The US Department of Defense is seeking Congressional approval to buy another 400 (!) Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II stealthy multi-role fighters at once. Defense Undersecretary Frank Kendall said this on Friday 29 May during a press conference. Aim is to buy for both the US armed forces and export partners and get a large discount in the process.
Currently orders for the future backbone of many air forces are placed in batches of tens up to 150 a year, but the Pentagon thinks it could get a larger reduction from Lockheed Martin if it orders 400 jets at once, to be produced over the course of three fiscal years: 2018 to 2021. In between the lines: such a block buy would also ensure a fairly quick modernization of many of NATO’s and other allies air forces with a capable 5th generation fighter jet to keep up the pace with Russia and China. Cutting down on the current unit base cost of 98 to 116 million per aircraft will certainly help.
Three base versions
Lockheed Martin is producing the Lightning II in three base version. The F-35A is the conventional take off and landing (CTOL) variant originally designed for the US Air Force, with more than 1,750 planned.
The F-35B is the short-take off and vertical-landing (STOVL) version for the US Marine Corps, which is planning 420 aircraft including some of the C-variant developped for the US Navy. This F-35C is adapted for carrier-based (CV) operations but lacks the vertical landing and hover option of the USMC jets (which can land on carriers as well of course). That should make the C both cheaper and easier to fly, and easier to maintain. The US Navy plans for 260 F-35Cs.
Britain’s Royal Air Force/Royal Navy are also buying the most advanced version. The UK’s F-35Bs are to operate from the RN’s two new large aircraft carriers: HMS Queen Elizabeth to be commissioned in 2016 (initially without the F-35s, because they are not ready yet) and the HMS Prince of Wales planned for 2020. A total of 48 F-35Bs are ordered, of which 4 are in testing phase, with plans for another 32 or more.
Both the Italian Air Force and Navy are to operate the F-35, with 15 B-versions planned for the Marina Militare – to fly from the aircraft carrier C 550 Cavour – and 60 F-35As for the Aeronautica Militare (with 6 ordered so far). Italy is much involved in the F-35 program, with the Finmeccanica-Alenia Aermacchi being a strategic part of the production. On 26 May the first F-35A wing-set produced by the Italian manufacturer at its plant in Camiri entered the F-35 production line in Fort Worth, Texas, USA. , marking a milestone for the Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT)-Alenia Aermacchi collaboration on the program. Finmeccanica-Alenia Aermacchi has been contracted for 835 full wing assemblies. Italy is even producing entire aircraft.
All other export orders are for the “simplest” F-35A variant: to the Turkish Air Force (100 planned); the Royal Australian Air Force (72 ordered of which 2 in testing; with the Australians making hundreds of tails); the Royal Norwegian Air Force (52 planned of which 16 ordered); the Japan Air-Self Defense Force (42 planned of which 5 ordered); the Republic of Korea Air Force (40 ordered) and the Royal Netherlands Air Force (37 planned of which 8 ordered with 2 in testing).
The Israeli Air Force plans for 75 F-35Is, which are F-35As with Israeli modifications such as in the electronics on board. Thirty-three F-35Is are ordered, with the first 2 to be delivered in 2017. The Royal Canadian Air Force is opting for the CF-35, which will be an A-variant with a drag parachute (like the Norwegian jets; handy on short icy runways) and possible a refuelling probe like on the F-35Bs and Cs. Denmark and Belgium are likely to choose for the F-35A as well.
Embedding at sea
Just this week the USS Wasp has seen the debut of the first semi combat-ready F-35 unit-style training at sea ever, after the US Air Force put 10 of its jets through a deployment in April. Six F-35Bs flew more than a hundred sorties, clocking 85.5 flight hours during Operational Testing 1 (OT-1) to see how the embedding at sea is going. Royal Air Force and Royal Navy personnel went along as well, to use the experience to incorporate on their vessels once the F-35s are delivered. Meanwhile Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 at MCAS Yuma in Arizona is working to reach initial operational capability in Mid-2015, becoming the world’s first F-35 combat unit.
© 2015 Airheadsfly.com editor Marcel Burger,
including source information provided by Lockheed Martin, the US DoD and the US Marine Corps
Featured image (top): A F-35A standard variant (Image © Lockheed Martin)