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.