Lockheed Martin’s F-35 joint strike fighter, arguably the most technologically ambitious aircraft ever built, reached another milestone Friday when the Marines declared the airplane combat ready.
U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford declared the plane ready to be deployed, granting it what is known as initial operation capability, or IOC, a crucial moment for the sleek and stealthy fighter.
The designation from the Marines comes five years later than originally planned because of technical difficulties with its complicated systems, technological wonders that contributed to the F-35’s $391.1 billion pricetag, making it the most expensive U.S. weapons system ever made.
“The F-35B’s ability to conduct operations from expeditionary airstrips or sea-based carriers provides our Nation with its first 5th generation strike fighter, which will transform the way we fight and win,” Dunford said in a prepared statement.
Marine pilots completed their readiness inspection of the F-35B earlier this month in Yuma, Ariz. The fighter jet is being built at Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth plant.
Dunford’s announcement comes after a top Pentagon official questioned the reliability of the F-35B, which is the most complex version of the sleek fighter, during testing on the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp.
But Dunford expressed confidence in the F-35B’s capabilities, saying that met the program’s requirements in flight operations at sea and in multiple large force exercises.
Lockheed Martin has been anxiously waiting for weeks to hear that the F-35B is ready for prime time. The company employs more than 13,000 people in Fort Worth, including 8,800 on the F-35 fighter jet program. The entire F-35 program is responsible for 129,000 jobs in 45 states, according to Lockheed Martin.
“The multi-service F-35 Lightning II represents a quantum leap in air dominance capability,” Lockheed Martin said in a statement. “Fifty years from now, historians will look back on the success of the F-35 Program and point to Marine Corps IOC as the milestone that ushered in a new era in military aviation.”
Lockheed has already delivered 30 aircraft to the Pentagon this year. Marillyn Hewson, chairman and president of Lockheed Martin said last week. is prepared to deliver 45 by the end of the year. The company is “ramping up” to meet additional orders for the joint strike fighter.
While the F-35B received its combat seal of approval, it is scheduled to be deployed in 2017 to a base in Japan.
“That (the Marine’s combat ready designation) is a huge milestone,” Hewson said at the time. She said the Marines doing so would “send a strong message to everyone that this program is on track.”
U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, congratulated Lockheed Martin on “a job well done.”
“The Marine Corps announcement that the F-35B is ready to be deployed is a milestone for the defense of our country,” Granger said. “With this plane now in their arsenal, Marine fighter pilots will have access to the most up to date equipment.”
“I am confident that with the F-35B, Marine fighter pilots will be able to meet any challenge that they face. Today’s landmark announcement is the culmination of nearly 15 years of hard work by men and women at Lockheed Martin,” she said.
Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with The Teal Group, agreed that this is a big moment for the F-35.
“It is long awaited and most anticipated and the Marines are their most enthusiastic customers,” Aboulafia said. While he concedes that the F-35 has endured some turbulence in the past, and that there are “still obstacles ahead,” he said it will be “nothing like what they’ve faced in the past.”
Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, said the Marines putting its stamp of approval on the F-35B is a big “vote of confidence in the performance of the plane.”
“Becoming operational means that the aircraft is mature enough to be sent to war,” he said.
Setback and successes
Lockheed Martin is building three versions of the aircraft. The F-35B is for the Marines and is designed for short takeoffs and vertical landings similar to those performed by a Harrier jet. The F-35A is being built for the Air Force, which will buy more airplanes than any other branch. It is scheduled to seek combat readiness in 2016. The Navy’s F-35C, which underwent aircraft carrier tests last fall and will undergo additional testing in September, will seek combat-ready approval in 2018.
With the Marine’s anticipated announcement Friday, nothing immediately changes at the Fort Worth plant. Other tests will continue to be conducted on such things as the F-35’s guns and electronics. Once the Fort Worth plant gears up, it will build about 120 a year, requiring Lockheed Martin to hire more employees. The plant is already being rebuilt in anticipation of full production.
United States and eight other countries form a partnership seeking to build and develop the F-35. The partners are Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Turkey. Japan, Israel and South Korea are foreign military sales customers. Lockheed Martin expects other countries to join and purchase the jet fighter, which would boost production and ultimately drive down the per unit cost for each airplane.
In May, Pentagon's weapons czar Frank Kendall told reporters that the U.S. government and some international partners are considering ordering 450 F-35s over three years, starting in 2018.
Just a year ago, the program suffered a big setback when an engine caught fire during a test flight in Florida, prompting the military to ground the fleet and scrub a highly anticipated appearance at the Farnborough International Airshow in Great Britain. In April, the Government Accountability Office issued a sour report questioning the reliability of the jet's engines made by Pratt & Whitney.
But Hewson and Kendall believe that Lockheed and its manufacturing partners are overcoming these problems.
War is Boring
In 1997, Lockheed Martin was selected as one of the two companies to participate in the joint strike fighter demonstration phase and in 2001 its X-35 was selected as the winner and teamed with Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems to begin production.
The first F-35A rolled out in February 2006 and by December 2006 completed its first flight. Over the next few years on all of the versions of the F-35 rolled of the production line and were assigned to testing points. The first flight of a production F-35 was conducted in February 2011.
The F-35 also took some hits recently when a test pilot on a military blog “War is Boring” said he found the plane’s performance to be less than what he expected. The blog post by David Axe was based on five-page brief written by an unnamed test pilot’s report about the plane’s capabilities. The pilot flew the plane during a mock dogfight with an F-16, also built by Lockheed Martin.
In the report, Axe wrote that the test pilot found the “pricey new stealth jet can’t turn or climb fast enough to hit an enemy plane during a dogfight or to dodge the enemy’s own gunfire.” He wrote that the F-35 simply was “too sluggish” to reliably defeat the F-16.
And “to add insult to injury,” the test pilot discovered he couldn’t comfortably move his head inside the cramped cockpit because “the helmet was too large for the space inside the canopy to adequately see the behind aircraft,” allowing the F-16 to sneak in. The helmet on the F-35 is crucial to its operation since it allows images to be projected on its visor to help the pilot fly it.
Lockheed Martin and the F-35 Joint Program Office responded by saying the blog post “does not tell the entire story,” that the F-35 involved did not have the software to allow the pilot to see its enemy and fire its weapons without pointing the aircraft at its target.
“While the dogfighting scenario was successful in showing the ability of the F-35 to maneuver to the edge of its limits without exceeding them ... the interpretation of the scenario results could be misleading. The F-35's technology is designed to engage, shoot, and kill its enemy from long distances, not necessarily in visual “dogfighting” situations.”
Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, laughed at the blog post, saying in a fully operational plane the pilot will see his enemy in the visor without moving his head. Turning your head at that speed is “a big mistake. ... It is like sticking you arm out to make a left turn.”
“This is such a sophisticated airplane ... it is pretty comical,” Thompson said.
Thompson added that while this designation by the Marines — which had actually picked the July 2016 date some time ago — is just for their version of the plane, it will influence the aircraft being built for the Air Force and the Navy.
“It will have a positive impact on all three versions of the F-35,” Thompson said. “It shows the Marines are on schedule to go operational and by the time the next service does theirs, there will be a year of experience with it.”
While other issues with the F-35 still need to be resolved, and updating the aircraft’s systems will be a constant effort, he said “all of the major development hurdles have been overcome.”
This article contains material from Bloomberg News.
Max B. Baker, 817-390-7714