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  • OPINION: After a $100bn spend, it's time for F-35 to deliver

OPINION: After a $100bn spend, it's time for F-35 to deliver

More than $100 billion has already been spent on developing, testing, fixing and producing about 130 Lockheed Martin F-35s for the US government. In a few weeks or months, the US taxpayer also will have the first 10 combat-ready F-35Bs for that investment.

The nearly 14-year-old Joint Strike Fighter ­programme involves numbers that skew perspective. Is $100 billion too expensive for such a return? Consider that the US Air Force invested about $62 billion to ­develop and field about 180 Lockheed F-22s. But the F-35 comes in three different variants, including the world’s first operational (almost) supersonic, stealthy and short take-off and vertical landing fighter.

Perhaps the combined capability offered by the F-35 family of fifth-generation fighters is worth American taxpayers’ largesse. But when certain key capabilities are deferred the programme invites close scrutiny because of the mountain of cash it has absorbed.

On 1 June, Gen Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, chief of the US Air Force’s Air Combat Command, sounded ­desperate. He is concerned that an upgraded electro-optical targeting system and a “Big SAR” mode for the Northrop Grumman APG-81 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar could drift beyond the Block 4 version of the F-35 that is scheduled to appear in about five years.

Lockheed and programme officials have long touted the F-35’s impressive surveillance capability. As the first aircraft to package an AESA radar, visual targeting system and advanced electronic warfare system into a stealthy airframe, the F-35 is indeed an impressive ­intelligence-gathering machine. But there is some fine print that undermines those claims, and the “Big SAR” mode is an excellent example. It colloquially describes a wide-area surveillance mode for the APG-81. This currently has a narrowbeam synthetic aperture radar mode – but one of Carlisle’s highest priorities is to make sure a wide-area mode does not slip past Block 4.

That’s where the story starts to get interesting. In 2007, Flight International reported that Lockheed had agreed to deliver a “Big SAR” capability with the Block 3 version of the F-35, then scheduled to be available in 2013. Subsequent delays, however, postponed an initial version of that standard – dubbed Block 3I – to 2016, with the full capability of Block 3F to arrive by the end of 2017. At the same time, the programme ­office allowed Lockheed to defer key capabilities, such as the Big SAR mode, to the Block 4 configuration.

For $100 billion, Carlisle should get what he needs.

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