Defence Industry

The F-35 Programme: Lessons for the Aviation Industry
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Issue Vol. 32.2 Apr-Jun 2017 | Date : 03 Mar , 2018


The F-35 programme was being driven by a very professional team of uniformed and civilian members of the Pentagon. The Indian MoD needs to have such core ability and learn programme management. Public criticism of the Pentagon for the programme resulted in huge public and government pressure and in turn, aircraft improvements and cost cuts. President Trump himself has been a critic of the cost overruns and delays. Pentagon had no more money to pour into the programme after three costly restructurings in recent years. At one stage, there was a proposal to invite an open tender for all follow-on projects in the programme.

The aircraft is expected to be in service till 2070. The estimated total programme cost till 2070 is $1.5 trillion which is 30 times India’s current total defence budget.

The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is the world’s latest family of single-seat, single-engine, all-weather, stealth, multi-role, fifth generation combat aircraft. It has three variants – the F-35A is the Conventional Take-Off and Landing (CTOL) variant. The F-35B is the Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) variant and the F-35C is the carrier-based Catapult Assisted Take-Off Barrier Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) variant. This USA-led, multi-nation programme has financial contribution and work sharing between several friendly countries.

The JSF development contract was signed on November 16, 1996 and the contract for System Development and Demonstration (SDD) was awarded by the US Department of Defence (DoD) in October 2001, to Lockheed Martin, whose X-35 beat the Boeing X-32. The first flight of the F-35A took place on December 15, 2006. On July 31, 2015, the United States Marine Corps (USMC) declared “ready for deployment” the first squadron of F-35B fighters. On August 02, 2016, the US Air Force (USAF) declared its first squadron of F-35A fighters, combat ready. The F-35C is expected to join the US Navy (USN) in 2018. Nearly 200 aircraft had been built by January 2017. The F-35A costs $85 million apiece. The initial F-35Bs and F-35Cs cost around $122 million and costs will come down to around $110 million once full-scale production begins. The programme has seen delays and cost overruns which have forced the buying partners to extend the lives of their existing fleet of fighters. Increased costs have also meant cutting down of numbers by some operators. With the US planning to acquire 2,457 aircraft, deliveries of the F-35 for the US military are scheduled until 2037. The aircraft is expected to be in service till 2070. The estimated total programme cost till 2070 is $1.5 trillion which is 30 times India’s current total defence budget. Such a large modern programme has many a lesson for the aviation industry and the operators.

Design and Development Issues

The F-35 resembles a smaller, single-engine sibling of the twin-engine Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. The aircraft is intended to have air-to-air capability second only to that of the F-22 Raptor. Important design features are durable low-maintenance stealth technology, integrated avionics and sensor fusion for better situational awareness as well as improved target identification and weapons delivery, high speed data networking including fibre channels, the Autonomic Logistics Global Sustainment (ALGS) to ensure lower aircraft downtime, electro-hydrostatic actuators run by a power-by-wire flight-control system, a modern and updated flight simulator, which will reduce training costs, lightweight, powerful lithium-ion batteries to provide power to operate the control surfaces in an emergency and 35 per cent structural composites. Also, the F-35 will be the first mass-produced aircraft to include structural nano-composites.

Advanced flight simulators meant that no trainer versions were considered necessary. F-16s have been used as bridge trainers between the T-38 and the F-35.

The other major partners in the programme were Northrop Grumman, Pratt & Whitney and BAE Systems. The F-35 variants would form the single largest manned aircraft platform for USA over the coming decades. The JSF was designed to replace the F-16, A-10, F/A-18, and AV-8B fighter aircraft. To keep development, production and operating costs low, a common design was planned in three variants that share 80 per cent of their parts. The aircraft was expected to be four times more effective than legacy fighters in air-to-air combat, eight times more effective in air-to-ground combat and three times more effective in reconnaissance and Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) at minimal incremental cost over current fighters. No two-seat trainer versions have been built for any of the variants. Advanced flight simulators meant that no trainer versions were considered necessary. F-16s have been used as bridge trainers between the T-38 and the F-35. The first design issue was excess aircraft weight. The F-35B STOVL variant was overweight by 1,000 kg or eight per cent. Lockheed Martin had to make several airframe design and manufacturing changes and finally reduced the weight by 1,200 kg. The redesign to reduce weight cost $6.2 billion and delayed the project by 18 months.

