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  • USAF in the 2020s -- F-15s, F-16s ... and U-2s?
    Posted by Graham Warwick 4:30 PM on Nov 07, 2011

    Lockheed Martin is making progress with F-35 development, as its latest flight-test update shows, but its customers are grappling with the reality of a five-year delay in developing the aircraft, as a Congressional hearing last week made clear.

    Because of the delays, the US Air Force will soon announce a program to extend the service life and upgrade the avionics of 300-350 Block 40/50 F-16s at a cost of $9.4 million per aircraft, Lt Gen Herbert Carlisle, deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements, told Congress.

    This will extend their airframe life to 10,000hr from 8,000hr, another eight years of service life keeping the F-16 on the front line until 2030. The life-extension could be expanded to up to 600 F-16s if there are further F-35 delays, but Carlisle said he did not believe the Air Force would have to go that far.

    blog post photo
    F-35As at Edwards AFB. (All photos: Lockheed Martin)

    At the same time, the Air Force may extend the F-15C/D upgrade already way from the 176 aircraft planned to the full 250-aircraft inventory "based on requirements of the future force structure," he said. The F-15C/D upgrade, which includes AESA radar, is intended to keep the fleet viable until 2025-2030.

    And don't forget the A-10, which the F-35 is also scheduled to replace. Two-thirds of the Air Force's fleet of 347 already-upgraded A-10Cs are to be rewinged beginning in FY2012, to keep the aircraft in service beyond 2030.

    Oh, and it's not just delays with the F-35 that are disrupting Air Force modernization plans. Replacing the U-2 with the unmanned RQ-4B Global Hawk for high-altitude reconnaissance has been pushed back indefinitely. "The U-2 will be maintained for a period of time," said Carlisle, because the capability of the Global Hawk's "sensor suite is not there yet." At least the F-35 can't be blamed for that.

    And the picture is little better over at the Department of the Navy. The Navy will have to SLEP 150 F/A-18A-Ds beginning in FY2012 to extend their airframe life to 10,000hr and keep them in service till 2023 to fill in the fighter shortfall caused by F-35C delays. And that's in addition to buying an extra 41 new F/A-18E/Fs through 2014.

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    F-35C catapult test at NAS Lakehurst

    And the US Marine Corps, which is totally dependent on the F-35B to maintain its STOVL capability, has been forced to extend the AV-8B's out-of-service date to 2026, from 2022. No major SLEP is planned; instead the Marines will "focus on sustainment efforts to mitigate significant legacy inventory shortfalls, maintain airframe sustainment and address reliability and obsolescence issues of avionics and subsystems," Congress was told. Issues include unexpected fatigue cracks in the nose landing-gear attachment point.

    So the F-35 program may feel it can laud its progress in completing 837 test flights ahead of plan this year, and 1,432 since the aircraft first flew in December 2006. And it may be able to put a big tick against completing 72 vertical landings (VL) during initial F-35B sea trials last month -- and passing the 200 VL mark for the program early in October. But the expensive mess the program delays have caused is only just unfolding.

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    F-35B short take-off from USS Wasp

    Tags: ar99, tacair, F-35

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