Monday, August 09, 2010
Marines' F-35 is lagging behind other components of the program
Posted Sunday, Aug. 08, 2010 By Bob Cox firstname.lastname@example.org It comes as no surprise to many knowledgeable observers that, as flight testing of the F-35 joint strike fighter gets under way in earnest, one of the three airplane types is having more problems than the others. That one is the F-35B, the short-takeoff-vertical-landing version designed for the Marines and the British navy and air force. At the end of July, the four F-35Bs undergoing flight testing had completed 77 percent of their scheduled flights this year. The other three F-35 test airplanes were completing test flights at better than twice the planned rate. So while part of the F-35 test flight program is going well, showing significant progress for the troubled program at long last, the most difficult part is now further behind schedule. That comes as no shock to staunch F-35 critic Pierre Sprey, a former Defense Department official deeply involved in development of the F-16 and A-10 warplanes now in use. "Nothing was dumber than saying we could stuff a STOVL mechanism into a conventional airplane," he said. Designing and building high-performance military airplanes that push the boundaries of science and technology have always been challenging. STOVL's challenges The F-35B task is daunting. Like the other models, it's supposed to be a supersonic attack jet that is nearly invisible to radar and jam-packed with electronic systems to detect, track and kill enemies. Unlike the others, it's also supposed to take off -- fully loaded with fuel and weapons -- from a 500-foot-long runway and, upon returning to base, make a vertical landing still carrying bombs and missiles. Technical challenges of the F-35B have added billions of dollars and years of delays to the program. The design problems and technical issues "have mostly been driven by STOVL," aircraft engineering consultant Hans Weber said. The extent of F-35B testing issues was revealed at the end of July by Lockheed Martin CEO Robert Stevens in a conference call with financial analysts. Stevens and other Lockheed officials say the problems are failures of relatively minor parts and components, not the vertical flight propulsion system or controls. "F-35B has met or exceeded its performance requirements since testing on the first STOVL variant began," J.D. McFarlan, vice president of F-35 test and verification, said in an e-mail response to Star-Telegram questions. "That is, frankly, a tremendous accomplishment for such an ambitious design goal." The STOVL requirement is so challenging that the F-35B is arguably less capable than the more conventional versions destined for the Air Force and Navy. The lift fan system, which generates about 19,000 pounds of thrust straight down to push the aircraft skyward, weighs more than 3,000 pounds. That means less room for fuel and weapons, so the F-35B carries half the bomb load of other fighter jets and can't fly as far. The F-35B can be described as the political glue that has long held the entire program together. The Marines, looking to replace their beloved but aging and hazardous AV-8B Harriers, have been the U.S. military's most forceful advocates for the F-35. The British, who developed the Harrier, are the strongest foreign backers and have contributed more than $2 billion to F-35 development. Of the four F-35B test aircraft built and sent to the Navy's Patuxent River flight test center, only one has made vertical landings. Lockheed spokesman John Kent said that plane, the BF-1, must fully prove the full vertical flight "envelope" before the other planes can fly in STOVL mode. Despite six landings last week, only three of the 12 key test points have been completed. Burdensome element The F-35B requirements have burdened the program. A little more than one year into the design effort and with parts already being made, Lockheed and the other contractors realized that the planes would be too heavy. The contractors stopped in midstream and redesigned the aircraft to slice 3,000 pounds of weight. That has been blamed for much of the delays and cost increases. Early on in engine testing, Pratt & Whitney discovered that fan blades in F-35B model engine were cracking under the added strain of driving the lift fan. That, too, led to months of delays and added costs. Many military experts have long questioned the real-world utility of a STOVL aircraft like the Harrier and F-35B, given the added complexities and costs. The Marines have never really used the Harrier in the way it's advertised, taking off from isolated fields or dirt landing areas, even in the two Iraq wars and Afghanistan. "You see these pictures of it popping up out of corn fields or grocery store parking lots. It's never happened," said Dakota Wood, a retired Marine turned military analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. But the Marines have stuck to and convinced policymakers of their need for the STOVL jets, saying they need their own close air support capability near the front lines. "When a Marine commander says, 'I need air support,' he wants it in five minutes or less, not in half an hour," said Bill Lawrence of Aledo, a retired Marine combat helicopter pilot and former head of Marine flight testing at Patuxent River. Lockheed's McFarlan says the F-35B test program is making progress and will make up lost time. "Design, engineering and performance all are proving out in testing," McFarlan said, and the "flight rate of the STOVL jets is up significantly in recent weeks."