JSF Partners Craft Technology MOU

 - December 13, 2006, 9:26 AM

A new set of technology-sharing memoranda of understanding are to be negotiated between the U.S. government and the eight partner nations in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program, Aviation International News has learned. They are intended to allay concerns–particularly expressed by the UK–that the U.S. will not release the sensitive stealth and avionics technology necessary for other countries to sustain and modify the F-35 in service.

Tom Burbage, Lockheed Martin executive vice president and general manager for the F-35A program, said that a production sustainment and follow-on development (PSFD) MOU should be negotiated by December 2006, with annexes specific to each country. Signing of this PSFD document would not itself commit the partner nations to the production phase of the JSF program, Burbage explained.

To date, only the UK has expressed a firm requirement for the fifth-generation combat aircraft. But the National Armament Directors from Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway will today join their UK and U.S. counterparts here, to demonstrate their status as industrial partners in the F-35 program. Another two countries (Israel and Singapore) are security co-operative participants, meaning that they pay to receive detailed information, and can also request trade studies.

The first F-35 is now in final assembly at Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth. Major subassemblies from BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman have been successfully mated. This is the A1 aircraft in the system development and demonstration (SDD) phase, a conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL, or F-35A) model, and is due to fly in August or September next year. The changes to the aircraft structure that were designed and approved last year, in order to solve the overweight problem that had developed in the short-takeoff and vertical-landing (STOVL, or F-35B) aircraft, came too late for inclusion on A1. But this will not diminish the first aircraft’s value to the flight test program, Burbage said here yesterday. In the same briefing, U.S. Air Force Brig Gen C.R. Davis, deputy JSF program executive officer, said that another 300 pounds of weight would have to be removed from the STOVL structure, but the matter was in hand. The first F-35B is due to fly in 2007, followed by the first carrier version (CV, or F-35C) in 2009.

The next major milestone in the JSF program is the Critical Design Review (CDR) for the CTOL and STOVL versions, early next year. Once that hurdle is passed, long-lead production items will be ordered, followed by the first five production aircraft in early 2007. Meanwhile, there is a total of 15 aircraft to fly in the in the SDD phase, plus seven ground test articles.

Brig Gen Davis predicted that the F-35’s fifth-generation advanced integrated avionics would change the face of air combat. “Future concepts of operations will change in ways that we can only begin to imagine,” he added. Burbage noted that recent characterizations of the F-35 in the technical media as an aircraft optimized for air-surface missions at the expense of air-air, were misconceived. The aircraft’s low-observability (LO) will allow it to engage enemy fighters long before they can react. The F-35 is designed for day-one-of-conflict operation in LO configuration, with weapons carried internally. As air defense supremacy is obtained, and the need for stealth is reduced, additional weapons can be carried on underwing pylons.

Burbage and Davis both discussed the recently expressed U.S. Air Force (USAF) interest in a modified F-35B, perhaps with only STOL capability. Until recently, the USAF was committed only to the CTOL F-35A version. The U.S. Marine Corps and the UK Royal Navy have stated requirements for the full STOVL capability of the F-35B, while the U.S. Navy will buy CV F-35Cs. The USAF would use F-35Bs to replace the A-10 ground attack fleet, but “the soonest we could start work on this requirement would be 2008,” Davis said.

Davis emphasized that affordability was a key driver of the entire JSF program. The unit recurring flyaway cost for the CTOL version would be between $45 and $50 million, the STOVL version “in the mid-$50 millions” and the CV version “in the mid-$60 millions,” in 2005 dollars.

Interestingly, the biggest potential show-stopper to current progress in the JSF program appears to be the helmet-mounted display system (HMDS). This completely replaces the head-up display of earlier-generation warplanes. But there have been development problems with the HMDS, which is being produced by Vision Systems International. Burbage admitted that not much progress could be made in flight test until the HMDS was functioning properly. Lockheed Martin is considering whether to qualify BAE Systems as a second-source for the F-35’s HMD.