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Defense Secretary Robert Gates has "put the F-35B on probation", he tells media in his Pentagon press conference, now under way. Formerly at the head of the test program, the F-35B short take-off, vertical landing version will now trail the F-35A and F-35C versions, and if it cannot be "fixed or gotten back on track" in two years "I believe it should be cancelled". At the same time, Gates announced a go-ahead for a follow-on bomber program. It will be nuclear-capable and optionally piloted, and will use "proven technology" that will allow it to enter service in time to replace current bombers. Gates left no doubt that the problems that have repeatedly delayed the testing of the JSF STOVL version - which so far has performed fewer than a dozen vertical landings - have been underreported. The aircraft, he says, has experienced "significant testing problems. These issues may lead to a redesign of the aircraft’s structure and propulsion – changes that could add yet more weight and more cost to an aircraft that has little capacity to absorb more of either." In that case, the aircraft will be canceled.Meanwhile, Gates has decided to keep FY2012 (Lot 5) low-rate production of the F-35 to 32 aircraft, the same level as 2011, versus the planned 42 aircraft, although progress of the F-35A and F-35C has been "satisfactory".Update: Satisfactory or not, the completion of systems development and demonstration (SDD) is delayed to early 2016, versus mid-2015 as planned in the restructuring of the program early last year. SDD finishes with the conclusion of development testing and precedes initial operational testing and evaluation, so this probably pushes initial operational capability into 2017. (The individual services are assessing their IOC dates.) This will cost an additional $4.6 billion. The production ramp will also be flattened out, cutting another 124 aircraft out of LRIP, through the ninth batch, in addition to the 122 removed last year. A total of 41 more F/A-18E/F Super Hornets will be acquired, alongside 150 life-extended F/A-18C/Ds, to fill Marine and Navy squadrons as a hedge against late JSF deliveries. The bomber program could well follow the lines set out in the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) report issued in September. It is very likely to draw on next-generation stealth research carried out in the classified world in the past decade, and represents a major success for bomber advocates, who have been pessimistic about their chances of overcoming high-level preference for smaller aircraft and missiles. Background here. Added comment: Gates and Pentagon leadership have apparently settled a number of controversial issues about the bomber - manned versus unmanned, nuclear-capable or not, and penetrating versus standoff-missile carrier.
ar99, tacair, jsf, bomber
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