Inaugural Maneuver: A Royal Air Force pilot at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, lifts off in a US Marine F-35B for the first short-takeoff, vertical-landing sortie by a UK pilot. (Samuel King/US Air Force)
LONDON AND WASHINGTON — The F-35 joint strike fighter’s international debut at Britain’s largest air shows this month was intended to show the world that history’s biggest defense program, one marked by delays and cost overruns, was on track and ready to attract more buyers.
But plans to make the much-anticipated jet the star of the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) July 11 and the Farnborough International Airshow starting July 14 were thrown into question late July 3 after the Pentagon grounded the F-35 fleet pending inspections following a June 23 engine fire.
As of press time on July 4, US military personnel, JSF contractors led by Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney and UK officials were racing to inspect nearly 100 jets and analyze data before clearing the fleet for flight.
One source stressed the F-35 was still in development and, while the engine fire was likely an anomaly, the program would put safety before air show obligations.
“If the grounding is lifted quickly, then it’s going to be a footnote, but if it persists through the show, then it will be a major embarrassment,” said Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group. “It’s unlikely to be a major technical problem because of the number of hours on the engine, so it’s more likely a maintenance issue, but we’ll see. Aircraft have to be inspected and data has to be reviewed, and that takes time.”
The Pentagon will decide early in the week of July 6 when the planes can return to the air, allowing four F-35B short-takeoff, vertical-landing jets to leave Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, for RAF Fairford in the UK, which hosts RIAT. The planes were to have arrived in Britain the previous week, but are now aiming to make it to RIAT for a July 10 rollout, followed by regular flying demonstrations over Fairford and Farnborough.
As with the debut of the F-22, the F-35 will operate from Fairford, where the US Air Force has a major presence.
Even before the formal grounding, the fire aboard a US Air Force F-35A delayed the F-35Bs from reaching Britain in time to participate in the July 4 naming ceremony of Britain’s new aircraft carrier, the Queen Elizabeth, which will eventually operate the new planes. While the US Marine Corps said the flyover was proposed but never officially scheduled or confirmed, it had been widely expected for weeks.
With defense spending under pressure on both sides of the Atlantic, the UK debuts were critical for the US-led program and its eight partner nations, three foreign military sales customers and thousands of supplier companies worldwide.
Now the star of the show might either not make it or arrive with a black eye that competing jet makers will be more than eager to exploit.
It is unclear if the grounding will affect the timing of a UK contract for 14 production F-35Bs. News reports since the beginning of the year have suggested the order was imminent, but it appears the deal for 14 F-35Bs could be announced by the government either at Farnborough or RIAT.
Pivotal Review Next Year
F-35 issues aside, a long-anticipated update of the Typhoon jet, restoration of a British maritime patrol aircraft capability, progress on the Anglo-French defense treaty and the unveiling of a UK defense industry growth plan could be among the issues generating heat and even some light at Farnborough.
The actual value of the F-35 deal is unclear, as it depends on how much initial support will be included. Analysts and industry executives reckon that the contract will be worth more than £1 billion (US $1.7 billion).
The British have already ordered four F-35s for test, evaluation and training purposes, but a deal for about a squadron’s worth of aircraft kick-starts in earnest the British buildup of a fleet that will be flown jointly by the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.
A strategic defense review next year will start to settle how many aircraft will be purchased amid as decisions about issues such as whether the second of two aircraft carriers being built by a BAE Systems-led alliance for the Royal Navy is mothballed upon completion or made available for operations.
Britain committed to 150 aircraft when it signed up with the US to jointly develop the F-35, but that number has been cut to 138.
The F-35 will provide the backbone of British strike aircraft capabilities alongside the Typhoon jets being delivered by the Eurofighter partners of Airbus Defence and Space, BAE and Finmeccanica.
“The UK’s Lightning II aircraft will be ordered incrementally and we are on track to receive the first operational jets in 2016. To begin with, the UK will order sufficient Lightning IIs to build up our initial carrier strike capability,” a Defence Ministry spokeswoman said.
British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has said the UK will order at least 48 aircraft, for carrier operations, but the final numbers will not be determined before the next [strategic defense review] in 2015, and will be dependent on the size of the Typhoon force and number of unmanned aerial vehicles,” she added.
Doug Barrie, the senior air analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, said that while the F-35 has not turned out to be the bargain it was touted to be at the outset, the “sticker price is probably not a million miles from where the British estimated it would end up.”
