F-35B: off probation
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The $382 billion F-35 Joint Strike fighter program may well be the largest single global defense program in history. This major multinational program is intended to produce an “affordably stealthy” multi-role fighter that will have 3 variants: the F-35A conventional version for the US Air Force et. al.; the F-35B Short Take-Off, Vertical Landing for the US Marines, British Royal Navy, et. al.; and the F-35C conventional carrier-launched version for the US Navy. The aircraft is named after Lockheed’s famous WW2 P-38 Lightning, and the Mach 2, stacked-engine English Electric (now BAE) Lightning jet. Lightning II system development partners included The USA & Britain (Tier 1), Italy and the Netherlands (Tier 2), and Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Turkey (Tier 3), with Singapore and Israel as “Security Cooperation Partners,” and Japan as the 1st export customer.

The big question for Lockheed Martin is whether, and when, many of these partner countries will begin placing purchase orders. This updated article has expanded to feature more detail regarding the F-35 program, including contracts, sub-contracts, and notable events and reports during 2012-2013.

The F-35 Lightning II Fighter Family

F-35 Family Variants: Door A, B, or C?

Figure 1: F-35 Variants.

The above table illustrates the key differences between the baseline F-35A, the Short Take-Off, Vertical Landing (STOVL) capable F-35B, and the catapult-launched F-35C naval variant. Additional explanations follow.

The F-35A CTOL

F-35A, doors open
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The F-35A is sometimes called the CTOL (Conventional Take-Off and Landing) version. It’s the USAF’s version, and is expected to make up most of the plane’s export orders. It’s also expected to be the least expensive F-35, in part because it will have the largest production run. The USAF currently estimates its average flyaway cost after 2017 at $108.3 million, but early production models ordered in FY 2012 will cost over $150 million.

Its main difference from other versions is its wider 9g maneuverability limits, though its air-air combat flight benchmarks are only on par with the F-16. Canard equipped “4+ generation” adversaries like the Eurofighter, and thrust-vectored fighters like the F-22A, MiG-35, SU-35, etc., will still enjoy certain kinetic advantages. The F-35 hopes to mitigate them using its improved stealth to shrink detection ranges, the lack of drag from weapons in its internal bays, and its current electronic superiority.

The second major physical difference between the F-35A and the rest of the Lightning family is its internal 25mm cannon, instead of using a weapons station for a semi-stealthy gun pod option. The USAF removed guns from some of its planes back in the 1960s, and didn’t enjoy the resulting experiences in Vietnam. It has kept guns on all of its fighters ever since, including the stealthy F-22 and F-35. Many allies wanted the 27mm Mauser cannon installed instead, as it’s widely believed to offer the world’s best combination of firing rate and hitting power. In the end, however, ammunition standardization benefits involving 25mm land and sea platforms trumped pure performance.

The 3rd difference is that the F-35A uses a dorsal refueling receptacle that is refueled using an aerial tanker boom, instead of the probe-and-drogue method favored by the US Navy and many American allies.

The F-35A was the first variant to fly, in 2009. Unfortunately, it looks like it won’t reach Initial Operational Capability (IOC) until 2017 or 2018.

The F-35B STOVL (Short Take-Off, Vertical Landing)

F-35B features
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The F-35B is expected to be the most expensive Lightning II fighter variant. According to US Navy documents, even planes bought after 2017 are expected to have an average flyaway cost of $135 million each. It will serve the US Marines, Royal Navy, other navies with ski-ramp equipped LHDs or small carriers, and militaries looking for an “expeditionary airplane” that can take off in short distances and land vertically. To accomplish this, the F-35B has a large fan behind the cockpit, and nozzles that go out to the wing undersides. Unlike the F-35A, it will use a retractable mid-air refueling probe, which is standard for the US Navy and for many American allies.

Those capabilities gives the plane a unique niche, but a unique niche also means unique challenges, and the responses to those challenges have changed the aircraft. In 2005, the JSF program took a 1-year delay because the design was deemed overweight by about 3,000 pounds. The program decided to reduce weight rather than run the engine hotter, because the latter choice would have sharply reduced the durability of engine components and driven life cycle costs higher. Weight cutting became a focus of various engineering teams, with especial focus on the F-35B because the weight was most critical to that design. Those efforts pushed the F-35B’s design, and changed its airframe. The F-35B gives up some range, some bomb load (it cannot carry 2,000 pound weapons internally, and the shape of its bay may make some weapons a challenge to carry), some structural strength (7g maneuvers design maximum), and the 25mm internal gun.

The F-35B completed its Critical Design Review in October 2006, and the 2nd production F-35 was a STOVL variant. Per the revised Sept 16/10 program plan, the USMC’s VMA-332 in Yuma, AZ must have 10 F-35Bs equipped with Block IIB software, with 6 aircraft capable of austere and/or ship-based operations, and all aircraft meeting the 7g and 50-degree angle of attack specifications, in order to declare Initial Operational Capability.

