A Russian Air Force bomber skidded off the runway in western Russia.
On Sept. 14, 2017, a Russian Air Force Tu-22М3 RF-94233 / 20 “RED” suffered an incident when it overran the runway at Shaykovka airfield, in western Russia. On the very same date a flight of six Backfire bombers flew a mission over the Baltic Sea that, according to our sources, was probably aimed at simulating a naval attack on the Baltic Fleet.
The ADEX (Air Defense Exercise) was part of the larger “Zapad 2017,” the anti-terror military drills (with purely defensive aims according to the Russian MoD) taking place in Belarus and three regions in the western part of Russia from Sept. 14-20 and involving about 12.7K troops (including 7.2K of Belarusian troops, about 5.5K Russian troops and 3K of them – on the territory of Belarus), about 70 aircraft and helicopters, up to 680 pieces of military hardware including about 250 tanks, up to 200 guns, MLRSs and mortars as well as 10 warships.
The Tu-22 is a Soviet-era supersonic, swing-wing, long-range strategic and maritime strike bomber. It was developed during the Cold War and, with a range of about 6,800 kilometers and a payload of 24,000 kg, it is still considered a significant threat to many latest generations weapon systems: a fast platform to launch cruise missiles, conventional or nuclear weapons in various regional war scenarios.
Especially when it carries the Raduga Kh-22 (AS-4 ‘Kitchen’) long-range anti-ship missile, a 13,000-lbs a missile with a range of 320 nautical miles, the Tu-22 can be “useful” to aim at aircraft carriers and to pursue an anti-access/area denial strategy.
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.
RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — The U.S. Air Force has yet to stand up a squadron of F-35s in Europe, but it’s already working on how to integrate the fifth-generation combat jet with some of its closest allies in the region.
U.S. Air Forces in Europe this week brought together about 50 senior military fliers and planners from eight nations, all with a stake in the newest and most expensive fighter aircraft on the block.
The two-day forum on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter served to promote cooperation among the U.S. and its European counterparts that are already flying the plane or plan to do so. The goal was to share lessons learned and build common approaches that will support integrated flying operations in Europe in the future.
“We have to find a way to nest it all together,” said Gen. Tod Wolters, USAFE and Air Forces Africa commander.
“At the end of the day, if we can say this is something that we’re fusing into the system … we’re in a great place,” he told the group, which included fighter pilots, base commanders and chiefs of staff. The Army, NATO and the Marine Corps also sent representatives, as did Lockheed Martin, the F-35 Lightning II manufacturer.
The forum, which concluded late Thursday, was the first of its kind in Europe, officials said. It followed a similar conference held in March in the Pacific, where Japan, South Korea and Australia have all purchased the F-35.
Joining the U.S. at the European forum were Israel, Italy, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Turkey. Those nations have all purchased the aircraft. Israel and Italy are the first to be flying the plane in the region.
“We like to remind (people that) Italy was the first nation to fly the airplane overseas, across the Atlantic, so we are very proud of that,” said Maj. Gen. Aurelio Colagrande, chief of staff of Italy’s air command, noting that his country’s air force currently has three F-35s in its inventory.
The aircraft has had problems, he said, but that’s to be expected from a “brand-new machine.”
Despite those challenges, “we are very confident that the F-35 is a very capable airplane and all the issues that we are having right now will be solved in the future,” he said.
In the States, too, the F-35 program has been beset by technical and other problems. Most recently, F-35A flight operations at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., were temporarily paused last month when some pilots experienced symptoms similar to hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation.
The U.S. is expected to spend nearly $400 billion to buy about 2,443 aircraft, making it the Pentagon’s most expensive procurement program in history. President Donald Trump, Sen. John McCain and other prominent critics of the program have assailed its budget overruns.
But Lockheed Martin officials said Thursday the company is continuing to drive down costs because of manufacturing efficiencies gained through increased production rates. They expect to drop the cost for one aircraft to $85 million in 2019, about the same price tag as a fourth-generation fighter, said Bob Dulaney, a Lockhead Martin aeronautics representative.
The cost for the Air Force version of the plane fell below $100 million for the first time earlier this year, according to a February report in The New York Times.
The U.S. Air Force in Europe is still on track to stand up its first squadron overseas at Royal Air Force Lakenheath in 2020, said Col. Todd Canterbury, director of Headquarters Air Force F-35 Integration Office.
“Facilities are under construction as we speak,” he said, “as well as other infrastructure that comes with adding two more squadrons.”
It’s been a long time since the U.S. and some of its European allies and partners gained a new aircraft system around the same time, said Maj. Gen Timothy Fay, USAFE-AFAFRICA vice commander.
“Bringing the F-35 into this theater will really change the way we do business here in a way that we probably haven’t seen for decades,” Fay said.