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As the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) gives serious consideration to the choice of a replacement for its TORNADO combat aircraft, ILA Show Dailies had the opportunity to visit the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics factory in Fort Worth, Texas and an F-35 training unit at Luke Air Force Base near Phoenix, Arizona, to discover at first-hand what the pros and cons are for the fifth-generation fighter as a candidate. Refreshingly open and transparent in response to some searching questions, company officials provided some surprising – and thought provoking – information.

As has been the case in Canada, one of the questions most frequently aired in Germany has been, “would we really benefit from so sophisticated an aircraft?” The answer to that, of course, will come from a complex balance of military, operational and political considerations. But it is instructive to listen to the views of the people who designed, developed and built the aircraft as well as some of those currently flying it – taking their natural enthusiasm and bias into account.“In contemporary integrated air defence environments, it is almost impossible for fourth generation aircraft to prosecute their missions and survive,” Director of F-35 International Business Development, Steve Over, told ILA Show Dailies.

For full article please see ILA Show Dailies #3, available at the show tomorrow and for download tomorrow evening here

 

In a current generation aircraft, he explained, over 90% of the radar cross-section is a result of the external weapons load. In the case of the LIGHTNING II, the internal weapons bay removes that issue almost entirely, reducing the radar return to a hostile air defence system and contributing to the aircraft’s very low observable (VLO) characteristics. Similarly, an F-35 with its internal fuel load of 18,000lbs will have a broadly similar range to an F-16 ‘maxed-out’ with every auxiliary fuel tank it can carry – enhancing mission execution and survivability.Much more telling, however, is the LIGHTNING’s, “transformational capability,” in Mr. Over’s words. 

That capability for providing a high technology disruptor in the air land battle comes at a price, however. A hefty one. A price that has been at the centre of much of the criticism levelled at the F-35 since the inception of the Joint Strike Fighter programme. Interestingly, it is a question that Lockheed Martin now tackles head on and in a straightforward manner, eschewing some of the evasive answers that characterised early years of the programme. “Fighters are expensive – there is no denying that,” Mr. Over admits. “We have been very conscious of the sensitivity regarding unit price and have done our very best to reduce that by every means possible. We have achieved a 62% price reduction between production lots 1 and 10 and confidently expect further reductions,” he told ILA Show Dailies.

You would expect the manufacturer to say that, of course, But Mr. Over’s comments appear to be borne out by third party observations. When Denmark confirmed its selection of the F-35, it did so after an exhaustive, extensive and very publicly scrutinised evaluation that embraced technical, operational and commercial aspects of the aircraft. One of the aspects that an understandably high degree of attention was paid to was the unit acquisition price – and the results were made public after the evaluation was completed. According to the Danish study, the acquisition costs of a Eurofighter TYPHOON or a Boeing F/A-18E/F Super HORNET are roughly similar – at an approximate cost of $124 million. By comparison, an F-35A runs $84 million. At Fort Worth, the average price of an F-35A being manufactured under production Lot 10 today stands at $93.5 million, (with the STOVL version running at about $105 million) and the average for Lots 11,12 and 13 – if they are placed in the manner and within the timeframe the company currently expects – will meet that $84 million number, according to Over. “We are focusing on the things we can control,” he explained, referring to the host of changes, improvements, enhancements and process ‘tweaks’ that have enabled this significant reduction to occur. “What we are very conscious of is that right now there is a once in a lifetime opportunity for a number of operators to regenerate their infrastructure and recapitalise their fleets and sustainment mechanisms.”

Why, therefore, wouldn’t it be sensible to add the F-35, with its sensor fusion capability and the promise of infinitely greater combat effectiveness, to the Luftwaffe’s force mix? Admittedly, there are significant political considerations that need to be taken into account when thinking about the commitment to the TYPHOON joint programme: but economics, security of supply and sovereign capability are all issues that can be resolved, not impenetrable obstacles to making an enlightened decision.With 613 aircraft delivered to date (the fleet will stand at 1,000 by 2022), a programme total of over 4,000 aircraft likely when all potential has been realised, and currently in production for 10 countries, there is no good reason why Germany should not seriously consider becoming.

Tim Mahon

For full article please see ILA Show Dailies #3, available at the show tomorrow and for download tomorrow evening here.

 

The US Air Force flew two F-35 aircraft to ILA 2018, but neither will be flying at the show. (Photo: DPM)

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