Flight testing began in 2009, and IOC was expected by December 2012, but flight testing fell way behind thanks to a series of technical delays. By 2013, the first operational planes were fielded to the USMC at Yuma, AZ. The USMC is currently aiming for a 2015 IOC, but it would involve just Block 2B software loads that will limit the F-35B’s combat capability. Even then, the Pentagon’s 2012 DOT&E report isn’t grounds for software schedule optimism. Planes with full Block 3 initial combat capability are unlikely to be fielded before 2018.

The F-35C carrier-based fighter

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The F-35C is instantly recognizable. It features 30% more wing area than other designs, with larger tails and control surfaces, plus wingtip ailerons. These changes provide the precise slow-speed handling required for carrier approaches, and extend range a bit. The F-35C’s internal structure is strengthened to withstand the punishment dished out by the catapult launches and controlled crashes of carrier launch and recovery, an arrester hook is added to the airframe, and the fighter gets a retractable refueling probe. According to US Navy documents, average flyaway costs for F-35Cs bought after 2017 will be $125.9 million each.

The US Navy gave up the internal gun, and the aircraft will be restricted to 7.5g maneuvers. That’s only slightly lower than the existing F/A-18E Super Hornet’s 7.6g, but significantly lower than the 9g limit for Dassault’s carrier-capable Rafale-M.

The F-35C is expected to be the US Navy’s high-end fighter, as well as its high-end strike aircraft. This means that any performance or survivability issues will have a disproportionate effect on the US Navy’s future ability to project power around the world.

The F-35C will be the last variant designed; it passed its Critical Design Review in June 2007, and the first production version was scheduled to fly in January 2009. The F-35C’s rollout did not take place until July 2009, however, and first flight didn’t take place until June 2010. Initial Operational Capability was scheduled for 2014, but looks set to slip to 2019.

F-35s: Key Features

F-35 Variants
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Stealth. The F-35 is designed as an ‘affordable stealth’ counterpart to the F-22 Raptor air dominance fighter, one that can share “first day of the war” duties against defended targets but can’t perform air-air or air-ground missions to the same standard. The F-35 has a larger single engine instead of the Raptor’s twin thrust-vectoring F119s, removing both supercruise (sustained flight above Mach 1) and super-maneuverability options. The F-22A is also a much stealthier aircraft from all angles, and independent analysis & modeling has concluded that the F-35’s stealth will be weaker from the sides and the rear. Even so, the F-35 is an improvement over existing ‘teen series’ fighters and even beats Generation 4+ options like the Eurofighter, Rafale, and JAS-39 Gripen.

Engine. The F-35 was set to offer interchangeable engine options. That has been an important feature for global F-16 and F-15 customers, improving both costs and performance, and providing added readiness insurance for dual-engine fleets. Pratt & Whitney’s lobbying eventually forced GE & Rolls-Royce’s F136 out of the F-35 program, and made their F135-PW-100 engine the only choice for global F-35 fleets. A special F-135-PW-600 version with Rolls Royce’s LiftFan add-on, and a nozzle that can rotate to point down, will power the vertical-landing F-35B.

The US military had better hope that an engine design problem never grounds all of their fighters. While they’re at it, they should hope that maintenance contracts somehow remain reasonable in the absence of any competitive alternative.

F-35’s APG-81
AESA Radar
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Sensors. The Lightning II will equipped to levels that would once have defined a high-end reconnaissance aircraft. Its advanced APG-81 AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar is smaller and less powerful than the F-22A’s APG-77v1; but still offers the strong AESA advantages of simultaneous air-air and air-ground capabilities, major maintenance & availability improvements, and secure, high-bandwidth communications benefits. The F-35 also shares a “sensor fusion” design advance with the F-22, based on sensors of various types embedded all around the airframe. This sensor set is even more extensive than the F-22’s. Both planes will be able to perform as reconnaissance aircraft, though the F-35 will have superior infrared and ground-looking sensors. Both aircraft will also have the potential to act as electronic warfare aircraft.

These sensors are connected to a lot of computing power, in order to create single-picture view that lets the pilot see everything on one big 20″ LCD screen and just fly the plane, rather than pushing buttons to switch from one view to another and trying to figure it all out. As part of that sensor fusion, the F-35 will be the first plane is several decades to fly without a heads-up display. Instead, pilots will wear Elbit/Rockwell’s JHMDS helmet or BAE’s HMSS, and have all of that information projected wherever they look.

Maintenance. The F-35 has a large number of design features that aim to simplify maintenance and keep life cycle costs down. Since operations and maintenance are usually about 65% or more of a fighter’s lifetime cost, this is one the most important and overlooked aspects of fighter selection.

