MOD F-35 Lightning ll procurement announcement eagerly awaited

10 Feb 2014. With confirmation from the MOD expected shortly that it intends to acquire an initial fourteen F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) combat jets (intended to be operated jointly by the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy on future ‘Carrier Strike’) the UK Government’s commitment to the brilliant Lockheed Martin advanced fifth-generation multi-role combat fighter programme will have gone full circle.

The potent capability that the F-35 B variant will provide future UK defence with a ‘Carrier Strike’ that not only adds STOVL (Short-Take-Off-Vertical-Landing) capacity but also provides an electronic warfare element and additional ISR (Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) capability.

The hugely beneficial industrial element of the F-35 programme for the UK is built on the fact that as a full ‘Level One’ partner our JSF F-35 programme work share amounts to 15% of each aircraft’s value. With over 3,000 F-35 aircraft of all three variants likely to be built, the production life of the Lockheed Martin programme can easily be estimated to be in excess of thirty years.

With the potential to be the largest ever multi-role fast combat jet aircraft programme in military aviation history and one that will likely remain in production for over thirty years Britain’s decision back in 2002 to invest $2bn in the Joint Strike Fighter research and development programme has undoubtedly proved to be one of the best defence industrial decisions made over the past generation. Whilst there are other international partners in the JSF programme Britain remains the only ‘Level One’ JSF Partner with the US. Since the programme’s inception 12 years ago, BAE Systems has been the UK’s primary full team contractor partner and remains responsible for the aft, fuel system, crew escape, life support & prognostics and health management systems together of course, with integration of aircraft purchased by the UK for its ‘Carrier Strike’ programme.

While the importance of the military role to be played by an eventual 48 ‘B’ STOVL (Short Take-Off Vertical Landing) F-35s within our future ‘Carrier Strike’ capability will be vital for the large international role we play in NATO defence, being of full partner status within the global F-35 programme brings with it significant additional benefits for the UK as a whole. When the formal MOD announcement is made at some point over the next month I suspect confirmation that the first batch of 14 aircraft will come as a great relief to the UK military.

With three of the four initial F-35 ‘B’ variant aircraft purchased by the MOD already being used at Florida’s Eglin airbase under an arrangement with the US Marine Corp to train senior Royal Air Force and Royal Navy pilots to fly and operate the aircraft, the plan is that following an order for an additional fourteen production aircraft, the UK’s ‘first tranche’ will be confirmed over the next two years for planned delivery and entry into service from 2019 onwards. My understanding is that three existing test and evaluation aircraft already purchased by the UK will remain in the US to take part in further development activities.

The current UK ‘Future Force 2020’ strategy document was intended to lead to a full force of 48 F-35 ‘B’ STOVL aircraft variants, although it remains possible that the UK could still opt to take further F-35 aircraft at a later date. The F-35 is clearly a superb aircraft. For Britain in term of air power and maritime capability F-35 will be an absolute game changer regarding capability. For the record for UK service F-35 Lightning ll has been designed for various mission types in order to fully take advantage of its low observable characteristics, which will enable it to penetrate integrated air defence systems and strike at a number of different targets with precision accuracy.

In terms of complex weapons, the aircraft will have a maximum weapon payload of six Paveway 1V, 2 AIM-120C AMRAAM, 2 AIM-132 ASRAAM plus a 25mm gun pod. Radar signature is minimised by the aircraft having identical sweep angles for the leading and trailing edges of the wings and tail and the advanced sensor suite is regarded as a step-change in capability. The Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) multi-function radar, which has synthetic aperture radar and ground moving target indication capabilities, will provide the UK with a giant leap forward in terms of air power. With Electro-Optical Targeting System providing long-range detection and precision targeting through the use of thermal imaging, laser tracking and marking this is true multi-role platform.

As mentioned, apart from the military capabilities offered by JSF the economic value of the programme should not be underestimated. With 15% by value of each F-35 Lightning ll aircraft being manufactured by UK based companies the success of the JSF programme and the huge importance that the partnership between the UK and the US brings to the UK economy and the defence industrial base cannot be ignored. The relevance of this is best demonstrated when recognising that over the next thirty years F-35 production is likely to exceed 3,000 aircraft.

Apart from BAE Systems other large domestic companies involved in the programme include GKN, Martin Baker, Rolls-Royce, Chemring, Selex, QinetiQ, Survivtec, MBDA, Honeywell UK, Cobham, Ultra Electronics, GEC Aviation, Cohort and Magellan Aerospace. In all, an estimated estimated 500 UK-based suppliers are connected to the F-35 supply chain.

F-35 production will soon begin to scale up. Last year Lockheed Martin produced around 35 aircraft at a rate of around three units per month within what the Department of Defense terms as ‘low rate production’. The real programme ramp-up get under way next year in 2015 and it is from this point that the benefits to the UK economy may be anticipated to be in excess of £1bn per annum. Full rate production is expected in 2018 and the superb Lockheed Martin Dallas Fort Worth facility, with its one mile long assembly line, could eventually turn out as many as two hundred F-35 aircraft per annum. Given the scale of the programme it is readily apparent why independent forecasters have predicted that it could potentially support 25,000 UK jobs during its lifetime.

Whilst it may also be true that a figure of 15% UK aircraft component work share does not compare as favourably to the 37% work share that the UK currently enjoys on the superb Eurofighter Typhoon military aircraft programme – a partnership between the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain – when set against the number of aircraft likely to be built through the programme’s lifetime, JSF can be seen to be potentially of much greater overall value to the UK economy.

With the US planning to take approximately 2,400 F-35’s – current expectations are that USAF will acquire a total of 1,763 aircraft, the US Navy some 260 aircraft and the US Marine Corp 420 aircraft (plus large F-35 order commitments from Japan, Israel, Australia, the Netherlands, Norway and Britain) JSF looks well set to be the largest ever fast jet military aircraft programme. Achieving that record status may still be a long way off when it is remembered that no less than 4,500 F-16 aircraft have so far been built by Lockheed Martin since the programme started back in 1974 it is to my mind a very important indicator of what we can expect F-35 to eventually achieve.

In a world conscious of defence costs, Lockheed Martin has stressed that as the production programme matures so the likely customer cost of each aircraft will reduce. Note also that late last year an F35 ‘B’ STOVL variant, the type to be acquired by the UK, deployed and successfully released the first GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided weapon. This is a significant achievement in the complex weapons part of the development programme.

Furthermore the US Marine Corp intends to begin operational flights of the F-35 (B) during 2015 with gradual build up thereafter – the pace of development, testing and verification is definitely intensifying. I can also say that having personally spoken to two US Marine pilots that have been very fully engaged in the F-35(B) STOVL development test programme (including full use of STOVL technology in sea trials on USS Wasp) both confirmed what an absolutely superb aircraft this is in terms of capability and performance.

At this stage we may estimate that international customers will likely represent over 60% of the build programme. For the UK F-35 will not only play a vital and very large role in the future of our air power capability but also in the future of our military aircraft industry.

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
Tel: +44 7710 779785
Email: hwheeldon@wheeldonstrategic.com

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