The head of the US Joint Programme Office (JPO) for the Lockheed Martin F-35 aircraft is upbeat about the aircraft’s progress, although certain risk areas remain.
“Last year was a pretty good year for the F-35 programme,” says Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan. “Since I first visited Avalon in 2013, this is a different programme. It is growing and accelerating.”
In 2013, Bogdan used his presentation at the air show outside Melbourne to blast the yawning gulf between industry and the US government over the programme.
He cited a number of successes last year. These included a “supersonic cruise missile” attack on a simulated Aegis cruiser at the White Sands Missile range. In the test, an F-35B acted a sensor platform, detecting a low-flying target. It passed the targeting information back to the USS Desert Ship via a datalink, allowing the land-based veseel to destroy the target with a Raytheon SM-6 missile.
“The cruiser shot down the missile without ever seeing it,” says Bogdan. “The F-35 makes other platforms more lethal and survivable.”
Bogdan adds that costs are under control. When the programme was “re-baselined” 2011 after years of cost overruns and delays, the plan was to finish flight testing in 2017, and deliver full capability between August 2017 and February 2018.
“Today, we’re well within that window for completing all the flight testing and delivering all that capability.”
At the time of re-baselining the, the government allocated a range between $13.9 billion and $15.2 billion for the balance of development work. He estimates that when the development programme is completed next year, the total cost will be $14.2 billion.
“When you have people tell you this is a tragic programme out of control, go back to what it looked like in 2011. I don’t think this programme has problems now…although there are risks and challenges.”
One risk he cites is the major production ramp up for the aircraft, and the pressure this could place on the F-35’s extensive supply chain. The Lot 9 production run agreed in 2015 was for 61 aircraft, but when Lot 11 is negotiated this year it will be for 134 jets. By 2020, each lot will contain about 160 jets.
Bogdan also touched on extensive reports that the Boeing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet would be cast in a competition against F-35, following comments from US president Donald Trump that apparently propose such a plan.
“The message that the administration is giving both industry and the defence department is that it wants better value, and this is a great message,” says Bogdan. “I applaud the president and the new administration from taking that on.”
He says that this proposal is unrelated to the air force’s F-35A or US Marine Corps F-35B variants, and only relates to the F-35C. Bogdan cast it as mainly a discussion about the mix of F-35Cs and Super Hornets to be deployed aboard aircraft carriers in the coming years.
As for the nose wheel oscillations experienced by F-35C pilots during catapult launches during flight tests, Bogdan said that this phenomenon only happens with “light” jets, i.e. not those with operational loads. Tests have taken place to see if this can be remediated by changing the settings of the catapult mechanism.
He also says that work continues to drive unit costs down. From roughly $94.6 million per Lot 10 aircraft, Bogdan says that the previously discussed $85 million unit cost for Lot 13 aircraft is achievable, with these jets being delivered in 2019. A $80 million unit cost is possible for Lot 14, which would be for aircraft for delivered in 2020.
He adds that Lot 12, 13, and 14 will be combined into a block purchase, thus helping economies of scale.