Stealth aircraft have always had much higher maintenance costs, but the F-35’s designers hope that new measures can reverse that trend. Some of the plane’s stealth coatings are being baked into composite airplane parts, for instance, in the hope that customers will need fewer “Martians” (Materials Application and Repair Specialists) around to apply stealth tapes and putties before each mission. Technical innovations like self-diagnosing aircraft wiring aim to eliminate one of the toughest problems for any mechanic, and the fleet-wide ALIS information and diagnostic system is designed to shift the fleet from scheduled maintenance to maintenance only as needed.

Despite these measure, March 2012 operations and maintenance projections have the F-35 at 142% O&M cost, relative to any F-16s they’ll replace. It remains to be seen if the advantages of F-35 innovations manage to fulfill their promise, or if projections that they’ll be outweighed in the end by increased internal complexity, and by the proliferation of fault-prone electronics, come true. That has certainly been the general trend over the last 50 years of fighter development, with a very few notable exceptions like the F-16, A-10, and JAS-39.

Pimp My Ride: Weapons & Accessories

Initial hopes – changed
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The F-35’s internal weapon bay gives it the ability to carry larger bombs and missiles, but the price is that F-35s can carry just 2 internal air-to-air weapons, instead of a maximum of 8 on the F-22A. As the F-35 variant table (Fig. 1) shows, development, testing, and software issues have also combined to give initial F-35 fleets a very narrow set of weapons. The initial operational set that comes with Block III software has about the same weapon options as the single-role F-22A.

That’s expected to change, eventually. A large order base, and a wide international client base, will provide considerable incentive for manufacturers to qualify their weapons for the F-35. MBDA has already pledged a compatible version of its long-range Meteor air-air missile, for instance, and Britain wants to add MBDA’s SPEAR medium-range strike missile as soon as possible. Other manufacturers can be expected to follow. Norway is already developing its stealthy Joint Strike Missile with the F-35 as its explicit target, including the ability to fit the missile into the plane’s internal bays. Denmark’s Terma has turned their 25mm gun pod into a multi-mission pod that can accept a variety of sensors and equipment. Lockheed Martin’s Israeli customer is already incorporating its own electronic counter-measures systems in their F-35i, and they are certain to push for a range of Israeli weapons, including the Python-5 SRAAM(Short Range Air-to-Air Missile) and various other smart bombs and missiles.

The bottlenecks will be two-fold.

The 1st bottleneck is American insistence on retaining all source codes, and having Lockheed Martin perform all modifications at their reprogramming facility. Unless Lockheed produces a full development environment workaround, dealing with the growing queue of requests can easily become a problem. The firm’s new Universal Armament Interface could offer the foundation for a way forward, if they decide to take it. The other question involves conflict-of-interest issues, in which Lockheed Martin or the US government decides to use the bottleneck as a way of shutting competitors out of a potential export market. These kinds of concerns have already led to pushback in Australia, Britain, and Israel.

The 2nd bottleneck involves testing resources. The F-35 testing program has fallen significantly behind schedule, and IOCs for some versions have already slipped by 5-6 years. Test time required to qualify new equipment is going to be a very secondary priority until 2018-2019, and even the few customers buying their own Initial Operational Testing & Evaluation (IOT&E) fighters are going to need them for their assigned training roles.

The F-35 Family: Controversies and Competitions

See me, hear me?
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The program’s biggest controversies revolve around 3 issues: effectiveness, affordability, and control. A 4th issue, noise, isn’t significant yet, but could become so.

Effectiveness: When the F-35 Lightning II is compared with the larger and more expensive F-22A, the Raptor is a much stealthier aircraft, and its stealth is more uniform. The F-35’s design is optimized for “low-observable” stealth when viewed from the front, with less stealth to radars looking at it from the sides, and less still when targeted from the rear. It also lacks the Raptor’s supercruise (sustained flight above Mach 1) and super-maneuverability thrust-vectoring options, which work with stealth to help the F-22 engage and disengage from combat at will. Lockheed Martin claims that the F-35 design is optimized for trans-sonic acceleration, but testing results question those claims, and the Raptor can cruise without afterburners at the F-35’s theoretical maximum speed. That’s important, because fuel usage skyrockets with afterburners on, limiting total supersonic time for fighters like the F-35.

These relative drawbacks have led to questions about the F-35’s continued suitability against the most modern current air defense threats, and against the evolved threats it can expect to face over a service lifetime that’s expected to stretch until 2050 at least.

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Where the F-35 does come out ahead is internal carriage space. F-35A/C variants will offer larger capacity internal bays for weapons, allowing a wider selection of stealth-preserving internal ordnance. The price is that slight bulges were added to the production F-35’s underside profile in order to accommodate that space, making them less stealthy from the side than the original X-35 designs.

Sensors are another F-35 advantage. All F-35s also boast more embedded sensors than the F-22, with an especial advantage in infrared and ground-looking sensors. Though this feature has yet to be tested in combat, the F-35’s all-aspect Distributed Aperture Sensors (DAS) reportedly allow 360-degree targeting of aircraft around the F-35. If that works, the inertial guidance and datalink features of modern infrared missiles like the AIM-9X Sidewinder and AIM-132 ASRAAM can already take full advantage of it.

