Three years down the line

It’s been three years since I wrote anything on this thread, but it’s not down to laziness or that I’ve run out of ideas. It’s more that the F35B is now firmly established with the RAF and is even flying off the new aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth, so I can no longer extol the virtues of the Harrier against the Lightning, because it ain’t ever coming back.

Yes, the Harrier was a marvellous piece of engineering and performed very well in its over 40 years of RAF/RN service, and comparisons are still being made with what the UK calls the Lightning and the US calls the F35A, B or C. The arguments about the F35 have raged over the last 5 years about its efficacy, performance, price and value, but I have to concede that after all this time, it is at least equal to the Harrier in some respects, and better at others. I doubt it the F35 was ever envisaged to be taken in to a muddy field and flown off of PSP planking like the Harrier, but then it was never intended to do so. In fact I’m not sure if it was ever meant for rough field or uneven surface handling, but I could be wrong. It performs admirably taking off from a metal runway or carrier, but is still susceptible to attack on the ground. At least the Harrier could, in certain circumstances, take off vertically and fly away; the F35 can’t do that. It’s more of STOVL aircraft, and whether the Harrier was a true STOL aircraft could be open to debate. It couldn’t take off vertically with more than 500 lb of fuel and no weapons, but could take off from a short runway with maybe 2000 lb and weapons hanging off the pylons. The F35 by contrast has enormous carrying capacity and a dazzling array of weapons. But the comparisons must stop, the Harrier is dead, long live the F35 to paraphrase the crowning ceremony of royalty.

The F35 has proved itself in combat and is now in the lexicon of the RAF, who are now down to just two combat aircraft; the Typhoon and the LIghtning. Compare this to a time not many years ago, when we had: Tornado, Harrier, Buccaneer, Phantom, and the old Lightning, all around at the same time, but all doing a specific job. That we’ve got just two aircraft performing all the jobs that were done before is perhaps testament to the designers, who have been helped with new technologies which could only be dreamed of a few years ago. The F35 will possibly be in service for 50 years, but will it be needed in the not too distant future?

Drones or autonomous aircraft are big business now. Who can remember when in the late 50s Duncan Sandys, defence minister, produced his master plan for the RAF that manned aircraft were old hat and everything would be covered by missiles. That didn’t last long, mainly because the missiles of the time were solidly ground based and were not what you would call ‘mobile’, but our responsibilities were spread around the world so missiles were not really a good plan. At the time we had the Javelin, Lightning, Canberra and Hunter which were state of the art at the time, and were threatened with being scrapped. They weren’t and the defence of the country went back to the tried and trusted (at the time) of interceptors and long range bombers for the nuclear deterrent. But I digress, drones are used extensively but are not the end of the road for manned combat aircraft, just a additional aid to their task.

With the F35 being well established as the UK’s premier all purpose combat fighter/bomber/interdictor supplemented by the Typhoon, it seems the UK’s defence needs are well covered for the foreseeable future. When we get the balance of the order, which may take up to 2030 to receive all 138 on order, we will be well set to defend the country which is, after all, the main job of any government.

RAF F35s in echelon

The view from down under

With aknowledgement to the National Interest.

The F-35: A Big Mistake or Wonder Weapon?

Brendan Nicholson

March 1, 2017

Perhaps apocryphal, the story goes that a senior US Air Force officer on the Joint Strike Fighter Program found himself sitting next to a Chinese general. ‘I like your aeroplane,’ the General said. That’s nice,’ said the American, How many would you like?’ The general smiled and raised a single finger. ‘Just one,’ he said.

While China has long been concerned enough about the JSF’s capabilities to have plundered its plans in cyber files in the hope of reverse engineering it, critics in Australia have created the broad impression that the aircraft, now officially named the F-35 Lightning ll, is a ‘dog’. That criticism was loud enough to trigger a parliamentary inquiry into whether the RAAF should buy the JSF.

The Senate inquiry, concluded that ‘… the F-35A is the only aircraft able to meet Australia’s strategic needs for the foreseeable future, and that sufficient progress is being made in the test and evaluation program to address performance issues of concern.’ Its report also said that ‘in light of the serious problems that led to a re-baselining of the F-35 program in 2012, and the ongoing issues identified by the US Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, the committee retains a healthy skepticism towards assurances by Defense regarding cost, schedule and capability outcomes of the F-35A.’

