The Pentagon is scrapping plans to demonstrate two competing advanced helmet designs for the F-35, opting instead to proceed with upgrades to correct deficiencies in the original helmet made by Vision Systems International (VSI).
The F-35 Joint Program Office issued a stop-work order to BAE, an alternate helmet developer, on Oct. 10. Plans to conduct a flight demonstration of the two have been dashed, resulting in a cost avoidance of $45 million to continue maturing and testing the alternate design, according to a statement from the F-35 office.
The original VSI design was intended to combine the use of head-up and head-down displays with a helmet-mounted cueing system into a single helmet for the F-35 pilot. Due to problems with the night-vision camera and jitter encountered by VSI, a joint venture between Rockwell Collins and Elbit, the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) selected BAE Systems to develop a helmet suitable for use with the single-engine, stealthy jet as a backup plan. The JPO expected to spend just more than $100 million for the so-called risk-reduction plan, and roughly $60 million has been spent for BAE to develop its helmet.
In lockstep with the downselect, F-35 Program Executive Officer USAF Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan has locked in a price for the upgraded “Gen 3” helmet that at low-rate, initial production (LRIP) lot 11 will be 12% lower than the price in today’s LRIP 5 tranche, according to the program office. VSI is a subcontractor to Lockheed Martin, which is the prime contractor for the F-35.
“Once we decide on a single helmet, we had better be damn sure that it is going to meet the requirements of the warfighter … If and when you have to make a decision to downselect to a single source, you better start getting the best deal that you can for the price of that piece of equipment before you downselect,” Bogdan said during a presentation last month hosted by the Air Force Association. He also said there had been “deep progress” on the VSI design since the program office decided to fund a competing design in 2011.
Downselect to a single helmet is a milestone in overcoming some of the technical problems in the nearly $400 billion F-35 program; failure to address the helmet faults could have delayed the ability for customers to use the aircraft fully for its intended mission, as some problems were pronounced during stressing conditions, such as high-buffet flight and night aerial refueling. The program office is also nearing a solution on problems to the F-35C tailhook, which will be tested next year.
The new Gen 3 version will incorporate a new night-vision camera, the ISIE-11, to improve night acuity and incorporates new liquid-crystal displays. A software fix also will address jitter problems.
The Gen 3 helmet will be cut into the production system with LRIP 7 aircraft being delivered in 2016. The U.S. Marine Corps will accept early F-35Bs with the Gen 2 helmet, which lacks these improvements, in order to declare initial operational capability as early as July 15.