Which customers can live with these relative disadvantages as an acceptable trade-off, and which will be badly hurt by them? Will the F-35 be a fighter that’s unable to handle high-end scenarios, while also being far too expensive to field and operate in low-end scenarios? Even if that’s true, could countries who want one type of multi-role fighter still be best served by the F-35, as opposed to other options? That will depend, in part, on…

F-35 commonality
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Affordability: The F-35 family was designed to be much more affordable than the F-22, but a number of factors are narrowing that gap.

One is cost growth in the program. This has been documented by the GAO, and statements and reports from the US DoD are beginning to follow the same kind of “rising spiral of admissions” pattern seen in past programs.

The 2nd is loss of parts commonality between the 3 models, which the GAO has cited as falling below the level required to produce significant savings. In March 2013, the JSF PEO placed the figure at just 25-30%.

A 3rd is production policy. The US GAO in particular believes that the program’s policy of beginning production several years before testing is complete, only adds to the risks of future price hikes and operating cost shocks. It also forces a lot of expensive rewaork to jets that are bought before problems are found. Part of the rationale for accepting concurrency risks and costs involves…

The 4th factor: lateness. The program as a whole is about 5-7 years behind its ideal point, relative to the replacement cycle for fighters around the globe. F-35 program customers thus find themselves in the unenviable position of having to commit to a fighter that hasn’t completed testing, and doesn’t have reliable future purchase or operating costs, while buying the expensive way from early production batches. The program office hopes to drop the flyaway price of an F-35A to $90 million by 2020, but current Pentagon budget documents list an average production cost of $105-120 million per F-35A-C, from 2017 to the end of the program.

Control: This has been a big issue in the past for customers like Britain and Australia, and has now become an issue for Israel as well. Without control over software source codes, integration of new weapons and algorithms can be controlled by the whims and interests of American politicians and defense contractors. On the other hand, America sees wider access to those fundamental building blocks as a security risk. Arrangements with Britain and Australia appear to have finessed this debate, without removing it.

Noise: The F135 engine’s size and power are unprecedented in a fighter, but that has a corollary. Environmental impact studies in Florida showed that the F-35A is approximately twice as noisy as the larger, twin-engine F-15 fighter, and over 3.5 times as noisy as the F-16s they’re scheduled to replace. That has led to noise complaints from local communities in the USA and abroad, and seems likely to create a broad swathe of local political issues as customers deploy them. In some countries, it may add costs, as governments are forced to compensate or even to buy out nearby homeowners affected by the noise.

Each customer must weigh the issues above against its own defense and industrial needs, and come to a decision. In-depth, updated DID articles that address some of these issues in more detail include:

The F-35’s Air-to-Air Capability Controversy. A comprehensive look at the issue, and its consequences.

F-35: I am Fighter, Hear Me Roar. Noise could become a serious political issue for the F-35.

The Great Engine War II The Pentagon finally canceled GE/RR’s F136 alternative engine project to rely entirely on Pratt & Whitney’s F135, over the objections of its GAO auditors.

F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: The Program

1st British F-35B
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Is the F-35 an industrial program for a fighter, or a fighter with an industrial program? Beyond the initial competition between Lockheed Martin’s X-35 and Boeing’s X-32, the Joint Strike Fighter was envisioned from the outset as a program that would make sense using either interpretation. A wide set of consortium partners and national government investments would form an interlocking set of commitments, drawing on a wide range of global industrial expertise and making the program very difficult for any one party to back out of or cancel.

The JSF program is ‘tiered,’ with 4 possible levels of participation based on admission levels and funding commitments for the System Design & Development (SDD) phase. All Tier 1-3 nations have also signed MoUs for the Production Phase. This is not a commitment to buy, just the phase in which production arrangements are hammered out – subject to revision, of course, if that country decides not to buy F-35s. Consortium partners and customers to date include:

Tier 1 Partners: The USA (majority commitment), Britain

Tier 2 Partners: Italy; The Netherlands

Tier 3 Partners: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Turkey

Security Cooperative Participants status: Israel (20-75), Singapore.

Exports: Japan (42).

Italy has expressed an interest in a Lockheed-Martin Final Assembly and Check Out (FACO) plant for European orders, and Fellow Tier 1 partner Britain is examining a FACO of its own for BAE. The Netherlands, meanwhile, wants to be a center for engine sustainment and heavy maintenance. The Dutch have signed an agreement with Italy to help each country get what it wants; Norway was added to that agreement in June 2007.

