Paris Air Show

F-35 Looks to the Future

 - June 17, 2019, 6:56 AM
VMFA-314 ‘Black Knights’ has become the first U.S. Marine Corps squadron to fly the carrier-capable F-35C. It’s the second front-line unit to begin the conversion, following the U.S. Navy’s VFA-147 ‘Argonauts’ through the schoolhouse at California’s NAS Lemoore. When declared ‘safe for flight,’ the unit and its aircraft will relocate back to MCAS Miramar, near San Diego.

With more than 400 delivered to Israel, the U.S. Air Force, and U.S. Marine Corps, the Lockheed Martin F-35 is now proving its worth in the operational environment, especially as its data-gathering and networking abilities transform tactical operations. That’s the message from Lockheed Martin and its customers as the F-35 production effort continues to accelerate and flyaway costs tumble.

A recent deal concluded over Lot 12/13/14 production has seen the cost of an F-35 decrease by 15 percent compared with Lot 11, and a sub-$80 million jet should be achieved later during 2019, a year earlier than planned. F-35 stakeholders are now focusing on driving down operating costs, aiming for the “25 by 25”—$25,000 per flying hour by 2025 (see Paris Airshow News, Day 2, page 20).

In terms of technology, Lockheed Martin and its industrial partners are continuing to improve the capabilities of the aircraft to meet customer requirements and leveraging the experience from initial operations, which have now topped 200,000 flight hours. Over the next few weeks, the company expects to issue the operational flight profile (OFP) software covering the integration of an automatic ground collision avoidance system (AutoGCAS).

Meanwhile, a major overhaul of the aircraft’s avionics is being developed as part of Technology Refresh 3. TR3 includes a new core processor with greater computing power, a new memory unit, and a new widescreen cockpit display. The TR3 hardware is due to be included in new-build aircraft from Lot 15 in 2023, but is also available as a retrofit for most F-35s that can be installed at unit level with an aircraft downtime of around two weeks.

TR3 enables a range of new weapons and roles to be undertaken. Areas under consideration and trial include unmanned teaming and missile defense. Another area receiving considerable attention is multi-domain operations, with the F-35 acting as a data-gatherer and network node to feed information to other friendly assets in the battlespace. Trials have been undertaken with receiving and disseminating data from a U-2 ISR platform.

A number of F-35 operators have exhibited a desire for longer range, and Lockheed Martin is actively looking at 600-gallon external tanks on the inboard wing hardpoints. Studies are also being conducted into the development of conformal fuel tanks that could provide a 40 percent range increase (from the current range of around 1,200 nautical miles).

In terms of weaponry, the company has recently announced a program known as Sidekick that modifies the internal bays by altering a bulkhead to accommodate six AMRAAM air-to-air missiles instead of the current four. Other weapons scheduled for integration in the forthcoming Block 4 software load include the JSOW-C1, SDB II, Joint Strike Missile and Spear air-to-ground munitions, Meteor and ASRAAM air-to-air missiles, and the AARGM-ER anti-radar weapon.

Anti-ship capability is also under study, as is the external carriage of a new family of hypersonic missiles that are now in the early stages of development

Integration work has also begun on the Roketsan SOM-J standoff missile as part of Block 4. The Turkish weapon was designed to fit the internal bay of the F-35, but further integration is almost certain to be halted if Turkey is removed from the F-35 program over its refusal to halt acceptance of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system.

As far as the F-35 industrial team is concerned, for now the Turkish F-35 acquisition remains a program of record. If that changes and Turkish suppliers are removed, Lockheed Martin envisions no impact on 2019 aircraft deliveries.