Monday 3 November 2014 is supposed to be a big day for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, as two F-35Cs are flying out today to the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz to start the very first live carrier trials using the aircrafts’ arrestor hook and carrier’s catapult system. The trials are planned to last two weeks.
Update 3 November 23.15 hrs CET: First of two F-35Cs is reported to have successfully landed on board USS Nimitz, using the Dutch made arrestor hook. Pictures to follow.
The F-35C is the US Navy variant of the new, 5th generation combat plane. It features the tailhook, but also bigger wings to allow for better lift and slow speed handling, essential for carrier operations. The two F-35C will meet USS Nimitz somewhere off the coast of San Diego, California.
The F-35C tailhook system has been tested in dry runs on land. Also, catapult launches have been performed on land as well. Nevertheless, the live carrier trials are said to be another milestone in the 400 billion USD weapons program. The program suffered a set back last summer, when an F-35A was extensively damaged following an engine fire. The ensuing grounding prevent the Lightning II to show up at its own international airshow debut, causing a major PR nightmare.
The fault that caused the fire is said to have been identified within the Pratt & Whitney F-135 engine that powers the F-35. A rubber-like sealing material reportedly got much hotter than it was designed. Pratt & Whitney is working on a solution.
There will be no standard land-based F-35A as a second version of the Lightning II within the United Kingdom. The UK solely commits to the more expensive F-35B to replace the Harrier in Royal Navy operations and will not supplement or replace some of them by the land-based A-alternative to save money.
This was said by Philip Dunne, the Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology at the Defence Security and Equipment International event in London this week. The idea of a mixed fleet is more than three years old. It would give the UK a very much mixed fighter fleet with sort of the same types of aircraft like with the Tornado GR/F and Harrier/Sea Harrier forces.
By choosing the F-35B alone, budget limitations will very much determine the final amount of Lightning IIs to be bought. Plans now call for 48 F-35Bs, operated by units with both RAF and RN personnel, mostly as the air force for the future aircraft carriers within the Royal Navy.
Some sources say the final number of F-35s might even be close to a 140 aircraft. But even with the appropriate funds that number might very much depend on the geopolitical situation of the near future. In other words: if f. ex. Russia poses a bigger threat the number will be higher, if there are more friends than foes the UK’s F-35 force might stay at 48.
US West Coast
In the meantime the US Navy will soon decide over where to base 100 of their F-35C carrier-capable fighters, equipping up to eight squadrons that currently fly the F/A-18C Hornet. The final choice is between Californian bases Lemoore and El Centro. Naval Air Station Lemoore would strategically probably be the best option. It is situated close to Fresno, more or less halfway both San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Naval Air Facility El Centro, east of San Diego almost right on the Mexican border, would make most sense if Mexico rather than China is a threat to the national interests of the United States. But being a bit more remotely located and with mostly great weather conditions, NAF El Centro provides a great training ground. Final decision on the West Coast F-35C base is expected before Christmas.