Lightning II official rollout
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The first test aircraft, an F-35A model AA-1, had its formal rollout on July 7/06. The F-35’s forced redesign for weight reasons has led to F-35 AA-1 being a unique airframe used to validate design, manufacturing, assembly and test processes. A total of 23 test aircraft will be built for various purposes (15 flight, 7 non-flight, 1 radar signature), but the exact order of build for the variants involved has shifted several times.

The testing phase was originally supposed to end in 2013, but is now officially scheduled to continue until 2018. Funding for the first sets of production-model aircraft is approved, parts fabrication began in June 2007, and component assembly began later in 2007. F-35As have already been delivered to the USAF – a sore point with the US Congress’ Government Accountability Office, which believes this dual-track approach overlapping testing with production increases project risks. Production will continue to ramp up year-to-year, and by the time the F-35 is expected to reach Full-Rate Production, the program intends to build 240 F-35s per year.

To do that, they’ll need orders. So far, only the USA, Israel, and Japan have placed orders for production F-35s that go beyond training & test aircraft.

Delays in fielding the initial set of test aircraft, fewer than expected flights, and questions about that ambitious ramp up schedule have reportedly led the Pentagon to re-examine these schedules. Development is now expected to last into FY 2019 or later.

Industrial Innovation

F-35B JSF Cutaway
by John Batchelor
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At present, F-35 production is led by Lockheed Martin, with BAE and Northrop-Grumman playing major supporting roles, and many subcontractors below that.

BAE Systems is deriving substantial benefits from Britain’s Tier 1 partner status, and Northrop Grumman is responsible for the F-35’s important ‘center barrel’ section, where the wings attach to the fuselage, and also provides many of the aircraft’s key sensors.

F-35 main production and final assembly is currently slated to take place in Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth, TX plant. To cut F-35 production cycle time, the team produces major sections of the aircraft at different feeder plants, and “mates” the assemblies at Fort Worth. This is normal in the auto industry, but it’s a departure from the usual fighter-building process.

AF-1 center barrel
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The precise tolerances required for a stealthy fighter, however, are much more exacting than even high-end autos. In order to avoid subtly mismatched seams, which become radar reflection points, parts need to fit together so precisely that some machines are compensating for the phases of the moon!

Even the best machines won’t do any good if the various components aren’t already an excellent fit. To cope, Manufacturing Business Technology reports that the JSF manufacturing team has turned to an integrated back-end IT system. It begins with 3D engineering models (Dassault Systemes CATIA CAD), and extends into production management, where the company has rolled out a manufacturing execution system to handle electronic work instructions, workflow and process modeling, serialized parts data, quality records tracking, etc. (Visiprise).

This combination has enabled greater use of techniques like automated drilling, even as other software (Siemens PLM, TeamCenter) enables product record management and electronic collaboration around designs. On the back-end, the team uses a custom system it calls Production & Inventory Optimization System (PIOS) for manufacturing resources planning and supply chain management; it began using ERP software (SAP) in January 2008 for financials, and may eventually use it to handle supply-chain functions too.

This ‘digital thread’ has been very successful for the team, with part fits showing incredible precision, and successful coordination of plants around the end schedule for key events like the Dec 18/07 F-35B rollout. The system’s ultimate goal is to cut a plane’s production cycle time from the usual 27-30 months to about 12 months, and shrink a 15-20 day cycle to just 6-8 days from order creation to printed & matched manufacturing orders.

Testing, Testing

F-35C weapon carriage
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The F-35’s development and testing program was originally supposed to end in 2013. Current estimates involve a 2018 finish for all 3 models, with Block 3F software installed and a smaller set of integrated weapons than initially planned.

The F-35’s development schedule has steadily slipped, and a combination of development and production difficulties left Lockheed Martin significantly behind their planned testing schedule. The company has made a point of highlighting testing progress in 2012, as they finally got ahead of the annual curve:

F-35 JSF family: Testing statistics
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Staying ahead of planned testing points and flights is laudable, but it doesn’t guarantee that the fighter itself is ahead of where it should be on the development curve. Bringing test points forward from future years can keep the numbers even. It won’t solve issues like late software delivery, which is preventing F-35s from fulfilling a number of planned testing points, and makes any combat related testing useless. The F-35s will also need changes in a number of areas, from their horizontal stabilizers to the F-35B’s complex system of lift fans and doors. Those changes will require further testing afterward, adding more test points to the program each time an issue is found. The table below outlines key issues as of 2012, and both of these testing-related datasets are available for download by subscribers:

F-35 JSF family: DOT&E’s key 2012 findings
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F-35 JSF: Programs by Country

Joint Strike Fighter
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The F-35 is a multinational program, and one of its challenges involves keeping all of the program’s partners moving forward. Each partner has its own issues, and increasingly, its own timeline.

Since early-production fighters can add 50-100% to the cost of full-rate production planes, most of these timelines are determined by how cost-sensitive each customer is.

