US Secretary of Defense Mattis has ordered a complete review of both the F-35 program and the program to replace the current Boeing VC-25 aircraft in their role as Air Force One. The review of the F-35 is to include a comparison with the F-18 Super Hornet.
The announcement should come as no surprise, given president Trumps recent criticism of both programs. Even before his inauguration on 20 January, Trump said F-35 costs are out of control while at the same time he asked Boeing to come up with the F-18 Super Hornet as a reasonably priced alternative.
For the F-35, a recent DOT&E report by the Pentagon’s own watchdog is an excellent starting point. That report mentions plenty of delays in F-35 development and testing.
It remains uncertain what the outcome of both reviews could be. Chances of the program being cancelled are close to zero given the program’s strategic and economic importance. However, the naval F-35C version may be under threat. The DOT&E mentions persistent problems in this version specifically.
In a response, Lockheed Martin said it ‘stands ready’ to support the review. Earlier, both Lockheed Martin and Boeing promised to keep costs down. This fresh review will put even more pressure on both manufacturers to actually make up on that promise.
US Navy Air Station Lemoore in California on Wednesday 25 January saw the arrival of the first Lockheed Martin F-35C Lightning IIs. Lemoore is the first West Coast naval installation to have F-35Cs permanently assigned. By the end of this year, the base will have ten F-35Cs assigned, building to more than 100 jets in the early 2020s.
The four jets now belong to VFA-125 Rough Raiders, which earlier flew F-18 Hornets and has now been reestablished as a Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS). The squadron is to gain no less than 30 Lightning IIs. The squadron is expected to reach Initial Operational Capbility (IOC) on the new jet in 2018.
Back in 2014, Lemoore was chosen over Naval Air Facility El Centro as the US Navy’s West Coast F-35 base. According to the US Navy, Lemoore meets operational needs and minimizes potential environmental impact. Apart from the FRS, Lemoore is to house seven Navy Pacific Fleet squadrons with 10 aircraft per squadron.
US Navy F-35C’s are also based at Edwards Air Base in California for test purposes.
The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II on Monday 23 January kicks off its very first participation in the US Air Force’s famous Red Flag exercise at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas. The F-35s involved belong to the 388th Fighter Wing and 419th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base.
Red Flag is widely regarded as the most prestigious air warfare exercise anywhere. While involved in the exercise, the Hill F-35s will fly alongside dozens of other fighter aircraft and provide offensive and defensive counter air, suppression of enemy air defenses, and limited close air support. Among the other aircraft are also Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptors
The US Air Force declared the F-35A combat ready in August last year. Red Flag marks the first major exercise since then. “Our airmen are excited to bring the F-35 to a full-spectrum combat exercise,” said Col. David Lyons, 388th FW commander. “This battle space is going to be a great place to leverage our stealth and interoperability. It’s a lethal platform and I’m confident we will prove to be an invaluable asset to the commander.”
“Red Flag is hands-down the best training in the world to ensure our Airmen are fully mission ready,” said Col. David Smith, 419th FW commander. “It’s as close to combat operations as you can get. Our Reserve pilots and maintainers are looking forward to putting the F-35A weapon system to the test alongside our active duty partners to bring an unprecedented combat capability.”
The current edition of Red Flag runs until 10 February.
The F-35 program celebrated the delivery of the 200th operational jet this week. The aircraft, the second destined for the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF), departed Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth production facility for Luke Air Force Base, where it will be used to train Japanese pilots. Meanwhile, an official Pentagon progress report mentions continued delays in the F-35’s development and testing schedule.
Along with the delivery of the 200th jet, Lockheed Martin reports that the entire program has now logged 75,000 flight hours while training more than 380 pilots and 3,700 maintainers. Also, the year 2017 kicked off favourably for the F-35, with the first deployment of operational jets to Japan.
However – apart from Donald Trump’s fierce remarks on the F-35 – the program’s Director Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E) mentions delay after delay in development and testing in a fresh report released this week by the Pentagon. The delays among other issues concern development of the ‘full warfighting capability’ block 3i software, plus problems related to weapons delivery and the aircaft’s gun system, which is now being tested. Also, the report mentions the issues US Navy pilots experience during catapult launches.
Structural deficiencies are reported in the aircraft’s tail section. Furthermore, a new version of the F-35’s Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) was supposed to be released in 2016, but this failed to materialize. During operational tests, maintainance crews struggled with the huge amounts of data ALIS generates.
As a result, Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) will likely not start as scheduled in August 2017, but perhaps as late as in 2019.
© 2017 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest
Breaking news today, as the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II started its first operational deployment outside the US ever. Departing Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona, on 9 January, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121 headed for Iwakuni airbase in Japan, bringing along their F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) jets.
From Yuma and in the company of KC-10 tanker aircraft, the F-35s first headed for Elmendorf airbase in Alaska, from where they should continue to their new base Japan. Iwakuni is a regular destination for United States Marine Corps (USMC) fighter jets, but this marks the first time the F-35B is send abroad operationally and in fact marks the first operational deployment for the F-35 ever. The step can be regarded as a huge one for the F-35 program, the biggest and most expensive weapon’s program ever in history.
Operations & tests
In July 2015, VMFA-121 was the very first squadron to reach Initial Operational Capability (IOC) on Lockheed Martin’s 5th generation fighter jet. In October 2016, a contingent of USMC F-35B’s, pilots and maintainers participated in Developmental Test III and the Lightning Carrier Proof of Concept Demonstration aboard the USS America (LHA-6). The final test period ensured the plane could operate in the most extreme at-sea conditions, with a range of weapons loadouts and with the newest software variant.
China & Trump
The deployment was announced for this year earlier, but the apparent eagerness for the deployment comes a surprise. This could very well be to deter China from further venturing out in international waters, but also to show president-elect Donald Trump that the F-35 is perfectly capable of operational deployment. Trump, who is just ten days away from being inaugurated as the next US president, showed no sympathy for the F-35 in late 2016, hinting the US would be better of with more F/A-18 Super Hornets.
The year 2017 is likely to also see a deployment of US Air Force F-35s to Europe. The USAF reached IOC on the new jet in 2016. That same year saw US F-35s heading out to Europe for the first time, albeit not for actual operational flying. The purpose of that visit was taking part in airshows in the UK.
© 2017 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest