This article is part of AIN’s comprehensive coverage of the F-35. Click here for news, videos and images of the long-awaited Joint Strike Fighter.
“We live in a goldfish bowl,” sighed Lockheed Martin F-35 vice president customer engagement Steve O’Bryan. Speaking in London last March, he was referring to the stream of official reports, testimonies and comments that examine the Joint Strike Fighter program. This year alone, five major documents on the F-35 have reached the public domain. In January, a Pentagon operational test and evaluation report surfaced. In March, the latest selected acquisition review was released. Also in March, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified to Congress. In April, there was a report by Canada’s Auditor General on that country’s acquisition of the F-35.
Then came last month’s latest report by the GAO to Congress. Its title–“DOD [Department of Defense] Actions Needed to Further Enhance Restructuring and Address Affordability Risks”–set the downbeat tone that prevailed throughout the 50-page document. The GAO described the “relatively poor cost, schedule and performance outcomes” that have dogged the F-35 program. It claimed that recent DOD reviews had endorsed the GAO’s oft-repeated warnings about the concurrency of development and production. A new program baseline was established in March of this year, the GAO reported. A total of 2,457 aircraft are to be acquired by the U.S. through 2037, but the total investment is now $395.7 billion. That is a 42-percent increase over the previous 2007 baseline, the GAO said. It said that affordability is a key challenge as pressures on the overall U.S. defense budget increase.
Below, we summarize some of the GAO’s comments, and recent responses by Lockheed Martin officials:
•Cost overruns on the first four annual procurement contracts are more than $1 billion, of which the U.S. government is paying $672 million. Deliveries of the 63 aircraft are more than one year late on average. Concurrency costs of at least $373 million have been incurred.
During briefings in mid-June, O’Bryan said the cost of the F-35 has dropped by more than 46 percent from low-rate initial production (LRIP) Lot 1 through 4. An F-35A now costs “around $70 million” in 2012 U.S. dollars when measured by unit recurring flyaway cost, including the F135 engine and mission systems. “I expect to continue to drop it,” he said of the jet’s cost. “People think the F-35 is costing more and more. It’s getting less and less.”
O’Bryan said he had not evaluated the GAO’s assessment that cost overruns for the first four production contracts exceeded $1 billion. But he suggested that the agency’s report to Congress is based on outdated information from 2011. He said the GAO’s estimated concurrency cost is a “government number.”
The international contribution to the program by the eight F-35 partner nations has saved the U.S. government billions of dollars, O’Bryan said, including $5 billion for the system development and demonstration phase and “a couple billion” for nonrecurring tooling and sustainment costs. Long-term sustainment costs, including shared parts bases and logistics, will yield further savings. “The U.S. government saves about $11 million an airplane just from the contribution of the partners,” he said. “We’d expect more savings from Israel, Japan and any other international countries that sign up to the F-35 program.”
Chairman and CEO Robert Stevens also focused on the positive on June 19 when asked about the performance of the F-35 program. “We want and would love to see an environment where there is greater convergence around what the expectations are on programs, what their complexity is, what resources are necessary to execute them,” he said. “…We’ve experienced some of the challenges that were predicted and forecast. We’ve had some headwinds and, frankly, we’ve done pretty well with some of the other challenges the program had.”
•Although developmental flight testing gained momentum and met most objectives in 2011, it is only about 21 percent complete, with the most challenging tasks still ahead.
Lockheed Martin announced in May that the F-35 systems development and demonstration (SDD) fleet surpassed 15,000 test points during the first four months of 2012, reaching roughly 25 percent of the SDD program requirement of 59,585 test points by Dec. 31, 2016.
O’Bryan described 2011 as “all and all, an excellent year” for the flight-test program, with 972 flights completed. Vertical landings by the F-35B short-takeoff vertical-landing (STOVL) variant increased to 268 last year from just 10 in 2010. The BF-2 STOVL test aircraft completed the first shipboard vertical landing on the U.S.S. Wasp off the coast of Virginia on October 3, followed by the first short takeoff the next day.
As of June this year, the program was 35 percent ahead of its 2012 plan, at 546 actual flights versus 401 planned, O’Bryan said. A total of 1,001 test flights are planned. Each of the three F-35 variants–CTOL, STOVL and CV–are ahead of plan in both flights and test points. “I don’t want to get into an irrational exuberance on where we are,” O’Bryan said. “We’re off to a great start. We’re doing well and we need to keep focused on the plan.”
•Ground testing discovered F-35C tailhook design issues that have major consequences, according to DOD officials. Aircraft structural modifications may be required.
O’Bryan acknowledged that problems with the F-35C tail hook design are delaying the first test flights to an aircraft carrier, but said the plan is to “go to the boat” with a redesigned tail hook in early 2014, “well in time to make” the U.S. Navy’s planned initial operational capability for the F-35C carrier variant.
