limbo after Boeing filed a trade complaint in the U.S. against Bombardier of Quebec.
The Liberal government broke off discussions with Boeing on the Super Hornet deal.
But Lockheed Martin has seen opportunity in the rift between Canada and Boeing and has officially offered its F-35 as an interim aircraft to supplement the RCAF’s aging CF-18 jets. Lockheed has long contended the F-35 is more cost effective and more advanced than the Super Hornet.
Asked about the Lockheed Martin offer, Matthew Luloff, a spokesman with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s office, responded that the federal government continues “to explore many options to provide an interim solution to supplement the CF-18s until the permanent replacement is fully operational.”
“We have not yet made a decision,” he added in an email. “Discussions must demonstrate that the interim fleet is appropriately capable and can be obtained at a cost, schedule, and economic value that are acceptable to Canadians.”
Lockheed Martin has noted that it continues to provide the Canadian government with updated information on the maturity of the F-35 program and the operational status of the jet.
The F-35 will be showcased Aug. 11-13 in Canada at the airshow at Abbotsford, B.C. The U.S. Air Force will be flying the plane at the show and F-35s from the Netherlands will be making their first appearance in Canada.
The Boeing Super Hornet will also appear at the air show. Boeing declined to comment about Lockheed Martin’s offer to the Canadian government on providing F-35s as interim aircraft.
Boeing was well on its way to wrap up the deal to provide Canada with the 18 Super Hornets. That was expected to be completed by the end of the year and cost between $5 billion and $7 billion.
But in April, Boeing complained to the U.S. government that Quebec-based Bombardier was receiving subsidies, which in turn allowed it to sell its C-Series civilian passenger aircraft at below-market prices. Boeing convinced the U.S. Commerce Department and International Trade Commission to launch an investigation into Bombardier.
That prompted the Liberals to start backing away from a Super Hornet deal with Boeing, although federal officials acknowledged they were still talking with the U.S. government over acquiring fighter aircraft. “It is not the behaviour of a trusted partner,” Sajjan said of Boeing in an unprecedented speech in late May to defence industry executives.
The interim jets would be used to help bridge the gap until a new replacement fleet for Canada’s CF-18 fleet can be purchased. The Liberals have said they will buy 88 new jets to replace the CF-18s.
The previous Conservative government had committed Canada to buying the F-35 but backed off that promise as the aircraft became controversial because of increased costs and technical issues.
Canada, however, still remains a partner in the F-35 program and Canadian firms have contributed a large amount of equipment and parts to the stealth fighter.
But buying F-35 jets for the interim fighter aircraft program would potentially be embarrassing for the Liberals. During the election campaign, Justin Trudeau vowed his government would never buy the F-35. As prime minister, Trudeau later claimed the F-35 “does not work.”
Boeing has declined a Canadian government request to drop its complaint against Bombardier. Boeing has said it considers the issue a commercial matter.
But Boeing’s actions run a risk for the aerospace company that wants to continue to do more defence business in Canada, analysts say.