Cost Overruns

The programme saw a number of cost overruns and has undergone a number of reassessments and changes since 2006. The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned that excessive concurrent overlap of flight testing and initial production might result in expensive refits later. GAO found that, “Managing an extensive, still-maturing global network of suppliers adds another layer of complexity to producing aircraft efficiently and on-time” and more so, when extensive amount of testing was still to be completed. The approach could have meant making alterations to aircraft production processes, changes to its supplier base and costly retrofits on the already fielded aircraft, if problems were to be encountered at a later stage.

On April 21, 2009, Pentagon sources said that during 2007 and 2008, spies downloaded several terabytes of data related to the F-35’s design and electronics systems, potentially compromising the aircraft. The incident forced both hardware and software design changes to make the systems cyber-attack resistant and in turn, increased costs. In February 2011, the Pentagon put a price of $207.6 million on each of the 32 aircraft to be acquired in FY2012, rising to $304.16 million if share of Research, Development, Test and Evaluation (RDT&E) spending was to be included.

The programme has seen delays and cost overruns which have forced the buying partners to extend the lives of their existing fleet of fighters…

In 2011, it was also revealed that actually, only 50 per cent of the estimated eight million lines of software code needed to be developed had been written and that, according to the newest schedule, it would take another six years to complete the software. By 2012, the total estimated lines of code for the entire programme had grown from the previous year’s estimate of eight million lines to 24 million lines. Problems found during flight testing were expected to continue to lead to higher levels of engineering changes till 2019.

The F-35C will not enter service with the USN until mid-2018. The $56.4 billion development project for the aircraft should be completed in 2018 when the Block 5 configuration is expected to be delivered, several years late and considerably over budget. Japan has warned that it may halt its purchase of the F-35 if the cost per aircraft increases and Canada has pointed out that it has not yet committed to purchase the aircraft. Because of cost-cutting measures, the US Government asserts that the “flyaway” cost including engines, has been dropping and estimates that in 2020, “an F-35 will cost some $85m each or less than half of the cost of the initial units delivered in 2009”. Adjusted to today’s dollars, the 2020 price would be $75m each. The F-35 fleet would have operating costs 79 per cent higher than the aircraft it is to replace. The FY2017 F-35A’s cost per flying hour is $29,806, in comparison with the F-16C/D’s antecedent of $25,541. The currently projected cost is $80 million per aircraft (F-35A) by 2018, when full production is scheduled to begin.

More recently, President Donald Trump criticised the price tag of the F-35. The price was cut further and credit given to Trump for his astute understanding of volume and the need to drive costs down. A 62 per cent reduction in costs from Lot 1 to Lot 10, an eight per cent reduction on the air vehicle and a 7.6 per cent reduction overall from Lot 9 to Lot 10 is now expected through the Sustainment Cost Reduction Initiative. It is expected to save F-35 customers over $5 billion.

The F135 is not designed for super cruise, but can briefly fly at Mach 1.2 in dry power…

Performance and Safety Concerns

The original plan was to fit the F-35 with only two air-to-air missiles internally. This was unacceptable to many countries. Critics had also questioned the aircraft’s manoeuvering performance and stealth capability. Other countries were also worried that USA will not share the software code for the F-35 with its allies. The US plans to set up a reprogramming facility that will develop the aircraft software and distribute it to allies. There are plans to open additional mission data labs to customise mission data packages with terrain and enemy threat information for different regions and partner nations. Canadians were concerned about the aircraft being a single-engine platform as opposed to a twin-engine with greater safety. However, statistical data is not in favour of the twin-engine aircraft.

