Good news for a troubled aircraft: the United States Marine Corps (USMC) for the first time during operational training, has dropped live weapons from its Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II aircraft. The aircraft and pilots involved, belong to Fighter Attack Squadron VMFA-121 ‘Green Knights’.
The operational training was conducted from 22 June until 26 June from Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona. A total of 14 pilots used six F-35Bs to employ both inert and high-explosive munitions. In total, 18 Guided Bomb Unit (GBU) 12s, and 12 GBU-32s were employed during the training. The weapons are the same as those dropped by legacy Marine Corps fixed-wing aircraft. The weapons were released over a Restricted Area in southeastern California.
The USMC’s fleet F-35Bs needs to demonstrate the ability to employ ordnance for the squadron to declare Initial Operating Capability (IOC). The squadron will be the very first squadron anywhere to reach IOC on the F-35.
Question marks remain around the 5th generation fighter aircraft however. A recent report this week said the type earlier this year was unable to beat the F-16 it replaces in close range dogfights. The F-35 Joint Program Office responded by saying the F-35 involved was not up to production standard and that the aircraft is designed with beyond visual range (BVR) combat in mind.
The US Air Force depot at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, has completed upgrades to two United States Marine Corps (USMC) F-35B Lightning IIs, just weeks before the type is expected to reach Initial Operational Capability (IAC) with the USMC. The upgrade works last four months and took 24,000 man hours to complete.
The work required maintainers to overcome numerous challenges, said a spokeperson. “They removed sections of the aircraft that many thought would never be removed, they strengthened wing ribs and worked in areas that required rare micro-tolerances.”
The first upgraded Lockheed Martin F-35B performed a test flight on 18 June, also using its Short Take Off Vertical Landing (STOVL) capability at Hill. The second aircraft follows this week.
Both aircraft arrived at Hill for upgrades in February, remarkably with less than a week’s notice from the USMC. The Marines are expected to be the first to reach IOC with their F-35Bs. Recently, six aircraft deployed to sea for extenstive testing.
The somewhat odd-looking K-Max heavy-lift utility helicopter is back in production. Manufacturer Kaman Corporation announced the start of it on Friday 5 June, with the plants in Jacksonville (Florida) and Bloomfield (Connecticut) both active in the process. The first new K-Max is expected to fly out to its customer in Q1-2017.
The K-Max choppers are already used in the firefighting and logging business, where continuous aerial lift is required. Moreover, are two K-Max operational with the US Marine Corps where they have been turned into unmanned choppers by Lockheed Martin. Those USMC machines carried 4.5 million pounds of cargo during the military operations in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2014.
Launch customers of the new production K-Max include current users, like Rotex Helicopter of Switzerland and Helicopter Express of Chamblee, Georgia, USA. Rotex used the machines for forestry in Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria and Germany. Rotex is ordered two new aircraft. Kaman expects the first 10 new K-Max choppers to give the company a revenue of 75 to 85 million dollar.
The original K-Max was certified for flight by the US Federal Aviation Administration in 1994. When the first production cycle ended in 2003 Kaman produced 38 machines.
The K-Max is a single-engine, single-seat helicopter, with a counter-rotating rotor system. It is optimized for external load operations with the need for vertical flight and known for its low-maintenance and operating costs, with about USD 1,200 per flight hour. The K-Max can lift up to 6,000 pounds (2,722 kg).
The United States Marine Corps (USMC) wrapped up operational tests with six Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning IIs on board aircraft carrier USS Wasp last week. Pilots of various USMC squadrons clocked up a total of 85 flight hours in 110 sorties and each performed four take offs and landings at night.
The test, known as OT-1, marks the most F-35s ever deployed at sea at once and was meant to assess the integration of the F-35B into current assets and procedures. The aircraft were flown in varying configurations during both day and night time. Refueling and weapons loading was also tested.
For night landing, the pilots could not yet use the F-35’s Distributed Aperture System, which by the use of six infrared sensors provides the pilot with an complete 360 degrees infrared picture, even allowing them to look at things “through” the aircraft.
According to the USMC, the test team encountered zero ‘show stoppers’ while at sea. The Marines hope to reach initial operating capability (IOC) with their new fighter aircraft in July. Full combat readiness seems a long way however, since the F-35 still suffers from many teething problems, such as weapons integration, maintainability and reliability issues.
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.