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 first US F-35 Lightning II aircraft to be based outside the US, arrived in Japan on 18 January. Jets belonging to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121 touched down at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni near Hiroshima, beginning the squadron’s permanent basing here. Interestingly, the journey from the US took the F-35’s over a week to complete.
The aircraft involved are of the vertical short take off & landing variant and within the United States Marine Corps (USMC) replaces the AV-8B Harrier, F/A-18 Hornet and EA-6B Prowler. The USMC was the first to reach to reach Initial Operational Capability (IOC) on Lockheed Martin’s new fighter jet.
“The arrival of the F-35B embodies our commitment to the defense of Japan and the regional-security of the Pacific,” said Maj. Gen. Russell Sanborn, the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing Commanding General. “We are bringing the most advanced technology to the Pacific to respond to the wide range of missions we take part in and provide greater support to our regional allies.”
Prior to arriving in Iwakuni, VMFA-121 was stationed with the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at MCAS Yuma, Arizona. During the squadron’s time in Arizona, the aircraft successfully participated in numerous exercises and training events. “Our training in the U.S. has prepared us well for our mission here in Japan and we are very honored to have such a warm welcome,” said U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. J. T. Bardo, commanding officer of VMFA-121.
No comment was given on why the flight from the US to Japan took over a week to complete.
The price of a single Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is set to fall, Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson said last week. She announced the cost reduction as part of pending deal with deal with US president-elect Donald Trump. The deal should also see the creation of thousands of extra US jobs. It puts a a lot of extra pressure on the F-35 program.
According to Hewson, the price of the next 90 aircraft will reduce significantly under the deal. The question remains by how much the F-35’s unit price will fall and how this relates to a price reduction announced earlier. Currently, the price is 98 million USD for a single ‘vanilla’ F-35A, but that price was already set to drop to 85 million USD by 2020, as result of ‘numerous affordability measures to drive costs out of the program.’ Both the F-35B and F-35C versions remain more expensive than the F-35A.
The reduction mentioned by Hewson most likely concerns aircraft in Low Rate Initial Producion (LRIP) lot 10, which is currently being negotiated and includes 94 jets for the US plus other nations . A deal on LRIP-9 was only signed last November, involving 57 aircraft worth 6.1 billion USD. The cost of LRIP-9 was the subject of many months of hassle and talks between Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon.
It most likely these drawn out negotiations that sparked Trump’s criticism. Meetings with several top Pentagon and F-35 program officials did little to impress Trump. On the contrary, it probably only incented him in his determination to drive down costs. As we wrote earlier, he may actually do the US a favour by doing so.
Air Force One
It’s the second time Trump appears to have pressured a large aircraft manufacturer in lowering costs, the first of course being Boeing. After Trump’s threat to cancel the contract for a new Air Force One, Boeing was quick to say that it will keep costs below 4 billion USD.
But Trump’s victories so far only exists on paper. Wether Lockheed Martin and Boeing indeed succeed in keeping down costs, remains to be seen. It will be interesting to see also how they do it. And it will also be interesting to see Trump’s response if they fail – not to mention the response of F-35 customers. They already knew the unit price was set to fall, but now they’re counting on even lower prices.
It puts a of pressure on a weapons program that is anything but pressure-free.
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.