Flight Path to Performance Well on Track

Thu, Apr 13, 2017
F-35 arrives at Avalon 2017

Touchdown! The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter arrives at the Avalon Airshow 2017.

We people have very short memories. When we point to legacy issues with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, it's worth remembering the enormous controversy that surrounded Australia's acquisition of the F-111.

That aircraft is now praised as among the greatest ever flown by the RAAF, even though it never dropped a bomb in anger and its' most contentious mission was a reconnaissance flight over Tasmania's Franklin Dam development in April 1983.

Former RAAF chief, retired Air Marshal Geoff Brown, used to maintain a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings and cartoons produced in the 60s and 70s as F-111 costs soared, aircraft crashed and delivery schedules were pushed further and further back.

F-35 Joint Strike Fighter
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter does its first pass during the Avalon Airshow 2017.

That experience could provide additional perspective to his successor, current RAAF chief Air Marshal Leo Davies, on hand at the Avalon Airshow for the arrival of the first two RAAF F-35s following their long ferry flight from the US.

The F-35 visit was the high point of Avalon, which featured top level briefings from the US Air Force, US Marine Corps and the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) .All acknowledged that F-35 is performing exceptionally well and will perform even better once fully developed.

The USMC declared initial operational capability (IOC) in August 2015 and the US Air Force in August last year, with both despatching their operational squadrons to participate in warfighting exercises.

For the USAF, that's Red Flag and for the USMC it's the Marine Division Tactics Course, their version of Red Flag or the Navy's Top Gun.

USAF experience is most immediately relevant to the RAAF as both are flying the F-35A, the conventional take-off and landing variant.

Brigadier General Scott Pleus, director of the USAF F-35 integration office said F-35 was lethal. As a former F-16 driver with 2000 hours in the cockpit including combat experience, he knows a thing or two about air platform lethality.

He's now an F-35 pilot instructor who's flown both the RAAF aircraft. And he's also the former CO of the USAF 56th Fighter Wing at Luke Air Force Base, where RAAF and other international F-35 pilots have trained alongside US pilots.

'It is lethal and it is survivable and it is head and shoulders above any legacy fourth generation fighter,' he said at Avalon.

'Even though we are still in the development stages of the F-35 program, we have the jets finally in the hands of experienced fighter pilots from all over the world and they have proven time and time again that the F-35A is a formidable weapon, one that should be feared by all our adversaries.'

Pleus says this stems from F-35's state of the art sensor fusion, low observable technology, advanced electronic attack and protection, and shared situational awareness. He said fighter pilots would always deliver the unvarnished truth on an airplane as they were the ones who would fly into danger.

“We are the ones that are flying the airplanes. We are the ones that are the experts. Everybody else is just making supposition”
Brigadier General Scott Pleus - Director of the USAF F-35 Integration Office

At Red Flag in January, USAF F-35s achieved a 90 per cent mission capable rate, flying 207 of 226 planned sorties. The rest were canned when bad weather shut down the entire range.

F-35s hit 49 of 51 SAM sites, with the misses attributed to weapons failures. F-35s achieved a better than 20-1 kill ratio, which could turn out to be higher as exercise results are analysed.

The USAF is considering deploying its F-35s on operations later this year, possibly to the Middle East and the campaign against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

USMC Lieutenant General John 'Dog' Davis, the Marines' top aviator, says in earlier pre-F-35 exercises with older aircraft, Marine flyers had their butts kicked, losing half their aircraft (simulated) without hitting the targets.

In the recent Marine Division Tactics Course, eight friendlies including four F-35Bs faced 20 'enemy' aircraft, achieving a kill ratio calculated at 24-0. Both generals said the presence of F-35 in these exercises made legacy aircraft perform better and get shot down less often.

Using sensors, sensor fusion and data distribution, F-35 was able to provide top cover for older aircraft, supplying them with target and threat data. This will be especially useful for the RAAF which plans to operate a mixed fleet of F-35s, Super Hornets and Growlers into the 2030s.

Whilst the F-35 doesn't yet have its planned full range of capabilities, this will come with software Block 3F (final), planned to replace Block 3I (interim) early next year. F-35 will then be able to use its gun and a greater variety of weapons and many existing mission system capabilities will be enhanced.

F-35 gained much of its bad rep last decade as a succession of problems emerged. Soaring costs prompted a restructure of the program, labelled by one analyst as a money pit.

Speaking at the Avalon Airshow, USAF Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, head of the F-35 JPO and a regular visitor down under said 'We will deliver all the capability we promised to deliver back in 2001 sometime between the fall and spring of 2018'.

'We have risks. We have things we have to sort out. There are challenges ahead but since 2011 when the program was re-baselined, we are on a much better footing than we have ever been.'

Bogdan cites older aircraft which still need to be upgraded to the latest configuration as an ongoing process the program is working through.

Another is the stresses likely to emerge as production ramps up and the same companies making new aircraft components also have to support older aircraft. Then there's F-35's eight million lines of software code.

'Software will always be a risk on this program, now 10-years from now, 50-years from now - lots and lots of software and the capabilities embedded in that software are just very, very complicated,' he said.

'The good news is we have made a lot of strides over the last year and a half in learning about software on F-35.'

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