Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is finally poised to make its international debut, with an F-35B scheduled to fly in July at the Royal International Air Tattoo and the Farnborough International Airshow in the UK.

But while the events mark a milestone in the 13 years since Lockheed won the F-35 contract, the aircraft is still at least one year away from being ready for war. Meanwhile, questions linger about the state of the stealthy fighter’s advanced software, and the effect of constricting military budgets on its worldwide demand.

Still, Lockheed remains steadfast in its message, insisting that the programme remains on track and expressing confidence in the jet’s business case.

Despite reported setbacks, Lockheed says it will finish developing and testing its Block 2B software by the end of the year. If it meets that goal, the US Marine Corps should have enough time to conduct its own testing before declaring initial operational capability (IOC), as planned, in July 2015.

“Everything is driving towards July [2015] and everybody is confident we can make July,” Lockheed tells Flightglobal. “The software is performing as we thought. We continue to execute the milestones.”

F-35B 600px Lockheed

Lockheed Martin

The company also remains publicly bullish that orders will continue to flow from the US military, partner countries and other customers. As a result, says Lockheed, production will increase and the aircraft’s price will decline.

As of April, the company had produced at least 103 F-35s, delivering aircraft to NAS Patuxent River in Maryland, Eglin AFB in Florida, Luke AFB and MCAS Yuma in Arizona, Nellis AFB in Nevada and Edwards AFB in California.

The company is currently producing fighters as part of the seventh lot of low-rate initial production (LRIP), and says it expects to sign an eighth such contract “this summer” to build 43 aircraft. Those will include 29 for the US military, four each for Japan and the UK and two each for Israel, Italy and Norway, says Lockheed.

Unit recurring flyaway costs for LRIP-7 aircraft, including engines, were $112 million for a conventional take-off and landing F-35A, $139 million for a short take-off and vertical landing F-35B and $130 million for a carrier-variant F-35C, according to the F-35 programme office. It says the programme remains on track for prices to decline, reaching between $80 million and $85 million for an F-35A by fiscal year 2019. “There is a real way to actually get to that cost,” says the office.

Orders should also continue to build. The US government’s FY2015 budget proposal calls for procurement of 34 F-35s at a gross weapon system cost of roughly $5.9 billion. Those orders, if approved by Congress, would be for more than the 29 aircraft budgeted in FY2014, but fewer than the 42 aircraft the government initially planned to buy.

The US military intends to ramp up procurement in the next five years, from 55 aircraft in FY2016 to 96 in FY2019, say budget documents. Plans call for the USA to eventually buy a total of 1,763 F-35As, 311 F-35Bs and 336 F-35Cs.

Lockheed forecasts production to increase from 35 aircraft in 2013 to nearly 150 aircraft in 2018, and reach more than 200 a year by 2020.

By that time, the company predicts it will have built 700 F-35s for the USA, partner nations (Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey and the UK) and Foreign Military Sales customers Israel, Japan and South Korea.

In addition to its Fort Worth, Texas plant, Lockheed will build the aircraft with partners at final assembly and checkout facilities in Italy and Japan.

Lockheed says the 700-aircraft goal is based on countries’ programmes of record, and remains within reach. It also notes that US Air Force chief of staff Gen Mark Welsh continues to insist that F-35 development remains one of the service’s three top priorities. And because the military orders long-lead materials roughly three years before deliveries, Lockheed says it needs only three more years of orders to meet the 2020 target.

“It’s going to start happening really quick,” says the company of F-35 production.

Lockheed also stresses the strength of the F-35’s business case, arguing that the current US fleet is largely outdated, composed of aircraft designed during the administration of US President Richard Nixon.

Most current models, like Fairchild Republic’s A-10 Thunderbolt II, are “one-trick ponies” that excel at only a single mission, says Lockheed. But the three versions of the F-35, with advanced data-fusion technology and the ability to penetrate protected airspace, can conduct multiple types of missions, it says. The aircraft can also pass data between them, expanding pilots’ understanding of the battlefield and allowing the USA and its allies to fight more effectively and efficiently.

But contracting military budgets make future orders anything but certain.

A Department of Defense report released in April warned that across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration, if not mitigated by Congress, would force the USA to buy 17 fewer F-35s over the next five years. Those aircraft – 15 F-35As and two F-35Cs – are worth $1.72 billion, or 3.8% of the programme’s $45.4 billion budget during the period.

