US Air Force Lt. Col. Eric Smith adjusts his helmet before an F-35A joint strike fighter training flight at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. After a series of technical hurdles, a final design for the F-35 helmet has been selected. (US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has selected a helmet design for the F-35 joint strike fighter, going with the original team of Lockheed Martin, Rockwell Collins and Elbit Systems.
“The F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) has decided to stop the development of an alternate helmet and focus solely on bringing the ‘Gen 2’ helmet — now being used in testing and training — up to a fully compliant Gen 3 standard,” JPO spokesman Joe DellaVedova said in an Oct. 10 statement.
“The cost guarantee made by the Lockheed Martin/Rockwell Collins/Elbit team resulted in a reduction of 12% from the previous cost for the helmet system,” the statement continued. “Additionally, deciding to downselect to the Gen 2/3 helmet now will avoid future cost of $45 million required to completely mature the BAE helmet.”
In other words, the cost for the helmet has dropped while confidence in the technology has risen. It’s a major milestone for the program, given the longstanding issues with the high-tech helmet.
The helmet is key to the F-35’s advanced suite of technologies. It provides a 360-degree digital view of what is going on around the plane, in essence letting a pilot “look” through the cockpit floor and walls. In addition, data is projected directly onto the visor of the pilot, providing enhanced situational awareness.
But the futuristic helmet has proven to be a challenge for the program. Following a series of technical failures on the original helmet, the Pentagon requested that BAE Systems develop a traditional, lower-tech helmet, in case the primary system could never be perfected.
According to the statement, the Gen 2 helmet currently in use is acceptable for the July 2015 initial operational capability date for the Marine Corps. The Gen 3 helmet will be introduced as part of the low-rate initial production lot 7 in 2016.
The Gen 3 helmet will come with “improved night vision camera, new liquid-crystal displays (LCD), automated alignment and software improvements,” according to the JPO.
“The government’s decision to proceed exclusively with the principle helmet is indicative of their confidence in the helmet’s performance and the successful resolution of previously identified technical challenges,” Lorraine Martin, Lockheed’s vice president and general manager of the F-35 program, said in a company statement.
“We are disappointed at today’s decision by Lockheed Martin and the Joint Strike Fighter Joint Program Office to discontinue the pursuit of a second helmet for the F-35 aircraft,” Liz Ryan Sax, BAE Systems spokeswoman, wrote in a statement. “Leveraging the design of the only panoramic helmet-mounted display in service for fighter aircraft, BAE Systems’ F-35 solution offers a reliable, dependable, and affordable design. Our program team... has achieved every milestone to date, providing a critical viable alternative for the customer.
F-35 program head Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan addressed the issue of the two-helmet competition during the annual Air Force Association conference in National Harbor, Md.
“The plan has always been on the helmet to continue to develop both helmets and take them to a fly off, and then downselect,” Bogdan said Sept. 17. “That plan, as of today, has not changed other than the fact that we’ve made good progress on the original helmet.”
“There are two pieces to a helmet downselect to me,” Bogdan continued. “One is a technical aspect. Once we decide on a single helmet, we need to make darn sure it’s going to meet the requirements for the warfighter.”
Additionally, Bogdan said, there is a good business aspect to keeping two competing helmets: It can help drive down the price.
“The business aspect is, if and when you have to make the decision to downselect to a single source, you better start getting the best deal you can for the price of that piece of equipment before you downselect.”