Home Base: The American Program

In many ways, the American F-35 program sets the tone for all others. Countries that want the F-35, like Japan, are already seeing price hikes because of American decisions to slow initial F-35 production. Current per-plane costs are over $120 million, with initial spares and training infrastructure added on top of that. That price is expected to come down, but it requires volume orders. That means someone has to spend the money, and right now, that someone is the USA.

This leaves the United States on the horns of a dilemma.

One nightmare scenario is a fate similar to the high-end F-22A Raptor, which was initially supposed to field 1,000 fighters, but ended up producing just 183 thanks to spiraling development costs, unexpected upgrade costs, and production costs that never benefited from full economies of scale. Cuts led to continued high prices, which led to more cuts. That scenario would spell disaster for other F-35 customers, who would end up paying far more per plane than they had expected. Some would then defect, driving up prices again for the countries who remained.

The other nightmare scenario for the USA involves significant problems discovered in testing, which then require costly and extensive retrofits to the 400+ F-35 fighters that will be produced before the test program ends. This parallel test/production model has been the subject of heavy criticism from the US government’s GAO auditors. It’s a form of “political engineering” designed to make cancellation too expensive for politicians, even if it leads to sharply higher final costs, or hurts the future fleet.

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American purchase decisions can be described as a balancing act between these nightmares. If they spend too much money ramping up production, other countries are more likely to buy as prices drop, but the USAF could be on the hook for a huge retrofit bill that it can’t afford. If they throttle their efforts back too far in order to avoid retrofit risk, it makes defections by existing JSF partners more likely, and hurts the fighter’s chances of landing export sales.

Lockheed Martin has tried to thread this needle by getting multiple JSF consortium members to commit to a joint buy, in order to create a big enough pool of secure orders to drive down purchase costs for everyone. So far, they’ve been unable to get the signatures they need.


Meanwhile, past and planned American F-35 budgets for all variants are graphed below, with an Excel download as a bonus. Note that R&D forecasts aren’t yet published as a single figure beyond FY 2013:

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USN: F-35B & F-35C
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Australia (Tier 3)

The legacy roster
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Australia was originally going to replace its long-range F-111 fighter-bomber and F/A-18 AM/BM Hornet fighter fleets with a single fleet of 100 F-35A aircraft. Current plans for the F-35 are less clear. A change of governing parties hasn’t shifted Australia’s long-term commitment to the F-35A yet, but rising costs could do so.

In November 2009, the Government approved funding for Phase 2A/B (Stage 1) to acquire 14 F-35As, at a cost of about A$ 2.75 billion. In October 2010, they formally submitted a Partner Procurement Request (PPR) to the US Government, and expect a FY 2012 order for 2 initial F-35As, for delivery in 2014-15. Those 2 planes will remain in the United States for testing and pilot training. The next 12 planes would have been based in Australia, and their Year of Decision will now be 2014-15, which may also cover the Stage 2 buy of 58 planes (TL: 72). Deliveries of operational fighters aren’t expected until 2017-2019 now, which means that RAAF F-35As won’t be flying in Australia until around 2020. The AIR 6000 Phase 2C decision to add another 24 F-35s or so, and raise Australia’s total buy to 96+, won’t happen until 2018-19 at the earliest.

As of 2014, The Royal Australian Navy will begin receiving Canberra Class LHD ships that could deploy F-35Bs, but at present there are no plans to host fighters on board. If those plans change, the AIR 6000 Phase 2C decision is the likely inflection point.

The inflection point for a single fighter fleet has already passed. In May 2007, delays to the F-35 program pushed the RAAF to buy 24 F/A-18F Block II Super Hornets as an interim capability. Those aircraft have all been delivered now, and 12 of them are set to convert to EA-18G Growler tactical jamming fighters. F-35 delays may push Australia to order more Super Hornets, and the hard reality is that each new Super Hornet bought probably subtracts an F-35A from future orders.

Britain (Tier 1)

RN CVF Concept
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Britain is the only Tier 1 partner outside the USA, and they have invested about $2 billion equivalent in the F-35’s development. They took delivery of their 1st IOT&E training and test aircraft in July 2012.

Britain’s original plan involved buying 138 F-35B STOVL planes for deployment on land and on their new aircraft carriers, but that will now shrink to an undetermined number.

The UK MoD has also switched back and forth between the F-35B and the catapult-launched F-35C. The F-35C’s range and weapon capacity give it significant time-over-target advantages in a Falkland Islands kind of scenario. On the flip side, the F-35B can fly from forward operating bases in situations like Afghanistan, allowing fewer planes to generate more sorties in the same time frame. The determining factor that switched Britain back to the F-35B was the cost of modifying its aircraft carriers.

Canada (Tier 3)

CF-18, 20-year colors
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In July 2010, Canada committed to buy 65 F-35As as its future fighter force, with an envisioned budget up to C$ 9 billion for the fighters, plus C$ 7 billion for 20 years of support. All without a competition. That decision has been beset by controversy ever since, and the Conservative Party government claims that they aren’t committed to buy the F-35A yet. On the other hand, they haven’t made any substantive concessions, or meaningful changes to their plans, aside from promising that if F-35 costs continue to rise, Canada will just buy fewer planes within its budget.

