The Lockheed Martin (LM) F-35 Lightning II (Adir – “mighty one” in Israel) is an American family of single-seat, single-engine, all-weather stealth multirole combat aircraft that is intended to perform both air superiority and strike missions. It is also able to provide electronic warfare and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. LM is the prime F-35 contractor, with principal partners Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems. The aircraft has three main variants: the conventional takeoff and landing F-35A (CTOL – as used by Israel), the short take-off and vertical-landing F-35B (STOVL), and the carrier-based F-35C (CV/CATOBAR).
Israel has so far ordered 75 of these go-anywhere do-anything stealthy flying machines, and, by the time you read this, Sunday afternoon, will ב”ה have received 27 examples at Nevatim Air Force Base. First flown as the X-35 in 2001 the aircraft won the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) competition, which saw the United States (US) order over 2400 across the three variants, with partner countries around the globe adding many hundreds more.
Lockheed Martin X-35 (Joint Strike Fighter) prototype – USAirForce picture
Naturally our leaders have nothing but glowing praise for their new toys, and at around $100,000,000 each they jolly well ought to. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated in response to typical Iranian rhetoric:- “It (Iran) should remember that these planes can reach every place in the Middle East, including Iran, and of course also Syria.”
The fifth-generation F-35 has been lauded as a “game-changer” by the military, and is already combat-proven in the IAF; “We performed the F-35’s first ever operational strike. The IAF is a pioneer and a world leader in operating air power” declared Israel Air Force (IAF) commander Major General Amikam Norkin.
One of the key capabilities of the F-35 is its ability to absorb electronic signals from radars and air defense systems and to quickly classify them, locate them, and display them to the pilot. Then the aircraft can distribute that data to other combatants and form an information-sharing network. The critical data is collected by passive antennas embedded in the F-35’s leading and trailing edges. They feed the information to the jet’s computers. Using interferometers, the slightest time delay between when a signal hits one antenna compared to another, azimuth and range can be defined and target-quality coordinates created on whence the threatening radio frequency emission emanates.
At the Misdar Knaffayim, an Adir shows its (empty) weapons bays – authors photo
For the technically minded, the F-35 sensor suite includes; Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, Electronic Warfare (EW)/Countermeasures (CM) system, Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS), Electro-Optical (EO) Distributed Aperture System (DAS) and Communications, Navigation, and Identification (CNI) avionics suite.
In short, and believe me their capabilities could fill a whole book never mind a blog, these five sensors provide the F-35 with object detection and measurements in the radio frequency (RF) and infrared (IR) spectrums. This compilation of data gathering disseminates more information about the environment than what has ever been available on a fighter aircraft, and if that wasn’t enough, the F-35 also receives information from the “Link 16” datalink and the Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL) which can link each F-35 to other members of its flight group. It is quite possible that in the not too distant future, the F-35 will be capable of operating into heavily defended far-away places flown remotely with guidance from its base, or another airborne asset.
The F-35 pilot can then use all this data to destroy his targets using both GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and Paveway-series laser-guided bombs (LGB) carried in the internal weapons bays, and will shortly be able to deploy 250-lb (113.6-kg) Boeing GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs (SDB) while maintaining full stealth characteristics making the attacking Adir invisible to enemy radars. For self-protection, should it be required, in either and air-to-air combat situation or where stealth is not required, the F-35 can carry the latest generation of wing-tip mounted “Sidewinder” AIM-9 air-to-air missiles. In use in one form or another since the mid-1950s, the AIM-9X now features an imaging infrared focal-plane array (FPA) seeker with claimed 90° off-boresight capability, compatibility with helmet-mounted displays such as the new Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS), and a totally new three-dimensional thrust-vectoring control (TVC) system providing increased turn capability over traditional control surfaces. In layman’s terms, utilizing the JHMCS, a pilot can point the AIM-9X missile’s seeker and “lock on” by simply looking at a target, thereby increasing air combat effectiveness (and he doesn’t have to think in Russian).