Many other countries were concerned that the Russian PAK-FA and Chinese J 20 could become potentially sophisticated and reduce the planned edge. For long, the F-35 prototypes had faced flaws in the fuel tank and fuel-based hydraulic systems making the aircraft vulnerable to lightning strike and possible enemy fire. Many pilots who flew initially found performance levels lower than expected from even a fourth generation fighter. There were also many maintenance-related issues including excessive time for engine change. Heavy buffet conditions occurred between 20 and 26 degrees angle of attack and also degraded the flight control system. However, the full flight envelope has now been opened up to altitude of 50,000 ft, speeds of Mach 1.6/700 knots and loads of 9g. Performance issues remain. The world is watching closely the flight test fixes. The Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) is still to be proved and that is of concern for spare suppliers. Delays or problems with the ALIS could add $20 billion to the cost of the F-35 programme.

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Further Developmental Work

The aircraft’s development roadmap extends until 2021 and includes a Block 6 engine improvement in 2019. Development of a Directional Infrared Counter Measures system to counter heat-seeking missiles and a Threat Nullification Defensive Resource (ThNDR) laser jammer is planned next. Full operational capability will come from Block 3F software. Block 3F will enhance its SEAD ability and enable the aircraft to deploy the 500lb JDAM, the GBU-53/B and the AIM-9X Sidewinder. Block 4 software is expected by 2023 and will increase the weapons envelope of the F-35 and increase ability to counter air defences envisioned to be encountered past the 2040s.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Air Marshal Anil Chopra

Commanded a Mirage Squadron, two operational air bases and the IAF’s Flight Test Centre ASTE

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4 thoughts on “The F-35 Programme: Lessons for the Aviation Industry

  1. A/c to this article f-35 is proved like a hell of a mess for Lockheed Martin, usaf & us govt but after with so many complications usaf stick with the program & a/c to this article f-35 still is in ioc configuration and usaf is flying the bird. It’s a big yes f-35 is a stealth very modern and an expensive aircraft but it’s not far from completion & a/c to USAF it is combat ready. USAF flying a incompleted front line aircraft. Now we can talk about our indigenous Tejas a light, agile ,modern avionics , high angle of attack, and world’s only fighter plane with no accident from its first flight, thousands of hours Test flights and after induction and it’s short service. Tejas is cheaper maneuverable reliable and most important it’s our indigenous platform. After all these qualities still IAF reluctant to induct this bird in big number and defense ministry planning another single engine light fighter. Tejas isn’t our front line it’s only work is point defense which it can do perfectly. We can save a lot of money to induct Tejas in large number and we can invest that amount in purchasing of more Rafael, in in research and development of Tejas mk2 and AMCA, we can reduce the type of aircraft in IAF inventory to reduce logistical problems. It’s such a pity that IAF and defense ministry are not relying on Tejas. We can give a handful experience to our private sector in aviation by giving them an additional production line to them. We can’t win any war in future without indigenous platforms we can not relying on Russian tech or any Western platform. In today’s scenario no country is much reliable like 70s or 80s.

  2. “Why would you keep your own people in the dark? I bet every organization in the world thinks they have the greatest ideas and no one else knows them. While the administration department keeps sales in the dark, the sales staff hides stuff from accounting, and the shipping department is the last to know anything. The only person who knows everything is the receptionist at the front desk. Meanwhile, some little shop in Kansas is probably doing the exact same thing, only more efficiently and never knowing it’s some ‘great wisdom’ somewhere else”.

  3. This is a ridiculous article to say the least.
    Oh Air Marshal, there is no such thing as “stealth” in the technological world, unless you use this terminolgy literally as defined perhaps in an English language dictionary. Up in the air flying, the pilot cannot switch off the engine which is a heat source. Hence there is always the “infra-red” signature in the environment to be picked up by any technologically savvy surveillance operator on ground, not to mention the acoustic of a flying object.

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