Yesterday’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter briefing turned into a celebration of the recent first flight of the F-35B STOVL version. The three customers for the new-generation jump jet (the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.K. and Italy) lined up to sing its praises. Test pilot Graham Tomlinson from BAE Systems was on hand to describe the maiden flight.
Also attending was U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. C.R. Davis from the F-35 Program Office. He spoke out last week against what he described as Boeing’s desperate attempts to bad-mouth the Joint Strike Fighter. Yesterday, though, his remarks were confined to some program specifics.
He noted that the preproduction F-35s now rolling down the line are “no show ponies–they’re built on production tooling and are very representative of the final article.” The STOVL version was meeting or exceeding critical performance requirements, contrary to the impression to be gained from a recent report by the UK National Audit Office. The UK was entirely satisfied with the technology transfer arrangements that have been put into place.
Air Commodore Mark Green from the British F-35 procurement team echoed Davis’s comments. But Air Marshall Ian McNicholl, Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Air Force’s operational command, did note that operational sovereignty remained an important issue for the UK.
There was some discussion of a proposed scheme to fund a more efficient ramp-up in production for the international partners. As things stand, apart from small numbers to be purchased for operational test and evaluation, the main contract for multi-year procurement is not due until 2014. The partners are considering whether to bring that decision forward. For its part, Lockheed Martin is consulting with subcontractors to obtain pricing for an accelerated multi-year buy, said executive vice president and F-35 general manager Tom Burbage.
The F-35B that flew last month was one of 129 pre-production aircraft. Fabrication of the first two production aircraft has also started, with another 12 fully funded, and long-lead funding approved for a further 18. Burbage said that “much more is going on…outstanding progress in software development (and) the outfitting of our avionics test bed for full-up F-35 mission systems flights beginning later this year.”
Burbage also noted that the F-35 would be able to interoperate with an unprecedented array of assets in the air, at sea and on the ground. U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. George Thornton went even further. “The F-35 will be the centerpiece of the future dissemination of information across the battlespace,” he said.