The Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II on Tuesday 22 November took a major hit. Not in any mock 1 vs 1 dog fight or any large scale military exercise, but in the political arena. By choosing the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet as an interim solution to its immediate fighter jet needs, Canada is signalling that the F-35’s development takes to long and its price tag is to high.
Canada is looking to buy 18 Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets as immediate replacements of ageing ‘legacy’ model F-18 Hornets. If a deal with Boeing is finalized, delivery of new jets should take no more than two or three years.
With the F-35, that would take considerably longer, not to mention the fact that development and testing of this 5th generation fighter jet – and its software along with it – may not even be finished by then. Recent progress in the program still doesn’t mean the jet is capable of firing its internal gun, for example.
Canada has pondered and postponed an F-35 purchase for many years. Today’s selection of the Super Hornet does not exclude the possibility that the Canadian government in Ottawa may still purchase the F-35 at a later stage. However, the 400 billion USD weapons program has been the subject of much criticism in Canada, especially its 100 million USD per piece price tag.
Nevertheless, Canada’s choice is remarkable and concerning for Lockheed Martin and the F-35’s Joint Program Office (JPO) in Washington, since the country is a level 3 partner in the program. Other level 3 partners are Australia, Norway, Denmark, Turkey, all of which have selected the F-35 as their new fighter jet.
In fact, Canada now is unique in being the only partner nation in the program not to actually buy the F-35 – for now. By doing so, it’s industry will benefit from taking part in the program, without tax payers having to cough up billions of dollars to actually buy the jets. For other nations however, it means that their jets will have higher price tags, since fewer jets sold means that development and production costs per aircraft remain higher than anticipated. That will cause some sour faces in other partner nations.
Yes, both Lockheed Martin and Ottawa will downplay this and probably point to a possible Canadian fighter jet competition still to be held. But the truth is, it is a major hit for the JPO’s promise of lower unit costs and the F-35’s reputation – which saw a change for the better in 2016, partly due to appearances in the Netherlands and the UK.
It will be interesting to see what comes out of other fighter jet competitions that see the F-35 and Super Hornet go head to head, such as the current ones in Belgium and Finland. The former beat the latter earlier this year in Denmark. Following today’s decision in Canada, that makes the score even.
The first pictures leaked out several weeks ago and the aircraft already took to the skies since, but Friday 23 September saw the official roll out ceremony for the very first Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II for the Japan Air Self Defense Force (JASDF).
The unveiled aircraft is one of four to be built by Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, Texas. The remaining 38 JASDF Lightnings will be build in a brand new Final Assembly and Check-Out (FACO) in Nagoya, Japan. Assembly of the first aircraft at this location is very much underway.
Irronically, the jet rolled out on Friday is amongst those suffering from a recently found problem, causing insulation to disolve in the aircraft’s fuel tanks. Dozens of F-35s have been grounded over this.
The introduction of the stealthy jet will mean the beginning of the end for the F-4 Phantom in Japanese service. The remaining F-4 fighters and RF-4 recconaissance jets are now centred at Hyakuri airbase, close to Tokyo. The F-35 will operate in the JASDF alongside Boeing F-15 Eagles and Mitsubishi F-2 jets, all produced locally.
The Japanese are known to paint jets in spectacular colors every now and then, but not so with this new F-35. Even the traditional red Japanese markings have been subdued to grey. Earlier this year, the Israelis – while not afraid to adorn their F-15s and F-16s with nice paint jobs – also refrained so from doing this with the F-35.
It begs the question: which air force will be the first to do some nice color blocking on an F-35?
Faulty wiring has caused 15 Lockheed Martin F-35A’s to be grounded in the US, while 42 aircraft currently in production in Fort Worth are affected by the same problem. The news was made public solely by the Royal Norwegian Air Force, which saw two of its four F-35s stationed at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, affected by the problem.
The state-of-the-art and highly expensive F-35 uses its fuel tanks as part of its on-board cooling system. Several cooling lines have been installed inside the tanks to allow cooling liquid for the aircraft’s avionics and other systems to pass through. The lines are covered in insulating materials that in some cases have been found to decompose, leaving residue in the fuel.
