Look deep down into what I personally see as being a regrettable, unnecessary and damaging (The Times) ‘investigation’ into the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft programme which, combined with its ‘back of a fag packet’ cost guestimates, failure to mention that Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP) costs provide very strong evidence of programme cost reduction etc and you will at least find one very reassuring comment from Wing Commander Jim Beck, one of the UK’s most experienced F-35 pilots, quoted as saying that “the F-35 is the best aircraft I’ve ever flown – It is the most advanced multi-role fighter jet out there”.
Yes, there have been glitches and issues and quite probably not all of these have been resolved yet. But be in no doubt that they will be sorted. With more than 220 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets operating from twelve bases around the world and with more than 400 pilots and 4,200 maintainers (engineers and technicians) having helped respective US and partner militaries to achieve close to 100,000 flight hours across the entire fleet, F-35 is already laying down strong foundations for the role it will play in western and other allied defence in the decades ahead.
It is worth noting that recent F-35 operational and training deployments have seen U.S. Marine Corps F-35B STOVL variants of the jet operate in Iwakuni, Japan and F-35A conventional variant provide aerial demonstration at the 2017 Paris International Air Show. Say what you will and recognising that the F-35 programme remains in a Systems Design and Development phase – a phase that the programme manufacturers seek to resolve issues found by military customer users in order to resolve issues that show up. Whatever, while there are many out there who like to live in the past and who love to mock the massive progress and stealth capability that the F-35 brings the bottom line is that the aircraft is highly manoeuvrable, deployable and combat ready.
The Times report highlighted a number of issues that had been known for several years past and long ago resolved. I see this ‘report’ for what it is meant to be, politically damaging. Negative, spurious and speculative and for the most part, unsubstantiated, the report appears to take and to be directed at political and other decision makers in the UK. It should thus be seen for what it is – an intent to do harm to both UK and US defence strategy and intent, those that direct it and all those many thousands of skilled workers in the UK and elsewhere who are engaged in the F-35 build programme
All that said, I am not for one moment going to suggest that there are not certain truths to be found in the Times article in respect of technical and software related issues that have needed to be resolved over time or that even now, everything is perfect on the F-35 programme. But quite frankly, I would be amazed given the technical and software related complexities of capability if Lockheed Martin and its partners did not have various issues still to resolve.
Raking over the coals, emphasising what it suggest as a range of problems found and that still need to be resolved, speculating on the price by second guessing what through life costs might be is less than helpful to any aircraft development programme and one that a good deal of western air power related defence are investing in for the future. This is not only playing politics but damaging for our future.
Yes, as I readily admit, there have been problems and yes, there are still issues to be resolved but I have absolute confidence that by the time all variants of the aircraft are declared fully operational capable in a couple of years’ time, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will be seen for what it is, capability that will be very hard to beat.
Whilst it is true then that development of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter by Lockheed Martin has been far from trouble-free and that there remains various issues to be resolved we should not ignore the fact that all military aircraft and many commercial aircraft developments as well have issues that need to be resolved through a long development phase.
Remember too that from the outset, the F-35 was designed to create stealth in a manner that no previous aircraft had ever achieved along with fifth generation technology and capability that was unmatched by any other military airplane in service worldwide. The capability is thus necessarily very complex and with eight million lines of software code for its mission data requirements, radar, sensors and weapons systems, time to get everything right would be longer than any previous military aircraft development.
Not surprisingly, Times journalists engaged on this particular defence witch-hunt have dragged out a number of so-called specialists to add seeming value to this speculative, unnecessary and damaging article. One example of this comes from the now well-known critic of how the UK does defence in the form of Commander Nigel ‘Sharkey’ MacCartan-Ward, a former Royal Navy pilot some 35 and more years ago who this time has the effrontery to suggest that “Britain might have lost the Falklands war in 1982 had it relied on the F-35 jet” because, he adds, “of the length of time it takes to download and interpret critical battlefield data hoovered up by the aircraft”, something he suggests “can be done only back on the carrier”.
What absolute nonsense this is and as far as I am concerned Those that were used to flying jets of a bygone age can have little comprehension of the level of situational awareness that a pilot of an F-35 has.
The UK has operated its own F-35 aircraft in the USA since July 2012, training of both pilots and maintainers being done alongside those of the US Air Force and US Marine Corps, originally at Eglin Air Force base in Florida where I first saw them in operation personally in 2014 along with the huge training academy that had been located there, and also at Marine Corps Air Station, Beaufort in South Carolina and Edwards Air Force Base, California. Today the UK has three of its F-35’s located at Edwards AFB and eight at Beaufort. Royal Air Force and Royal Navy pilots and operatives on the F-35 programme have become fully integrated on the F-35 programme with each of the partners bringing a particular perspective of experience in respect of tactical requirement.
The UK has learned a considerable amount of time, money and energy in making sure that lessons from past Joint Force Harrier operation have been well learned. When it comes to operation of the F-35 B Joint Strike Fighter variant as part of ‘Carrier Strike’ Jointery of service operation is the watchword. While the Royal Navy 809 Squadron will be responsible for carrier operation and Royal Air Force 617 Squadron responsible for land based operation based at RAF Marham, rather than one being light blue and the other dark blue, both are Lightning Force squadrons. Outgoing Lightning Force Commander who in two weeks will take over as Station Commander, RAF Marham and where substantial investment in F-35 infrastructure is taking place, usefully reminds that “USAF experience of operating stealth over the past 30 years is something that we don’t have and that is really enhancing our understanding”. It is a shame that the Times F-35 article today fails to talk enhance any of the positives that F-35 capability brings to UK and allied defence.
The F-35 is hugely important to the UK with, as mentioned, 15% of the aircraft build taking place here in the UK. Over many years ahead that will not only provide manufacturing employment that enables us to maintain skills and to train future generations it is also extremely valuable to the economy. Not only are companies such as BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and over one hundred other companies engaged in the F-35 programme but BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman together with the Defence Electronics and Components Agency have been awarded the initial Tier One phase programme MRO&U sustainment that will support F-35 systems, including electronic and electrical components as well as fuel, mechanical and hydraulic systems and that will sustain thousands more jobs and provide a further large income stream for those involved.
While the UK has committed to buy 138 F-35 aircraft through the programme lifetime it has last week taken delivery of the eleventh F-35 aircraft – this from a total confirmed number of 14 aircraft ordered so far.
Since the first operational F-35 aircraft was delivered to the United States Air Force at Eglin Air Base in 2011 F-35 Lightning ll aircraft have flown literally thousands of sorties and for the record, the US plans to procure 2,663 F-35 jets of the three different design variants. Britain, having invested $2 billion in the F-35 development programme, is a Tier One partner responsible for a 15% workshare of the F-35 build programme. As mentioned, the UK will acquire 138 of both ‘B’ STOVL (Short Take-Off Vertical Landing) and, at a later stage, the standard conventional landing ‘A’ variant. Whilst only 14 aircraft have so far been ordered, I understand that although not yet formally ordered, commitments for an additional 30 aircraft have been signed off by the Government. In addition, ten other countries Australia, Turkey, Canada, Italy, Norway, Japan, Netherlands, Israel, Denmark and South Korea have between them ordered a total of 619 aircraft.
CHW (London – 17th July 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785