The big unknown, however, is not the purchase price but the aircraft’s through-life costs, he said.
“The British will be watching very carefully what the running costs for the F-35B will be over the next 30 years or so. If they have got their sums wrong on that, there will be a serious financial issue,” he said.
With the Farnborough International Airshow as the backdrop, the reluctance of the four Eurofighter partner governments of Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain to sign up to production of the Captor-E active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar may be ending.
With an AESA production commitment key to Typhoon’s export effort, industry executives hope to hear significant progress announced about the radar at Farnborough even if, for the moment, it falls short of a full production commitment for the Selex ES led-Euroradar consortium.
A modified Typhoon test aircraft fitted with the new radar is expected to be the centerpiece of the Eurofighter effort at the show. Officials won’t say whether they have conducted any live flight trials with the new radar yet.
Farnborough, and the RIAT event that precedes it, are not just about Royal Air Force fast jet capabilities.
The disappearance of Flight MH370, followed by the deaths of four British sailors in a yacht accident in the mid-Atlantic, have reemphasized British vulnerabilities in maritime patrol and surveillance since the government axed, largely on budget grounds, the capability in 2010. The British were able to field only an ill-equipped C-130J Hercules in the search for the yacht Cheeki Rafiki.
The Conservative-led coalition government has said it will consider the issue of providing maritime patrol during the next strategic review.
But industry executives here reckon that the tragic maritime incidents plus deteriorating relations with Russia and events in Syria and Iraq have flagged the need for a platform with multirole capabilities similar to the Nimrod MRA4s before they were scrapped.
Industry is hoping that an intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance optimization study being conducted by the MoD will firm up a multirole requirement that government ministers now say is a priority.
A number of British personnel are maintaining their maritime patrol skills by flying on the US Navy’s P-8 Poseidon aircraft. A handful of personnel are training on Northrop Grumman’s Triton maritime UAV already purchased by the US and Australian militaries.
Barrie said the choice for the hard-up British is between the Boeing 737-based P-8 and the smaller, cheaper turboprop rivals.
“If money was not an object, I would be very surprised if P-8 wasn’t the way to go. But the budget is constrained and they will be looking hard at other options. They may try and figure out a leasing deal as they did on the C-17 airlifter,” he said.
Many of the players in the maritime patrol field will be at the show and several are eyeing a likely British requirement, including the Airbus C295 and L-3 Communications Q400.
Boeing, which manufactures the P-8, will also be publicly showing off its Maritime Surveillance Aircraft (MSA) for the first time. While it won’t be flying, the aircraft will demonstrate sensors that come with the plane.
Company officials have expressed confidence that the MSA, which is smaller than the P-8, will find a market for just this kind of mission.
US Returns in Force
In 2012, the US defense community was just starting to come to grips with the fact that spending would decline.
But with stability, temporary as it may be, the defense sector is looking to make a splash as it returns to Farnborough.
In addition to a static display of the P-8, the Navy plans to present a pair of F/A-18E/F Super Hornets that will take part in flying demos. Among other aircraft being showcased by US services are the F-15E Strike Eagle, F-16C Fighting Falcon and AH-64D Apache.
The impressive presence testifies to the importance of the global market for US manufacturers.
That international market is on the minds of industry, said Chris Chadwick, president and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space and Security.
Five to seven years ago, Chadwick said, Boeing’s international backlog represented about 12 percent to 15 percent of the company’s defense orders. That number is now 35 percent, with 28 percent of all defense revenue coming from outside the US.
Because of the growing international market, Chadwick said his company will feature a larger presence than two years ago.
“We think the dialogue right now is extremely important,” he said. “There’s no better venue than an air show like Farnborough where we can have that interaction with our customers, both domestically and internationally.”
Chadwick’s comments came during a media tour funded and arranged by the company. He added that while global budget cuts have caused some roadblocks, great “opportunities” await companies willing to think outside the box.
While companies such as Boeing may be returning in greater numbers than in 2012, some of the changes wrought by sequestration are likely to be visible, according to the Teal Group’s Aboulafia.
“There is restraint in the number of people companies are sending,” he said. “You’re seeing it across the board, that there are a lot of people who aren’t going to be there you would think would have been. The [number of people] the major US companies is sending is down.”
Some of that is politics, with companies trying to avoid being seen as throwing lavish parties as they fight over the budget on Capitol Hill.
Or as Aboulafia put it, “they probably don’t want to do things that would catch appropriators’ and authorizers’ attention.”