The issue first came to light during inspection of a US aircraft at Luke, following which 14 more F-35s were found to be affected by the same problem. Among those are two jets that Norway received from Lockheed Martin earlier in 2016, leading to a decision by Norwegian authorities to temporarily suspend flight operations with these aircraft pending corrective measures.
According to the Norwegians the problem is not a design flaw, but instead is caused by a supplier using improper materials and improper sealing techniques for these specific parts. “I expect Lockheed Martin to identify the appropriate measures to correct this issue, and that they implement these as quickly as possible, says Major General Morten Klever, the director of the Norwegian F-35 Program Office.”
Lockheed Martin appears to have no choice, since an additional 42 jets currently on the production line have received parts from the same provider, including three Norwegian aircraft scheduled for delivery early next year.
Norway plans to procure up to 52 F-35A, and has so far received four aircraft. Beginning in 2017, Norway plans to receive six aircraft annually, and the F-35 will begin taking over missions from the current F-16-fleet in 2019. As of September 2016 more than 200 F-35s have been delivered, including test aircraft, which have completed more than 68 000 flight hours, including roughly four hundred hours with Norwegian F-35s.
It is a kingdom known by its beautiful fjords, shock-and-awe inland scenery and very friendly, maybe slightly reserved people. Once a domain of Norman the Scandinavian country stretched on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean is prepping to be have some new toughness to show: the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II. Airheadsfly.com dug into the Norwegian view of what is coming. This is what we got back from our sources inside the Norwegian Armed Forces.
As announced by the Royal Norwegian Air Force in July, a total of ten F-35s will be on strength by late Summer 2017. Three of these will be flown to Norway before the end of next year. Initially they will form part of the Operational Training and Evaluation (OT&E) effort, before becoming part of the first Norwegian F-35 squadron. As of 2019, the F-35 will take over roles and missions of the current F-16 fighter jet. In that year Norway expects to declare Initial Operational Capability with the F-35. But which roles will be taken first, has not officially been confirmed yet.
Evenes to become “combat base”
The future Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) in the north will be at Evenes, near Narvik. It is a big move north from Bødo, Airheadsfly.com feels. Evenes was initially chosen as a Forward Operating Base that would mainly utilize existing infrastructure to support the F-35. But, under a more recently presented long-term plan, Evenes will be a “combat base” for the RNoAF, “including operations with new maritime patrol aircraft” that Norway will choose to replace the aging Lockheed P-3 Orions at Andenes.
“Evenes will also gain dedicated ground defence and ground based air defence systems.” However, no details on when the “significant investments in infrastructure will be made that go above and beyond what is required for the previously planned QRA functions of Evenes” a Norwegian Armed Forces spokesperson writes to Airheadsfly.com. The F-35s are to commence operations from Evenes in 2021 or 2022, with the new plans for Evenes first having to go through the Norwegian parliament for approval.
Current Norwegian Air Force bases of Andenes and Bardufoss were deemed not feasible for F-35 operations after the closure of Bødo. “The primary reason was noise concerns, along with other technical considerations related to the ability to conduct fighter operations in line with the stated requirements.” Bodø Air Station’s air strip has already been formally transferred to civilian aviation authorities, ahead of its future closure, after the last passenger aircraft landed there on 1 August 2016.
Joint Strike Missile
Oslo is confident that the F-35 will perform and will be better than than the F-16, also when it comes to operations in the Arctics. “The F-35 will provide a marked improvement over the F-16 in all aspects of High North operations. It offers superior range and situational awareness, and will allow Norway to operate freely throughout our air space under all conditions thanks to its survivability.
The addition of long-range precision guided weapons such as the Joint Strike Missile will also add considerably to the capabilities of the Norwegian Armed Forces.” The Joint Strike Missile (JSM) is developed by Norway’s own Kongsberg Defence Systems as a Anti Surface Warfare and Naval Fire Support weapon that even includes a Link 16 connection.
