June 10, 2013
Credit: Lockheed Martin
What is in a date? For the $400 billion, multinational F-35 fighter program—different things to different customers. But, after three years of discussion about when their first units will be ready for combat, the U.S. Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy are confident enough in the development program to outline firm initial operational capability (IOC) plans.
Though much additional work remains for the single-engine, stealthy fighter's software and helmet system, the services each take different approaches to just what constitutes “ready” and when that will happen.
The first U.S. IOC date is just 18 months away for the Marine Corps, followed a year later by the Air Force and the Navy, in February 2019. After years of delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns—pushing earlier attempts at IOC planning back—the top brass had shied away from publicly outlining firm plans out of fear technical problems in the fighter's $61 billion development program would call for yet more schedule revisions. Congress, however, stepped in and demanded a resolution on IOC planning, prompting the services' decisions outlined in a May 31 report to Capitol Hill.
Though each service's leadership is publicly expressing confidence in the way ahead, especially since the Pentagon last overhauled the project in 2010, the program's ability to meet the newly established IOC dates depends heavily on progress in flight and structural-durability testing slated to wrap up in 2017. The biggest risk, according to F-35 Program Executive Officer USAF Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, is in crafting, testing and releasing incremental software packages needed to operate the sophisticated fighter.
Another unknown is the outcome of a risk-mitigation plan put in place two years ago to address mounting concerns about the F-35's revolutionary helmet-display system. If the system falls short of its requirements, key tasks such as nighttime aerial refueling and shipboard vertical landing will be severely hampered.
The Pentagon-led F-35 Joint Program Office prompted Lockheed Martin to select a second helmet contractor in 2011 as a backstop in the event the primary system, designed by Vision Systems International (VSI), failed to overcome persistent problems with night-vision acuity and jitter in its Gen 2 helmet. The parallel developments are ongoing (see page 18). But, risk still remains as officials at VSI, a joint venture of Rockwell Collins and Elbit, are planning to install a new night-time camera into the helmet and incrementally introduce equipment to address the near-field, night-vision acuity issue and other problems. The result, a so-called Gen 3 helmet, is expected to fly in the F-35 in January.
As the first of 15 expected customers, the Marine Corps is likely facing the most risk. That service is expected to meet the IOC with 10 F-35Bs designed for short takeoff and vertical landing (Stovl) in December 2015. The aircraft will be outfitted with the 2B software package and the requisite trained pilots and maintainers, along with adequate support equipment. This is a slight shift of the most recent plan to reach that milestone in summer 2015.