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u.s. defense secretary orders review of f-35 joint strike fighter program

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u.s. defense secretary orders review of f-35 joint strike fighter program

taming two of president donald trump’s pet peeves in one move, the pentagon has ordered military leaders to find ways to drive down the costs of both the maligned joint strike fighter and proposed replacement jetliners for the air force one program.

announced friday but issued on thursday by new secretary of defense james mattis, the pair of memorandums instructs the armed forces to reopen reviews into lockheed martin’s $1.5 trillion lightning ii strike fighter and boeing’s $3.7 billion replacement plan for the two jets used to ferry the president around the world.

 

in a stream of tweets and in closed meetings with lockheed martin and boeing executives, trump has squabbled over the proposed costs for both procurement programs, but the project that remains most important to america’s defense needs in the 21st century is the joint strike fighter, which is designed within the military as the f-35.

lockheed martin plans to build 2,443 of the fighters for the navy, air force and marines, plus 741 more for foreign partners such as denmark and the united kingdom.  on jan. 11, the defense giant delivered its 200th f-35, which come in three varieties.

the air force’s f-35a uses a conventional runway.  the f-35bs bound for the marines can take off and land vertically from a ship or a battlefield.  the f-35cs are slated for both the navy and marines because they deploy from carriers.

the mattis memo urged the pentagon to find ways to “significantly reduce costs” for all three fighter variants but took aim at the f-35c, the most troubled line of joint strike fighters.  he asked reviewers to consider whether boeing’s non-stealthy and less technologically a nced f e/f super hornet could be upgraded to “provide a competitive, cost-effective” alternative to lockheed martin’s f-35c.

mattis issued his order a day after four f-35cs landed just outside lemoore, a sleepy farm town south of fresno that’s been slated to host 96 more of the jets over the next decade as the navy swaps out its aging and increasingly rickety squadrons of “legacy” f hornets and super hornets.

the quartet of f-35cs are the first to be permanently stationed on the west coast, but they’re expensive — they combined to cost more than $400 million — and they’ve been dogged by technological setbacks.

they can’t safely catapult from an aircraft carrier and their wings are too weak to launch air-to-air missiles.  

they lack a functioning gun, air flowing across the outer casing of the engine sparks oven- temperatures and the fighters can suddenly roll when flying below the speed of sound.

those and scores of other serious problems pepper a recent report from the pentagon office tasked with operational testing and evaluation of the entire f-35 program.

strategists believe that the navy and marine corps need the f-35cs because dense missile arrays, a nced pursuit fighters and other recent military innovations by china and russia put america’s “legacy” strike fighters like the f s and the marines’ harrier ii jet increasingly at risk of getting s down over the pacific.

as a “fifth generation” plane, the f-35 is designed to sneak past enemy radar to use its highly a nced sensors to detect and destroy everything from anti-aircraft defenses to warships, but pentagon planners believe its stealthiness, raw computing power and communications system also could turn it into a much deadlier weapon.

think of it as part of a basketball team on a fast break.  it can become a swift power forward who slams the ball home, or it could morph into a point guard directing all the others to the basket — although staying invisible the entire time to opposing players.

navy cmdr. john turner jr., skipper of the “rough raiders” of lemoore’s strike fighter squadron 125, calls it the “ferrari” of fighters.

“it’s absolutely incredible.  with its fifth generation stealth capabilities, and the avionics that it brings, it’s exactly what carrier strike groups need to continue its lethality,” he said.

vice adm. michael shoemaker, the navy’s “air boss” who controls all of the service’s air forces, said that the arrival of the four f-35cs to turner’s squadron is “a big deal” and he’s already brainstorming how they will be used against potential enemies.

“it could do everything, from dropping mines to all the high end warfighting capabilities that i expect from the f-35, but we don’t have the time, bandwidth or the money to train a pilot to do all of those mission sets,” said shoemaker, a navy strike pilot decorated for his valor in combat. 

“so i want them focused on high end mission sets. there are third- and fourth-generation missions that we’ve got the (f e/f super hornet) to do and there are fifth generation missions i want to keep f-35 focused on.”

shoemaker believes that he’ll have a fully operational f-35c squadron in lemoore by 2020 -- a prediction echoed by rear adm. roy kelley, chief of the navy’s joint strike fighter fleet integration office inside the pentagon.

a hornet pilot decorated for valor, kelley now fights bureaucratic battles on behalf of the navy while helping to fix glitches with the fighter alongside defense and industry leaders.

“being able to be the voice of the program for our program, the f-35c, is important,” said kelley.  “it’s allowed us to make sure that in the middle of a conver ion we’re able to voice our opinions.  i can say, ‘hey, here’s the issue with what you’re trying to do.’ and if it’s a problem for us, we can bring it out and we can work through it.”

if called to battle today, shoemaker insists that his fleet of workhorse f hornets and super hornets, plus the highly a nced electronic warfare ea g growler, would win a war in the skies of asia, but the day is soon coming when he will need to field the f-35c as the lead strike aircraft.

the marines need it even sooner. 

two marine f-35b squadrons are marked operational and one of them has been forward deployed to japan, but in order to keep its legacy strike fleet flying the corps had to buy s ped harrier ii jets from britain to cannibalize for spare parts.