Adir 908 shows off its squadron badge and wingtip rails – authors photo
However, not everyone shares the enthusiasm of the IAF commanders. LM have set up a global supply chain and States-wide manufacturing network to ensure that any cost over-runs will be outweighed by resultant job losses should anything go wrong, essentially making the F-35 “too big to fail”. At the currently authorized production level it could be 30 years before the initial US order is met, and with other countries joining the program, and the effects of Covid-19 slowing down many aspects of production, that total may never be achieved.
“It’s an expensive machine, and it’s expensive to maintain, in large part because of the stealth technology, that is more advanced than anywhere else,” said LM CEO James Taiclet recently. He continued that LM is working to improve the F-35’s affordability, saying that the goal of reducing its cost per flight hour to $25,000 – comparable to current F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon jets – is achievable. LM claim those costs right now are in the region of $36,000 whilst other sources say the figure may be over $40,000. For our initial fleet of 50 fighters flying an hour a day each, that comes in at anything between $250-400 Million dollars a year, which may well not come out of Israel’s Military Aid package from the US.
A trio of Adirs approach Nevatim AFB after their delivery flight from the US – authors photo
In a recent speech, Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Readiness subcommittee, singled out the “huge problem” with the F-35: “We buy more planes [but] we’re not able to maintain the older ones, so the more we buy, the worse the overall performance has been. That is going to stop.” This is a reference to a shortage of spare parts and trained personnel to maintain the jets at allegedly 80 separate locations. It also alludes to the cost of upgrading hundreds of the earliest F-35s to the newest standard, currently estimated at a cool $12.1 billion. He continued at a hearing before two key House subcommittees “The easy days of the past are over don’t expect more money. Do not expect to have more planes purchased than authorized in the president’s budget [this year]. That’s not going to happen.” Garamendi however, is not the first Congressman to criticize the F-35 program. In March, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the head of the House Armed Services Committee, called the F-35 a “rathole.” Smith suggested the Pentagon should “cut its losses” and invest in a range of jets, a suggestion that has taken on more relevance with the USAF actually ordering up to 144 new versions of the venerable F-15 and looking at a “four-and-a-half gen” low-cost fighter to replace other legacy types.
As well as costs there are other concerns, and citing a report from the Pentagon’s operational testing office, a Bloomberg news essay writes that the F-35 currently has 871 software and hardware “deficiencies.” I have not seen the report so it is not clear what the specific elements of the deficiencies are, or what kinds of impact they may have upon F-35 mission readiness or performance. Whilst not denying the figure, LMs F-35 spokesman Brett Ashworth said “…approximately 70% of these items are categorized as low priority or are with the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) for resolution. There are currently no CAT 1A (risk to life or limb) and 10 open CAT 1B (mission impacts) deficiency reports. Nine of these have closure resolution plans, with seven already delivered to the government awaiting action. The other is currently being reviewed by the JPO”.
The IAFs dedicated test Adir, AS15 landing at Tel Nof – photo courtesy Avger Idan
One area of focus is clear: software. F-35 development has for years rested in large measure upon incremental software upgrades, iterations or “drops” of new technology intended to massively expand aircraft performance. Each successive software drop has introduced the ability of the F-35 to operate more weapons, improve processing functionality and widen its mission envelope. LM together with customer services and nations are now working on what’s called a Block IV software drop, a move intended to even further increase its effectiveness, but again, fraught with challenges.
For a “new” program such “unforeseen” costs and setbacks such as these might be expected and acceptable. For a program 20 years on from first flight it sounds excessive. But what must also be taken into account is that much of what goes into the F-35 is “cutting-edge” technology, and each “fix” or upgrade takes the Adir further ahead of the field, and there can be no price on that for Israel’s safety and security, especially with some of our neighbors joining the program in the near future.
Whilst it may not be the last manned fighter for the IAF, it is certainly the most exciting and technically advanced, and likely to be around well past the middle of the 21st Century. The IAF expects a further six aircraft later this year, and six more of the so called Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP) variant in 2022, after which we might see some of the promised Israeli systems entering the Adir after aircraft 39. Exciting times indeed for the IAF.