After years of delays and cost overruns, the Air Force Tuesday declared the F-35A Lightning II — a stealth aircraft with advanced capabilities to reach high-threat targets around the globe — ready for combat.
The announcement comes days after the aircraft fired an air-to-air missile to shoot down a target drone and weeks after it dropped 15 of 16 bombs on targets and avoided being shot down by F-15 fighter jets in a training exercise, the Air Force reported.
“The fact of the matter is this airplane is, like the F-22 was, is going to give us capabilities we do not have today and it will take us to the next generation of airplanes,” Air Combat Command Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle said in a conference call with reporters.
Carlisle said the advanced sensors and electronic warfare capabilities allow the F-35A to access previously unreachable targets with unmatched pilot situational awareness. The jet is not yet at full capability, however. “We have a lot of work left to do,” he said.
Part of that work is lowering the weight of a $400,000 next generation flight helmet. Wright-Patterson’s F-35 Division, which has had a key role developing the fifth-generation stealth jet’s technology over the last decade and a half, has worked on that issue to make ejection safer for lower weight pilots now barred from flying the Air Force’s F-35A.
The jet debuted locally at the Vectren Dayton Air Show in June.
The Air Force plans to buy 1,763 of the planes at a current price of $108 million a piece with a goal to lower the cost to less than $80 million by 2019. Lockheed Martin won the weapons contract — the most expensive in U.S. history — to build the plane 15 years ago.
‘Come a long way’
“In the last few years the airplane has come a long way,” said Robert B. Fookes, chief of flight systems at the F-35 Division at Wright-Patterson. He has worked on the F-35 program longer than any Air Force employee.
“We’ve had a lot of technical issues, but I think if you look at the history of legacy programs, this is the growing pains of next generation-type technology,” he said. “This is the most advanced fighter out there.”
The Pentagon expects to buy 2,443 of the jets for the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy at a cost of nearly $400 billion. Hundreds if not thousands more planes would be sold to allies.
Critics contend the plane’s delays in software development, maintenance downtime and a lack of testing to find cyber vulnerabilities put the plane years from combat readiness.
An independent watchdog group has concerns the combat ready declaration is “driven by public relations pressures to show the program is making progress and not by demonstrated combat capabilities for the F-35,” according to Mandy Smithberger, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project On Government Oversight.
She said the Marine Corps “prematurely” declared its vertical take-off and landing F-35B ready for combat last year. “The F-35 is far from achieving the reliability and maintainability needed to be deployable,” she said in an email.
Making the flight helmet lighter became a priority when the Air Force barred pilots who weigh less than 136 pounds from flying the F-35A because of concerns they had a higher likelihood of a neck injury or a chance of a fatality when ejecting, officials said.
The F-35 has a helmet-mounted display that beams flight data inside a pilot’s visor. The additional electronics built into the helmet added to the weight.
The custom-fit helmet’s weight crept to 5.1 pounds, more than double earlier flight helmets that weighed less than half as much, according to Fookes. Technicians aim to lower that to 4.6 pounds, below a targeted level of 4.8 pounds, Fookes said.
“In this case, ounces mean everything,” he said. One of two visors also will be removed.
F-35 engineers have worked with helmet maker Rockwell Collins ESA Vision Systems and Lockheed Martin on the lightweight version since April 2015, according to Kailen Tuscano, a Rockwell Collins spokesperson.
The F-35 development program has targeted getting the next version of the Gen III lightweight helmet into the F-35 late next year, but will try to sooner, according to Brandi Schiff, an F-35 Joint Program Office spokesperson.
As part of tackling the pilot weight threshold, the Air Force will install a head-support panel between the risers of a parachute on the ejection seat to support the pilot’s head. Based on their weight, pilots will be able to flip a switch to slow how quickly a parachute deploys to reduce the shock on the aviator, Fookes said.
The Air Force is investigating replacing the ejection seat entirely, he said.
Three versions, one plane
The biggest challenge the plane has faced was “concurrency,” or flying and maintaining F-35s already in the fleet while development testing was under way, Fookes said.
In a bid for commonality among the military services and in an attempt to lower costs, the Pentagon developed three versions of the F-35, one for the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy.
The Air Force flies the F-35A, a conventional take-off and landing jet; the Marine Corps has the F-35B, which can take off and land vertically; and the Navy plans to fly the F-35C, a carrier version of the plane with larger, foldable wings and beefed-up landing gear, beginning in 2019.
Fookes suspects the Defense Department will not attempt to again develop three variants of a fighter jet.
“I think we’ve learned some valuable lessons,” he said. “It’s been both good and bad. But trying to appease all users at the same time is a very difficult thing and (so is) managing those requirements. I don’t see this happening again.”
Critics have contended the F-35 isn’t as capable a dogfighter as the F-16 Fighting Falcon or as capable a ground strike aircraft as the A-10 Thunderbolt II. The F-35A is intended to replace both in the Air Force.
“We are not a one-for-one replacement for anybody,” Fookes said. “We are a compliment to all of them.”
The Air Force has put experienced fighter pilots in the cockpit of the F-35, he said.
“If you talk to the operators, they love the airplane,” Fookes said. ”They will tell you it’s easy to fly.”
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