The distance between the main landing gear and the tail hook on the F-35C is the shortest of any naval carrier aircraft, and the hook must be hidden to maintain the aircraft’s stealth profile, O’Bryan said, explaining the design challenge.
The redesigned hook shank has a lower center of gravity, or, in effect, a sharper point, to catch the arresting wire on the carrier deck, he said. In addition, a “hold-down damper” is being modified to keep the hook from bouncing or skipping on the deck. “The good part is this whole assembly is a remove-and-replace assembly so any modification that we make to it is an easy fix,” he said. The redesigned tail hook is being tested by doing “rolling arrestments” with an F-35C at the Navy’s Patuxent River, Maryland and Lakehurst, New Jersey carrier suitability test sites.
•Developing and integrating the more than 24 million estimated lines of software code continues to be of concern. The 9.5 million lines onboard the aircraft has grown 37 percent since the critical design review in 2005. The Block 1 training software was not delivered as scheduled in 2011, and neither was the Block 2A software providing initial war-fighting capability released to flight test. Initial air-to-ground capabilities have been deferred from Block 1 to Block 2 (however, some weapons have been moved from Block 3 to Block 2).
Of 9.3 million lines of Block 2A software code, 87 percent was flying in the aircraft and 94 percent was undergoing lab testing, O’Bryan said. The F-35 Joint Program Office, Lockheed Martin and the U.S. government “believe the variance is small, it’s contained and we have adequate schedule and resources to complete the development,” he said. Four aircraft had flown 55 flights with Block 2A software at Edwards Air Force Base, California, operating the electro-optical targeting system (EOTS) and AN/APG-81 radar. Test flights were beginning with external stores, and initial weapons separation tests are planned in the fourth quarter.
O’Bryan said additional resources have been brought to bear for software testing, including a laboratory costing $100 million. Also, the modified Boeing 737 avionics testbed known as the CATBird will be used more during testing. “Is the hardest integration testing yet to go? Absolutely,” he said. “We believe we are recovering schedule. The test of that will be when we release the complete Block 2A software to flight test sometime this summer.”
•The helmet-mounted display is integral to mission systems functionality and concepts of operation, but development remains problematic.
According to O’Bryan, Lockheed Martin is making “lots of progress” with fixes intended to mitigate night-vision, latency and jitter problems experienced by pilots with the current Gen II helmet-mounted display from Vision Systems International, the joint venture of Rockwell Collins and Elbit Systems of America. However, the company continues developing an alternate helmet display from BAE Systems with detachable night-vision goggles. Critical design reviews of both systems are planned in the fourth quarter.
To improve night-vision acuity, an upgraded ISIE 11 electron bombarded active pixel sensor from Intevac of Santa Clara, California, will be mounted on the helmet and in the nose of the aircraft. The higher resolution sensor will be tested this summer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory, O’Bryan said. Latency in acquiring imagery from the F-35’s distributed aperture system, quantified in milliseconds and described as “excessive” in a 2011 review by the DOD, can be improved with “software tweaks,” he said. The issue of helmet display jitter, which the DOD said makes flight symbology difficult to read and is “tactically significant” for engaging weapons, will be addressed by incorporating micro-inertial measurement units (IMUs) to stabilize the image. IMUs have been installed in the laboratory and will be tested in flight this summer.
At the same time, Lockheed Martin will continue pursuing the alternate helmet display from BAE Systems, which had not yet flown on the F-35. “Until we are sure that we can meet the needs of the warfighter, we’re going to have a dual-path development” with the alternate display, O’Bryan said.
•The autonomic logistics information system (ALIS) is designed to improve aircraft availability and lower support costs, but it is not fully developed and the current configuration is not adequate for deployed operations.
Lockheed Martin executives say the ALIS prognostic aircraft health management system is evolving and accumulating data as the F-35 flight-test program advances. The system is already operating at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, where the first military pilots and maintainers are undergoing training at an F-35 Integrated Training Center. As of May, 12 low-rate initial production F-35As for the U.S. Air Force and F-35Bs for the Marine Corps had arrived at the air base. O’Bryan said 90 percent of the ALIS system capability at Eglin AFB will be achieved by 2013.
Joanne Puglisi, director of F-35 training at Lockheed Martin’s Global Training and Logistics center in Orlando, Florida, said the progress of the ALIS system has not affected the start of F-35 training. “ALIS, like every thing else, is going through its development; the training system is going through its development,” she said. “ALIS is down at Eglin today operating. It is supporting the operations that we’re doing there today.”
Robert Stevens, Steven O’Bryan and Joanne Puglisi commented during Lockheed Martin briefings in mid-June at Arlington, Virginia; Fort Worth, Texas; and Orlando, Florida.