Lockheed concedes that budget pressures make predictions uncertain, and the programme’s past production estimates have not materialised.

A Lockheed document dated April 2007 projected that procurement would reach 132 aircraft in 2013: nearly 100 more than were actually produced. The same document projected production of 205 aircraft in 2014 and 231 in 2016.

But even if sequestration does reduce US government orders, Lockheed insists that production will continue increasing annually, pushing down unit costs.

But budget cuts are not the only threat facing the programme.

Critics and competing companies such as Boeing insist that the USA needs more advanced electronic warfare capabilities like those provided by the E/A-18G Growler. Boeing, which is lobbying Congress for additional Growler orders, says F-35s could be most effective with support from the type, but Lockheed denies such assertions.

“To insinuate that the F-35 cannot operate in an [electronic warfare] environment without the help of other airplanes is false,” says Lockheed, which adds that the F-35’s “organic capability” is sufficient.

Then there are software questions.

If the USMC is to meet its July 2015 target for IOC with 10 to 16 F-35Bs, Lockheed must finish developing and testing the Block 2B software by the end of this year. The service will then take roughly six months to certificate the software.

But government reports released this year suggest that the 2B standard could be many months behind target. In March, a Government Accountability Office report found that by the beginning of 2014 the programme had verified only 13% of the 2B software’s onboard capability; significantly below a 27% target.

“Slow progress in developing, delivering and testing mission systems software continues to be the programme’s most significant risk,” says the report. “Developmental testing of Block 2B software is behind schedule and will likely delay the delivery of expected warfighting capabilities.”

That report followed another earlier this year in which the Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) predicted that the 2B software could be delayed by up to a year. That report finds that the F-35’s mission systems and weapons integration testing “made little progress and continued to fall behind test point execution goals”.

It also highlighted “deficiencies” in the software’s control of the aircraft’s radar, electronic warfare and navigation systems, electro-optical targeting system, distributed aperture system, helmet-mounted display and data link. The report notes that considerable resources last year were dedicated to testing software versions prior to 2B and addressing problems with the aircraft’s helmet system.

The DOT&E says 2B testing could be delayed until as late as May, or even November 2015, but programme officials challenge those findings.

“We disagree with that assessment. We don’t see ourselves as 13 months late,” Lockheed says. The company notes that helmet testing has been completed, freeing resources for 2B testing, and adds that software teams had been working seven days weekly. The company relaxed the pace to six days per week in June, a transition which Lockheed says “speaks volumes” about software development.

Art Tomassetti, Lockheed’s F-35B Marine Corps project manager, notes that tests continue to uncover ways Block 2B can be improved. The improvements have included fixes to software problems and updates recommended by pilots, such as changing the colour of cockpit indicator lights, says Tomassetti, a former USMC F-35 instructor who flew the model’s experimental predecessor, the X-35.

“The challenge is trying to get all this new stuff in before we hit the deadline,” he says.

Lockheed expected to reach initial flight clearance for 2BR5, the version of the 2B software that will allow the F-35B to reach IOC status, within the first half of June. By the end of May it had completed seven “weapons delivery accuracy tests” with the software; 15 such tests are required to verify combat capability, the company says. It adds that more information about software development will be available in a Congressionally mandated review that the DoD says will be released by the end of June.

Confidence has also come from USAF Lt Gen Christopher Bogdan, head of the military’s F-35 programme.

On 26 March, Bogdan told the US House Armed Services Committee that he expects the F-35B to reach IOC by summer 2015, saying the software is “within 30 days” of being completed on time. “There is fundamentally very, very little risk in delivering the [software] capability to the US Marine Corps,” he said.

But Bogdan said a more pressing threat is the programme’s ability to quickly upgrade the IOC aircraft, which will have already been delivered, to the 2B standard. He told Congress that modifications of older aircraft “is even more [of] a problem than the software in 2015”.

Bogdan also predicted that the USAF will meet its goal of declaring IOC with 12 to 24 F-35As by August 2016. Accomplishing that goal depends on completing software version Block 3I, which is similar to 2B but runs on a faster core processor called Tech Refresh 2, says Lockheed.

Bogdan was less optimistic, though, about on-time development of the Block 3F software, which is the version needed by the US Navy to reach its goal of declaring IOC with 10 F-35Cs by August 2018.

“3F – that's the one I am most concerned about in terms of schedule delay,” he told the committee. “If we continue to perform the way we are performing now, we are going to be somewhere between four and six months late.”

Source: Flight International