Canada will probably sign a contract by 2015, which would make it too expensive for any successor governments to cancel the program. If the Conservative Party government doesn’t sign a contract before the next election, they had better win again. Otherwise, the conduct of this acquisition program has so antagonized the opposition Liberal and NDP parties that the F-35 buy will be a priority target for cancellation.

In November 2012, the first cracks appeared in the government’s stone wall. The Public Works ministry took over the lead role from DND, and said that the military’s original statement of requirements would be suspended while the government reviewed fighter options. Read full coverage, including industrial participants, over at “Canada Preparing to Replace its CF-18 Hornets.”

Denmark (Tier 3)

Danish F-16 MLU
(click to view full)

Denmark is a consortium member, but they threw their F-16 fighter replacement order open to competition in 2007. The F-35A was competing against Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet and Sweden’s JAS-39E/F Gripen, but an April 2010 decision delayed the competition. The Danes reportedly have about 30 operational F-16s in 2013, with another 15 stored in reserve.

The F-16 replacement process has started again as promised, with EADS’ Eurofighter Typhoon added to the mix of invitees. A decision to buy 24-32 fighters is now expected by June 2015.

Italy (Tier 2)

CVH Cavour
(click to view full)

Italy has made significant investments in JSF development, and the country intends to host a European Final Assembly and Check-Out (FACO) production line in Cameri, near Milan.

The navy’s ITS Cavour aircraft carrier will need at least 22 F-35Bs to replace its AV-8 Harrier fighters, but Europe and Italy’s slow-motion fiscal calamity makes the rest of its buy far less certain. The original plan involved 131 F-35s for the Army and Navy, but a February 2012 decision has scaled plans back to 90 fighters. The Italians are still discussing whether to buy a mix of F-35As and F-35Bs for the air force, but cost pressures are likely to push the Aeronautica Militare toward F-35As.

Given Italy’s rising borrowing costs, and the air force’s modern fleet of 96 Eurofighter Typhoons, further cuts in Aeronautica Militare F-35 purchases would be a reasonable expectation.

The Netherlands (Tier 2)

Dutch F-16s,
(click to view full)

The F-35 is the Ministerie van Defensie’s choice, but instability in successive Dutch governments has prevented a clear decision. The Netherlands plans to buy up to 85 fighters, and as one of the two JSF Tier 2 partners, they want to place a European maintenance hub in the Netherlands. Industry benefits figure heavily in their decision, and participation in the JSF program was structured as a payback scheme. That has sometimes created a strained relationship between the government and participating firms.

Cost is a serious issue. A September 2009 media report revealed that Saab submitted a bid for 85 ready-to-fly JAS-39NL Gripen fighters, at a reported cost of EUR 4.8 billion. In contrast, a December 2010 report to the Dutch Parliament placed the expected purchase cost of 85 F-35As at EUR 7.6 billion, and the government has said that if costs continue to rise, the only change will be fewer fighters bought.

Costs have risen, even as budgets shrank. A 2012 Rekenkamer report revealed that the MvD was admitting a ceiling of just 56 F-35As, given their EUR 4.05 billion budget. That isn’t enough for their current responsibilities, and their notional EUR 68.6 million/ $89 million per plane figure is significantly less than the Pentagon’s post-2017 average cost projection of $108 million – which allows just 48 Dutch F-35As. Throw in the 21% Dutch Value Added Tax, and the real number could be as low as 33-38 F-35As.

Keeping its F-16s flying until the required 2027 date is expected to cost another EUR 335 million, and must be figured into the total cost, even if it comes from a separate budget item. A slip to 2029, or another fighter option that took that much more time, brings that total added cost to EUR 515 million.

Finally, F-35 maintenance and operating costs are expected to be higher than either the current F-16s (+42% American projection), or the Gripen. That affects the number that can be kept flying under future budgets. The 2012 Rekenkamer report says that estimates for 30 years of F-35A operations & maintenance, exclusive of fuel, have risen from EUR 2.9 billion for 85 planes in 2001, to EUR 14.2 billion. Buying 68 aircraft only drops this estimate to EUR 13.2 billion, and that non-linear drop makes it likely that O&M costs for a fleet of 42-48 F-35As, over 30 years, would be well over EUR 200 million per-plane.

A final decision is scheduled for 2015, but successive coalition governments have been pushing through contracts for initial F-35 test aircraft, as a way of entrenching their country’s commitment. A July 2012 vote left only the center-right VVD and Christian Democrats supporting an F-35 buy, and after the elections, a coalition with the opposition PvdA Labour party changed the process for reaching that 2015 decision. Whether it will change anything else remains to be seen.

