Joint Strike Fighter

F-35 update – don’t believe everything you read

Byline: Kym Bergmann / Canberra

Most people are aware that bad news sells newspapers far better than good news. That’s human nature – try it for yourself. Describe to your friends the wonderful holiday you have just experienced and even the politest of them will tune out after a few minutes of boredom. But describe delayed flights, missing luggage, food poisoning and hotels run by treacherous dirty foreigners and your audience will be riveted for hours.

So, too, with some of the media coverage of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Total flight test hours for 2012 ahead of plan (though not on all variants) – yawn. Successful weapons release trials – boring. Delivery of the first two export aircraft to the UK – ho hum. But then: minor cracks detected in a bulkhead flange on the underside of the ‘B’ model fuselage after 7,000 hours of static testing – OMG! The sky is falling! Quick – blame someone!

It is worth pointing out that the design life of the Joint Strike Fighter is 8,000 hours, so this sort of cracking – if it had been uncorrected – would have started to occur after 20 or more years of aircraft operations. As it happens, a fix has already been designed and testing of it will resume at any moment.

The most extreme examples of stupidity come, of course, from sections of the UK tabloid media. On January 21 in true “ the Earth is about to collide with dark planet Nibiru” style, the Daily Mail – surprisingly not owned by Rupert Murdoch – declared:
New £150million combat jet is banned from flying in bad weather because it could EXPLODE
Apart from the complete absurdity regarding the price, the truth about this matter – along with many others – is far more prosaic, with a Lockheed Martin spokesperson explaining:
“The F-35 program has yet to formally test for lightning protection. We still have 4 years of Developmental Test ahead of us, before we actually begin formal Operational Testing. There is a plan in place for lightning testing to be completed in the future test plan, and for the jet to be appropriately equipped to fly in all weather. The plan is to conduct lightning test towards the end of the flight test program. Because the testing has not be completed to date, we therefore have a lightning restriction of 25 miles at present for flight operations – this is obviously the safe, and sensible way to do business and supported by all involved in the program.”
For any reader who might be thinking, “they would say that, wouldn’t they”, the view regarding lightning testing is also shared by the RAAF. And they are actually in a very good position to know, because as it turns out the Defence Science & Technology Organisation (DSTO) is intimately involved in this aspect of F-35 development.

This is not to say that the F-35 is fault free. It is not. The aircraft is only one third the way through its total flight test program; initial software releases lack features meaning that the F-35 is not yet combat-ready; the revolutionary pilot’s helmet needs some fine tuning and so on. However, trying to look at the program overall, nothing has emerged that constitutes a fundamental design weakness in the aircraft – nor have any problems yet been discovered that suggest the critical aspects of the performance envelope will not be achieved.
The most recent round of negative media reports stem from the release of the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test Evaluation into the F-35. This annual report is something like an ANAO study – it seeks to objectively record progress and identifies areas of concern. It cannot take into account changes already made to the program as a result of its investigation – many of which have indeed already taken place. The report also records positives and provides an explanation for events, such as aspects of flight testing:

“Through November 2012, the flight test teams were able to exceed the flight rate planned for flight sciences in the F-35Band F-35C variants, but were slightly behind the plan for theF-35A. The program did not accomplish the intended progress in achieving test objectives (measured in flight test points planned for 2012) for all variants. Certain test conditions were unachievable due to unresolved problems and new discoveries. The need for regression testing of fixes (repeat testing of previously accomplished points with newer versions of software) displaced opportunities to meet flight test objectives.”
“To compensate for not being able to achieve the baseline test points planned for 2012, the test team moved up test points planned for completion in later years, and was thereby able to nearly keep pace with overall cumulative SDD test point objectives. For example, the Block 2B flight envelope includes operations with the weapons bay doors open. The program discovered dynamic flight loads on portions of the open doors were higher than expected, requiring additional instrumentation and testing. The test team substituted other test points, which were available from Block 3 envelope plans for 2013 that did not require the doors open.”
In other words, the flight test schedule is dynamic and needs to be modified to fit changing circumstances.
Another area of continuous misreporting or misunderstanding is regarding the selling price of the aircraft. All too frequently – for example in the ridiculous Daily Mail headline quoted earlier – people look at the figure agreed on for a batch of Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP) aircraft and by a process of long division come to the conclusion that each F-35 is massively expensive. This completely overlooks the fact that once the aircraft enter full rate production at some future point, the unit cost will fall dramatically. The latest annual batch of aircraft (LRIP 5) have just been negotiated about 4% less than the previous LRIP 4 batch, and LRIP 6 is expected to continue that trend. Some commentators also conveniently overlook the economic reality of inflation – if an object (say, a pencil) cost $1.00 to buy in 2005, the same thing eight years later might cost $1.20. This is not a 20% cost blow out, nor is it a budget overrun. It is an escalation based on economic fundamentals. If ever the world entered into a period of massive deflation, then one could reasonably expect the cost of an F-35 to also fall should its components and labor costs diminish significantly.
Lockheed Martin’s infinitely patient retiring program manager Tom Burbage must have explained this a million times and that fact that he has never gone berserk with an axe during a media conference is a minor miracle.
On the other hand, what could have a genuine impact on the cost of building the aircraft – and consequently on its selling price – is the numbers that are purchased. The smaller that number becomes, the more unit cost increases because fewer platforms exist over which to recoup development expenses. An overall reduction in aircraft numbers also hurts the massive economies of scale that the F-35 was originally based on.
In this area there is genuine cause for concern – though there is not a lot that a relatively small purchaser such as Australia can do about it. The United States in particular is facing enormous financial pressure because of the need to reduce its annual budget deficit and so start to make inroads into its $16 trillion (and growing) debt burden. A tempting option might well be for Pentagon planners to hack a few hundred F-35s from their order book. If this happens, the unit cost of each jet will certainly increase.
Meanwhile, the RAAF is continuing to plan for the arrival of F-35s in accordance with the Government’s delayed schedule. The first two aircraft are starting to come together and will be on Lockheed Martin’s assembly line at Fort Worth in 2014. After certification they will be flown to Luke Air Force Base, in sunny Arizona.
While the RAAF has not yet selected its first cadre of trainers, it has worked out its methodology. The first group to gain experience on the RAAF F-35s will be experienced F-18 pilots, who will go on to become instructors. Later groups will have a mix of experience levels to ensure that a ‘balanced’ squadron can be formed.
In this manner the RAAF is planning to standup the Initial Operation Capability (IOC) of its first squadron in 2020.



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