That reflected the long held view of the director of ASPI’s defense and strategic program, Dr Andrew Davies, that while the early years of the JSF program were plagued by cost overruns and schedule slippages it had performed much better since action was taken to tighten it up. Costs were now coming down and the production schedule was stabilising.

The committee gave little credence to more extravagant assertions the JSF was outdated and would be outperformed by potential rivals.

It’s often claimed that the RAAF would be better off with the US F-22 Raptor, a bigger, twin-engine cousin of the F-35 produced in the 1990s. In reality, the F-22 is an air superiority fighter very good at clearing the skies of enemy aircraft but not designed to do other tasks as well as the JSF can. It was expensive to buy and operate and the assembly line closed years ago.

The JSF is a multi-purpose aircraft, designed for many roles, from achieving air superiority to sinking enemy warships, attacking targets on the ground and providing close air support for troops. It is, in the words of Group Captain Glen Beck who heads the RAAF’s Air Combat Transition Office, an all rounder—‘a flying batsman/bowler’. The head of the RAAF’s JSF Capability and Sustainment Group, Air Vice Marshal Leigh Gordon, says the Raptor is ‘a wonderful, dated aeroplane which we couldn’t have even if we wanted it.’ The JSF is much more sophisticated with about 8.5 million lines of computer code compared to fewer than 2 million in the F-22.

Donald Trump caused consternation by suggesting that, to wind back Lockheed-Martin’s cost overruns, he’d ask Boeing if it could produce an alternative. But within days, the new Defence Secretary, James Mattis, told a US Senate hearing ‘the JSF is critical for our own air superiority’ because of the jet’s electronics which magnifies its capability. Mr Trump just wanted to bring the price down to get ‘best bang for the buck’, General Mattis said. In truth, the decisions needed to reduce the price were made years ago.

Various prices have been claimed for the RAAF’s JSFs, ranging up to $300 million each. The head of the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Project Office, US Air Force Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, said in Australia this week that he was confident the price of each jet—we have 72 on order—would come down to $80 million each. That’s close to the price tag of a much-less sophisticated fourth-generation fighter.

In 2010, alarms rang in the US bureaucracy because the project was running well over budget and two years late. It was ‘rebaselined’ and largely brought under control.

The project is staggeringly complex and it is still having issues but the Americans and the RAAF are confident the fighter will work very well. One recent problem was that the designers had to abandon the guided weapon intended to hit moving ground targets because it was a form of cluster munition which the US no longer uses. A replacement is being worked on.

As well, there’s a delay in producing a suitable anti-ship missile for Australia’s needs. One is being worked on by the Norwegians and Australian defense scientists are developing a sensor for it.

Gordon says the problems are being solved as they emerge and he’s confident the RAAF’s JSFs will meet the new schedule, with the first aircraft arriving in December 2018 and three squadrons and a training unit fully operational in 2023.

© The National Interest 2017

So, F35 or Typhoon?

No this is not a direct comparison between the two aircraft. But it has to be said: The best aircraft the RAF (other forces are available), is the current multi role Typhon FGR4. It has been the RAFs workhorse for over 10 years and has proved itself in many theatres of operation. What has this to do with the F35, I hear you ask? Well the Typhoon is (with a nod to European aircraft manufacturers), a home built and supported aircraft that Trumpland has no control over. 

However the F35 is totally controlled and built by American manufacturers and the US government. Now, this could present a problem if the spams decide that countries outside their control want to a) modify or b) resell the F35, will not be allowed to do so. This restriction would not of course apply to ‘our’ Typhoon, so it begs the question; if the POTUS decides we ain’t going to get the knowledge, we ain’t gonna get it, end of. Which begs the question what happens when we get involved in conflict with, let’s say, nations east of the UK, and F35s need information from Lockheed et al to fix some of our aircraft, and it’s refused?

New station for the MC F35

​(With thanks to ‘The National Interest’)

The U.S. Military’s $1 Trillion F-35 Stealth Fighter Is Heading to Japan for a Very Special Mission

Deter China. 

Dave Majumdar 

The United States Marine Corps has started to forward deploy its first operational squadron of Lockheed Martin F-35B Joint Strike Fighters overseas to Japan. The unit, the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing’s Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121)a left  its base in Yuma, Arizona, for its new home at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni on Jan. 9, 2017.