Norway (Tier 3)

RNoAF F-16,
off to Libya
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Norway picked the F-35A in November 2008, after a competition that Wikileaks documents suggest was a sham. Parliamentary opposition finally caved in July 2011, and purchases began in 2012. They will buy 46-52 F-35s, with an initial 4 training aircraft slated to begin delivery in 2015. Another 42-48 planned fighters are slated to begin turning into contracts as of 2017, and the program’s official overall cost currently lists as NOK 60 billion/ $FY12 10 billion. Basing will be at Orland AB, with a satellite forward operating base up north at Evenes.

As part of their program, Norway’s Kongsberg is developing a stealthy, sub-sonic Joint Strike Missile (JSM/NSM) that will be able to hit ships or land targets, and can be carried inside the F-35A/C weapons bay. Its positioning as an internally-carried cruise missile will be unique, and Australia has already indicated interest. At present, however, there’s no firm date for integration.

Read “F-35 Lightning II Wins Norway’s (Fake) Competition” for full coverage.

Turkey (Tier 3)

TuAF F-16s
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Turkey had talked about ordering up to 100 F-35A fighters, as the long-term replacement for its 240-plane F-16 fleet. beyond the program’s industrial benefits, they also have a geopolitical rationale. Turkey’s main rival, Greece, has been crippled by its fiscal situation, and is not an F-35 program participant. They’re unlikely to field any fighters with technology beyond their existing F-16s for quite some time, and Turkey wants an edge. The Turks are also beginning to project influence into Central Asia, have neighbors in Syria, Iraq and Iran that bear watching, and are stoking a growing level of friction with Israel, an F-35 customer.

In the near term, a combination of new buys and upgrades will ensure a long life for Turkey’s F-16s. Current plans still involve 100 F-35s, and 2012 saw the first contract – but by January 2013, Turkey was postponing its purchase of 2 training and test aircraft. The overall program is expected to cost around $16 billion.

Israel (Security Cooperation Partner)

Israeli F-16C
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With 326 F-16s in the IAF (224 F-16A-D, 102 F-16i), Israel is the largest F-16 operator outside of the United States. Their commitment to regional superiority made them the first country outside the USA to commit to a production F-35 buy in October 2010, with a contract for 20 “F-35is” and options to raise that number to 75 planes. The F-22 Raptor had been their preferred choice, but America refused to export it.

The Israelis got some concessions from Lockheed Martin and the US government, including the ability to insert their own ECM(Electronic Counter Measures) defensive equipment. Their F-35i will also carry compatible communications equipment and some avionics, and the Israelis are expected to push for early integration of their own weapons, like RAFAEL’s Python 5 short-range air-to-air missile and Spice GPS/IIR guided smart bomb. F-35i system development contracts began in August 2012.

Read “Israeli Plans to Buy F-35s Moving Forward” for full coverage.

Singapore (Security Cooperation Partner)

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Singapore expects to replace its 74-plane F-16 fleet with F-35s, but they have a lot of timing flexibility. A program of significant fleet upgrades to F-16V status is expected to begin within the next year, giving them a plane that’s more advanced than USAF F-16s. Their new fleet of 20 high-end F-15SGs are already more advanced than the USAF’s Strike Eagles, and their combined fleet size and quality is expected to keep them comfortably ahead of their neighbors for a while.

In the nearer term, their fleet of about 34 upgraded F-5S/T fighters will need replacement. Singapore is reported to be about to announce an order for 12 F-35Bs, as part of a larger export approval request that could go as high as 75 planes. Their alternative would be to order more F-15SGs as F-5 replacements, and wait until it was time to begin replacing their F-16s. An order of 12 Strike Eagles would cost less, and would offer a much wider array of capabilities until about 2025 or later. F-35Bs would offer more risk, and would enter service much later, in exchange for stealth and the ability to take off and land from damaged runways.

Exports: Beyond the Program Team


F-4EJ “Kai(zen)”
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The F-22 Raptor had been Japan’s preferred choice, but America refused to export it. In December 2011, therefore, Japan picked the F-35A over Boeing’s F/A-18E Super Hornet International, and the Eurofighter Typhoon. The F-35A was said to have the best capabilities, based only on mathematical analysis of the paper submissions Japan received. It eked out a narrow “Gilligan win” on overall cost by offering dorsal aerial refueling and finishing 2nd in both sub-categories, and was even with the others in terms of maintenance contracts offered. The only major category it lost was domestic industrial participation, but the winning Eurofighter bid had cost issues with that aspect of its submission.

The JASDF has an approved Foreign Military Sale request for 42 F-35As, and has committed to 4 so far. This set of 42 F-35As will replace its fleet of 91 upgraded F-4 “Phantom Kai” fighters. Eventually, Japan will also need to replace about 213 F-15J Eagle air superiority fighters with at least 100 new planes, but the F-35 will have to compete for that.

Past fighter orders from Japan have involved extensive license production. So fa

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