September 18, 2013
The Pentagon is continuing to keep BAE’s work crafting an alternate F-35 helmet on the side burner, though program officials indicate they are lining up in support of fixes designed to improve the performance of the primary helmet manufactured by Vision Systems International.
F-35 Program Executive Officer Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan has not, however, taken the step to sole-source the work to VSI, a joint venture of Rockwell Collins and Elbit, in hopes that even the specter of competition will drive down the helmet’s cost.
“The plan has always been with the development of both helmets to take them to a fly-off and then downselect. That plan – as of today – has not changed other than the fact that we have made deep progress on the original helmet,” Bogdan said. “Once we decide on a single helmet, we had better be damn sure that it is going to meet the requirements of the warfighter. We are getting really close to that on the original helmet. But there is a business aspect to this … 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.”
VSI’s Generation 3 helmet is slated for delivery with low-rate, initial production aircraft lot 7 aircraft in 2015. This helmet includes a new camera for night-vision acuity; the older night-vision system was found to include too much jitter and not to be suitable for nighttime air refueling and high-buffet maneuvers in the dark.
Thus, the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Program Office has been pursuing a risk-reduction strategy to ensure a helmet is ready in time for the U.S. Marine Corps’ initial operational capability by the end of 2015. BAE was called in as a backup plan as VSI developed and tested its new ISIE-11 camera.
Lorraine Martin, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 general manager, says that pilot feedback on the new camera has prompted the company to continue “pressing full forward” with the VSI helmet. “Testing has shown us that the current helmet is suitable to go to the IOC,” Martin says. “The acuity is significantly improved.”
Solving the helmet was the “toughest” part of the program office’s technical challenges recently, Bogdan said.
Pentagon procurement chief Frank Kendall is slated to review the program this fall. This would be the likely setting for codifying a change of plans if the program office proposes to drop continued funding of BAE’s helmet or a fly-off in favor of fully committing to the VSI option.