“The transition of VMFA-121 from MCAS Yuma to MCAS Iwakuni marks a significant milestone in the F-35B program as the Marine Corps continues to lead the way in the advancement of stealth fighter attack aircraft,” reads a Marine Corps statement. [3]

Permanently basing the F-35 in Asia for its first overseas posting not only highlights the United States commitment to Asia and to the security alliance with Japan, but it also serves as a deterrent against China’s growing power. In the coming years, as Chinese air defenses become increasingly potent, stealth aircraft such as the F-35 are going to be the only means of penetrating Beijing’s airspace in the event of a war. Moreover, the Marine F-35Bs will afford Japan—which is also buying the conventional takeoff version of the aircraft—an opportunity to operate alongside American forces before its own jets enter operational service.

The Marine Corps initiated plans to move VMFA-121 to Japan in 2012 when the service designated the unit to become the Pentagon’s first operational F-35 unit. In the inventing years, the unit transitioned from the Boeing F/A-18 Hornet to the short take-off/vertical landing STOVL) F-35B with initial operational capability being declared on July 31, 2015, with an interim configuration called Block 2B.

The Block 2B configuration offers marginal combat capability, with the ability to carry two AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles and either a pair of GBU-12 500lbs laser-guided bombs or a pair of GBU-32 1000lbs Joint Direct Attack Munitions. It also offers a limited flight envelope and limited software and sensor capability, but flying the interim configuration affords the Marines a chance to learn how to operate the jets in combat. Moreover, it allows the Marines—who skipped a generation of combat aircraft—to recapitalize a rapidly aging tactical aviation fleet.

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin is continuing development work on the final Block 3F configuration of the F-35 and the Pentagon is drawing up plans for the next upgrade, Block 4. The Marine Corps, the next step is to operationally deploy at sea onboard an amphibious assault ship in 2018. The Navy and the F-35 tested the aircraft onboard USS America (LHA-6) last October. “The final test period ensured the plane could operate in the most extreme at-sea conditions, with a range of weapons loadouts and with the newest software variant,” a Marine Corps statement reads. “Data and lessons learned laid the groundwork for developing the concepts of operations for F-35B deployments aboard U.S. Navy amphibious carriers, the first two of which will take place in 2018.”

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar

The Trumpater

As alluded to in other posts , the President Elect has had a lot to say about many subjects but there is one that is causing undercurrents of dissent amongst the military and defence contractors.

He wants to ‘scrap’the F35 and will ask Boeing to produce a ‘Super’ F18. This reminds of other governments scrapping large projects, and then buying in something else years later when they realise they needed it after all. Need I say ‘Nimrod” and ‘Rivet Joint’ in the same sentence? Like our esteemed (no, not really) Tory government who scrapped the Nimrod MRA4 because of ‘cost overruns’ and extended development time, then five years later; bought an even older airframe (Nimrod Vs B707) to replace the Dimsod after leaving our shores unprotected for a considerable period; Trump says he wants to scrap the trillion dollar F35 and replace it with an airframe from the 70’s. As the website Foxtrot Alpha said:

The problem with wanting to go ahead and start saving money on the F-35 now is that, for the most part, the time to speak up was 20 years ago. Much of the trail of its bloated cost can be found in its tortured development, which itself was borne out of a deeply strange requirement. The one F-35 platform was supposed to replace a bountiful variety of planes, ranging from the fast and light F-16 Viper, to the hovering AV-8B Harrier II, to the massively armoured flying gun known as the A-10 Warthog.

So it seems they have a handle on what Trump is asking for. Of course to scrap the F35 now would be complete folly, especially as it has been ordered and partnered by 10 or more other countries besides the States, and Lockheed claim that ‘5000’ units will be ordered worldwide, which in anyone’s order book is a lot of hooley. One other side of international sales which hasn’t been taken into consideration is that the Department of Defense has stated that computer codes for the repair of the many the computer controlled equipments in the F35 would not be released to third parties, and that all such repairs would be carried out in US. This is in accordance with the ITAR codes which stipulate that any item of defence equipment sold abroad can not have any of its internal circuits available in workshop manuals for use by ‘foreign nationals’. This is because the US is maniacal about such information getting in to the wrong hands like the Russians or Chinese. It even affected the old Harrier fleet, in that ANY component which contained anything made or developed in the US, is subject to ITAR regulations. So, for example a British made component like a circuit board with for example a resistor on it that was made in the US; the whole board is subject to ITAR despite it being British made. This made it very awkward for the military and Defence Contractors who could get fined thousands of dollars for infringing ITAR. ITAR stands for International Traffic in Arms Regulations incidentally. So, the whole F35 program could be in jeopardy if 2nd tier repair organisations aren’t allowed to repair US sourced kit.