When it comes to operations a long way from base – like in the Arctics, over the Atlantic Ocean or down a long the many many miles of coast line – aerial refuelling might seem like a logic addition to the capabilities of the Air Force. But Norway is not considering any air tankers of its own, nor is it planning modification to the current fleet of four C-130J Hercules transport aircraft to be able to provide in-flight refueling. “However, Norway continues to explore the possibility of contributing to a multinational effort to strengthen the availability of air refueling tankers in Europe.”
Oslo is confident it can defend any of its territories, including Svalbard. Airheadsfly.com stands corrected that Svalbard – of which parts are allowed to be run by Russia – is in fact not a demilitarized zone. “Norway has full and absolute sovereignty over Svalbard. Svalbard is not demilitarized as such, however the Svalbard Treaty puts certain limitations on the use of military force against other states from or on Svalbard.
This does not exclude the use of military force pursuant to self-defense as defined in the UN-charter, article 51. The Norwegian government, as the sovereign on Svalbard, has the right and obligation to ensure that other states do not exploit Svalbard for military purposes. As such, Norway has the right to defend Svalbard militarily and Svalbard is an acknowledged part of NATO’s area of responsibility, as defined in the North Atlantic Treaty, article 6. Beyond that, we do not wish to discuss specific plans for responding to any potential future threats against Norwegian territory.”
During his presentation at the Lockheed Martin / RIAT 2016 press conference at RAF Fairford in July by RNoAF’s Lt. Col. Tesli, Norway’s main F-35 pilot and Norwegian F-35 detachment senior officer, the F-35 can expand the range of for example the navy by serving as its airborne recon/targeting gathering platform.
“Providing reconnaissance and targeting is not in itself a new role for the Norwegian Air Force. The F-35 forms part of a wider development where both platforms, sensors and weapons of all services gradually add range and capability, and where the F-35 in particular provides our joint force the ability to find, track, and effectively engage targets at significantly greater distances than we have been able to in the past,” a Norwegian F-35 Program spokesperson writes to Airheadsfly.com.
The F-35 Integrated Test Force (ITF) at Edwards Air Force Base, California, recently completed 25 missions comprising of 12 Weapons Delivery Accuracy (WDA) and 13 Weapon Separation Tests as part of a month-long weapon’s firing test surge. Historically, only one WDA take places every month given the myriad of coordination required. The highest number previously accomplished in a month, was three in November of 2014 during 2B software testing.
These successful test events — performed using the F-35’s newest block 3F software — demonstrated the accuracy of the Lockheed Martin fighter jet. Five of the test events featured dropping multiple weapons. The F-35 weapons test team was given exclusive use of the Sea Test Range, an instrumented Pacific Ocean test area off the central coast near Point Mugu Naval Air Station, California. Tests were also conducted at the US Navy’s China Lake Weapons Range, California and the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.
During the surge period, a total of 30 weapons were dropped or fired, including the Joint Direct Attack Munition, AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile, GPS-guided 250-pound Small Diameter Bomb, AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air heat-seeking missile and GPS/laser-guided munition.
“The WDAs rely on the full capability of the F-35 — multiple sensors, navigation, weapons envelope, mission planning, data links and inter-agency range scheduling — all working in sequence to put steel on target,” said Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, F-35 Program Executive Officer. “This was a tremendous effort by the F-35 test team. They surged and worked seven days a week for more than a month to expend 30 ordnance and advance weapons testing. This testing has moved us that much closer to delivering the full F-35 capability to warfighters within the next two years.”
The F-35 is a multi-role, next-generation fighter that combines advanced stealth with speed, agility and a 360-degree view of the battlespace. The F-35 will form the backbone of air combat superiority for decades to come and replace legacy tactical fighter fleets with dominant air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities to deter and defeat potential adversaries.
The US Marine Corps declared the F-35B combat-ready IOC in July 2015, the U.S. Air Force declared F-35A IOC earlier this August. The US Navy intends to attain F-35C IOC in 2018. More than 200 F-35s have flown in excess of 66 thousand fleet-wide hours, with over 300 F-35 pilots and 3,000 maintainers trained to operate and support this next-generation aircraft.