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  • Marines Could Fly CTOL JSF (Updated)
    Posted by Bill Sweetman 10:48 AM on Sep 14, 2010

    The US Marine Corps could make greater use of (see update for wording change) the Air Force's F-35A variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, as delays and a major review cast more doubt on the feasibility of meeting a late-2012 IOC date with the F-35B short take-off, vertical landing variant.

    The change is one of the options emerging from an in-depth review of the JSF program, covering the path from now until initial operating capability and full production, Lockheed Martin F-35 general manager Tom Burbage said Monday at the Air Force Association convention at National Harbor, Maryland. This is the review that underlies recent discussions about "rephasing" the F-35 program.

    The technical baseline review (TBR) was commissioned after the JSF's Nunn-McCurdy breach earlier this year and supports a Defense Acquisition Board review in November. Burbage characterizes the TBR as featuring a different role for Air Force Materiel Command and Naval Air Systems Command, which have hitherto delegated the management of the program to the JSF Program Office.

    The syscoms "are taking a much stronger role as we get to introducing the aircraft to operations", Burbage said on Monday. Although the TBR also includes an independent manufacturing review, a major focus is on the critical path towards IOC.

    In the case of the F-35B, there are three major items on the critical path, Burbage says. The most important, underpinning the others, is the vertical landing test program. Since March, F-35 BF-1, the only jet instrumented for vertical landings in the initial test phase, has accomplished about half as many vertical landings as scheduled, performing a dozen flights. Burbage says that 42 flights are "the magic number" after which the other F-35B test assets can start flying in vertical mode. BF-2 is being modified with the necessary instrumentation to share BF-1's role and reach that point more quickly.

    The second key critical path item is the "ready for training" date, which indicates that enough testing has been done to allow the aircraft to be flown safely by operational pilots rather than test pilots, and without the constant monitoring in the test environment. The Marines' IOC criteria include the availability of 20 trained pilots.

    The third big critical item is ship qualification, which was due to start in the first half of 2011, and Burbage adds that "there is a myriad of other things to be done."

    The Marines have continued to insist that they will declare IOC in late 2012, and Burbage stresses that it is the operator's role to make that call. However, he says, one of the options being floated as the TBR continues is "why don't the Marines fly the CTOL aircraft?"

    The F-35As have so far proven more reliable than the F-35Bs, and the Marine IOC plan has always called for training to start on the F-35A. The Marine inventory also includes combat aircraft such as the F/A-18D and EA-6B, which are for practical purposes land-based in Marine service.

    Therefore, an expanded role for the F-35A could form a bridge to the definitive F-35B - while taking some pressure off the program and giving it more time to fix what are still characterized as component-quality issues with the STOVL jet.

    Update and clarification:  I initially worded this piece to reflect my view that the USMC could declare IOC with the F-35A before going on to the F-35B, and unintentionally implied that Burbage had suggested that they could do so. Lockheed Martin asks us to point out that while a larger role for the F-35A with the Marines is an option under discussion, as a means of mitigating schedule risk, it is entirely up to the Marines to decide whether that would be declared as an operational capability and that the Marines have no plan to do so as yet.

    Tags: ar99, tacair, afa10, jsf

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