Back to Don and his fanciful ideas; it’s been stated by defense experts that the F18 would ‘never’ be able to upgraded enough to be a contender to compete with the F35s capabilities. Scrapping would cost the US economy, and any other country involved in its development and purchase a lot of angst, and also leave them without air cover for many years until an alternative can be introduced, which judging by the 20 year gestation of the F35 could leave many countries in a parlous position.

For better or worse the F35 HAS to go ahead and get into service for the sake of 1) employment in all the countries involved, 2) the horrendous cost of a replacement and most importantly 3) the lack of combat aircraft to protect ourselves.

 

Landing gear or not…?

With thanks to ‘Foxtrot Alpha’ for this:

(Not sure how true but seems plausible, unless of course you know better)

The F-35 is a tour de force of bleeding edge military technology. But it violently jars its pilots and knocks their displays out of view on takeoff, as a new government report examines. Now the multi-trillion dollar plane needs its landing gear fixed or completely replaced.

At issue is not just the F-35C’s landing gear, it’s also the F-35’s $400,000 super helmets that have so much enhanced-view overlaid information that they might as well have x-ray vision.

This is not a light helmet; at just over five pounds, it’s too heavy to be worn safely by small pilots. But it’s also a critical part of the F-35’s design, so it’s not what was recommended for revision by the Department of Defense and its “red team” started last September to address this issue. Fix the F-35C’s landing gear, the red team advised, or replace it entirely.

PopSci laid out how these two solutions could look:

The “red team”—typically a group created within an organization to challenge existing assumptions with new ideas—recommended a slate of actions with short, medium and long-term timelines. Short and medium term options range from changing the restraint system for pilots to modifying the nose landing gear. Longer term options include modifications to the aircraft carriers themselves or a redesign of the F-35C’s landing gear, which would take one to three years to complete.

It’s not clear how much of a delay this will cause in the F-35 program, but it doesn’t look great.

BBC News: US F35 fighters to deploy from Royal Navy aircraft carrier

US F35 fighters to deploy from Royal Navy aircraft carrier – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-38336101

US and Royal Navy F35B to operate together from HMS Queen Elizabeth? Well, no surprises there then.

 To be fair, RN personnel have been embedded with the US Navy for some time in the States, and have operated on board US Carriers with some success. It’s a good job then because when the new carriers cone into service, the R N will have to hit the floor running. When the F35B is released to service in 2018, it will have been 8 years since the RN operated fixed wing combat aircraft since the demise of the Harrier. So we could assume at least a year to work up both man and machine to become a lean, mean fighting machine. One of the problems though is recruitment, since the Navy is most affected by lack of new recruits, and the UK services generally are being cut back by successive governments. It makes one wonder if, when the HMS QE and the F35B are fully integrated whether her majesties government will increase the defence budget or as is likely it will stay the same or decrease, making it even more difficult to recruit new service personnel? The hoo-ha and trumpeting by various defence ministers are good sound bites, but they don’t bring about a call to arms.Then there is the Trump effect, how much is he for the military? He doesn’t like the last three Presidents have any military background, so is he going to be gung ho to rid Syria of IS with our or others help? The juries still out.

Show of strength?

Video of F35 taking off and landing on a US aircraft carrier:

F35 Carrier Testing

So, the US Navy placed 12 F35Bs on a carrier and flew them off to show and test themselves how they would work within the context of carrier borne operations.  Good for them, it looked successful and the aircraft seemed to perform to expectations.

One thing I don’t get though, watching the take offs, is what are the long term stresses which are placed on that forward intake door during take off? That panel is an accident waiting to happen. It’s too late now but the Harrier design had everything being used during all phases of flight, yet the F35 carries over a ton of dead hovering weight during forward flight. What possible design concept thought that this would be a good thing to do? We’re stuck with it now.All power to the USAF for getting this trial going. But I still wonder about that front intake door.