“marine aviation kind of bottomed out around the 2013 time frame,” said william e. taylor, the marines’ istant deputy commandant for aviation.  

the former helicopter attack pilot called the problems with the harrier and hornet strike fighter fleet “systemic,” caused by wear and tear and corrosion on aging planes that flew too many hours providing air support to ground troops in iraq and afghanistan. 

“we’re about two years into a six-year readiness recovery plan,” said taylor. “we’ve shown over the past two years positive results but it’s slow and painful.  we’re hoping to recover and get to where our objective is by 2020.”

the f-35cs are part of that solution, but august test flights aboard the flat top george washington revealed “vertical oscillations” during catapult launches that were so “excessive” and “violent” that they threaten to make the jet “operationally unsuitable for carrier operations,” according to the recent pentagon report.

lockheed martin embled a “red team” of navy and industry experts who continue to go “very systematically through the aircraft” to ferret out the gremlins, said jeff a. babione, the company’s executive vice president in charge of the f-35 program.

“we don’t have an answer yet, but i’m encouraged by what i see and that testing should begin next month” at the naval air engineering station in lakehurst, new jersey, he said.

navy officials told the union-tribune that lockheed martin already cured several technological headaches raised in the pentagon report, including an abnormal “green glow” inside the pilots’ top secret helmets discovered during carrier night operations.

to slash the f-35c’s cost, lockheed martin’s babione said that the pentagon should place larger block orders, which would allow the company to negotiate cheaper prices with part suppliers.

“economies of scale generate reductions in price,” he said. “it happens when you buy commodities.  it happens when you buy fighter jets.  making sure that we continue to add more and more airplanes and maintain that learning curve — that’s absolutely important.”

dan grazier, a defense expert at the project on government oversight nonprofit in washington, urged trump instead to halt f-35 production until the pentagon finishes initial operational testing.

taxpayers, he said, are on the hook to buy 798 f-35s before lockheed martin has proved they can fly into battle.

“to give us a really clear picture of the combat capabilities of the f-35, we’re looking at delays into the mid-2020s now,” said grazier, a former marine armor officer who fought in afghanistan.  “when you consider that the origins of this program go back to 1993, here we are in 2017 and we still don’t know at all if this thing is ever going to be really ready for combat.  that’s really saying something about this whole program.

“if we agree to this block buy, they’re promising us a discount — essentially, the costco price for the f-35. but those savings are fake. what’s going to end up happening is they they’ll knock a few million dollars off the purchase price of each plane, but we’ll end up paying later because these immature planes we buy now will have to be sent back to be modified to integrate subsequent changes.”

the mattis f-35c memo didn’t set a deadline for when the f-35c review should finish but indicated it will begin immediately so that its findings can be used to inform “upcoming budget decisions.”

one major obstacle to u.s. military cooperation with russia
captionone major obstacle to u.s. military cooperation with russia

a national defense authorization act provision prohibits military cooperation until russia stops its occupation and aggression toward ukraine. (jan. 24, 2017)

a national defense authorization act provision prohibits military cooperation until russia stops its occupation and aggression toward ukraine. (jan. 24, 2017)

one major obstacle to u.s. military cooperation with russia
captionone major obstacle to u.s. military cooperation with russia

a national defense authorization act provision prohibits military cooperation until russia stops its occupation and aggression toward ukraine. (jan. 24, 2017)

a national defense authorization act provision prohibits military cooperation until russia stops its occupation and aggression toward ukraine. (jan. 24, 2017)

new doctrine for dealing with potential enemies like china, russia, iran
captionnew doctrine for dealing with potential enemies like china, russia, iran

the “distributed lethality” concept is catching on not only with captains in the surface fleet — destroyers, cruisers and smaller warships that during the past seven decades have often been used to protect aircraft carriers.

the “distributed lethality” concept is catching on not only with captains in the surface fleet — destroyers, cruisers and smaller warships that during the past seven decades have often been used to protect aircraft carriers.

scientists suggest u.s. missile defense policy is shifting from a flawed system to a fantasy
captionscientists suggest u.s. missile defense policy is shifting from a flawed system to a fantasy

congress has approved a bill calling for research of space-based missile defense systems, while leading scientists dismiss the idea as fantasy.

congress has approved a bill calling for research of space-based missile defense systems, while leading scientists dismiss the idea as fantasy.

32nd year of san diego va’s care and share gift bags for needy veterans
caption32nd year of san diego va’s care and share gift bags for needy veterans

care and share drive to provide holiday meals for almost 600 veterans and their families in need

care and share drive to provide holiday meals for almost 600 veterans and their families in need

what is the f-35 fighter jet program?
captionwhat is the f-35 fighter jet program?

the f-35 fighter jet program is the most expensive weapons program ever with a total estimated cost of $379 billion.

the f-35 fighter jet program is the most expensive weapons program ever with a total estimated cost of $379 billion.

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