The Interview: Lockheed Martin Talks F-35

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The Interview: Lockheed Martin Talks F-35

The F-35 is a hotly debated aircraft. Can it win over foreign markets in places like South Korea?

After publishing A ‘Stealth’ Showdown in South Korea, which detailed the various aircraft vying for South Korea's FX-III prize, we were flooded with questions regarding the various competitors. We have reached out to Boeing (see interview here), Lockheed Martin, and Eurofighter to answer the most popular questions you asked over email, social media, and our comments board.

The Diplomat's Harry Kazianis spoke with Lockheed Martin's F-35 Campaign Director Korea Randall Howard regarding the entry of the F-35 in the FX-III competition.

(Editor's Note: We are awaiting a reply from Eurofighter.)

1: The Diplomat recently ran a featured story concerning South Korea's FX-III fighter competition. Our readers were very excited concerning the entry of the F-35. We received multiple emails, comments and requests for more information. One of the more repeated questions was a history of the project.  How did the program come about? What are some of the goals of the program?

The F-35 Program is a family of 3 highly common aircraft designed to replace the aging 4th generation fighters across the U.S. Air Force (USAF), U.S. Navy (USN), U.S. Marine Corps (USMC), and eight partner nations.  Building upon the lessons learned from the F-117, B-2, and F-22, the F-35 is a highly supportable and affordable multi-role stealth fighter capable of operating in heavily defended airspace while simultaneously providing air-to-air, air-to-surface, electronic attack, intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance, and command and control capabilities.  
The three variants include a Conventional Take-off and Landing (CTOL) aircraft, a Short Take-off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) aircraft, and a Carrier Variant (CV) aircraft.  The international partnership includes the United Kingdom, Italy, The Netherlands, Turkey, Australia, Canada, Norway, and Denmark.  Following the competitive selection of the Lockheed Martin F-35 design in October 2001, each of these nations signed agreements with the U.S. for participation in the System Development and Demonstration (SDD) phase of the program, and later also signed an agreement for the Production, Sustainment, and Follow-on Development (PSFD) phase of the program.  Over the next 20+ years in the U.S., the F-35 is scheduled to field 1,763 CTOL aircraft for the USAF, and 680 STOVL and CV aircraft for the USMC and USN.  Within the international partnership, the program of record includes more than 700 CTOL and STOVL aircraft.  Six of the eight partner nations have placed their initial orders with initial deliveries ranging from 2012 – 2015.  Beyond the partnership, Israel and Japan have signed agreements with the U.S. for their initial orders.  Both of these nations will begin taking deliveries in 2016. 

2. The F-35 obviously has some major competition from various competent and modern fighters such as the F-15 SE and the Eurofighter. In what ways does
the F-35 stand out? How, in your view, is the F-35 superior to the competition?

The F-35 is the only available Very Low Observable (VLO) stealth fighter.  VLO stealth must be designed into the aircraft from the very beginning.  It cannot be retrofitted into an existing 4th generation aircraft.  For the F-35, this means a full load of internally carried combat fuel and weapons, imbedded sensors, a curved/diverterless intake that hides the face of the engine, aligned leading and trailing horizontal/vertical edges, and a digital/computer controlled design that allows the aircraft to be manufactured and assembled to a very tight and exacting outer mold line tolerance.  These designed-in characteristics help to reduce the overall radar cross section of the F-35 and allow that signature to be maintained at a fraction of the cost compared to legacy stealth aircraft.  

Inside the stealth vehicle, the F-35 has the most advanced array of sensors and mission systems ever integrated into a fighter aircraft.  Using the more than 9 million lines of software code resident on the F-35, the data collected from the APG-81 AESA radar, the electro-optical targeting system, the electro-optical IR missile warning distributed aperture system, and the highly precise emitter detection and location data is fused together and presented to the pilot to provide him/her with unmatched 360 degree situational awareness.  Finally, the data collected from one F-35 is shared with other F-35 aircraft across a high bandwidth stealthy data link, ensuring every pilot in a flight of F-35 aircraft has the same tactical view of the battlespace.  The corresponding cooperative battle engagement capability changes the dynamics of the air battle and allows the F-35 to dominate the battlefield, even in the most demanding threat environments that will face the U.S. and allied nations over the next 30+ years.  In short, the F-35 provides a quantum leap in capability over competing fighter aircraft.

3. The F-35 is considered by many as 5th generation fighter. It would compete presumably against a field of 5th generation fighters developed by Russia, China and possibly others. How is the F-35 prepared to compete against such airframes of the future?

Very little is known at this time about the Russian and Chinese fighter development programs.  What is known is that both nations are aggressively pursuing their programs in an effort to field those aircraft as soon as possible.  The F-35 is more than 11 years into the development of the air system and simultaneously delivering production aircraft.  Today, more than 40 F-35 aircraft have been fielded and more than 150 F-35 aircraft are in production flow.  The combination of VLO stealth and the integrated/fused mission system data is a highly complex and time consuming process.  The F-35 is well ahead of the platforms from these two nations in both regards.  The fact that both Russia and China are developing the PAK-FA, J-20, and J-31 is further proof of the value and need for the F-35.

4. What types of missions can the F-35 be expected to perform? What do you consider the airplanes greatest strengths overall? How much is stealth an important asset to the airframe of the F-35?

VLO stealth is a critical element of the F-35 and will be required to operate in threat environments that the U.S and allied nations will face over the next 30+ years.  As noted above, the combination of stealth, integrated/fused sensors and mission systems that provide unmatched 360 degree situational awareness, and a high bandwidth stealth data link will allow the F-35 to penetrate heavily defended airspace at will and cooperatively dominate the battlespace.  This provides proactive strategic deterrence for nations operating the F-35.  That deterrence allows the F-35 to hold strategic targets of interest at risk on a 24/7 basis, despite the complex defensive systems that have been put in place to protect those targets.

5.  Considering the cost of the aircraft, upgradeability is important as threats and threat environments can change throughout the planes lifespan.  How upgrade friendly is the aircraft?

You are exactly correct.  The threats that we face today are not the same threats that we will face tomorrow.  Those threats are both improving and proliferating.  The F-35 program has been designed with this reality in clear view.  In the same way that the F-16V aircraft is vastly improved over previous F-16 aircraft, the Block 3 capabilities that represent the Initial Operational Capability will be expanded upon over the life of the F-35.  These technology refresh upgrades are already planned for on the F-35 program, and will occur on a recurring basis throughout the life of the program.  For participating nations, the opportunity to participate in these upgrades represents a tremendous benefit.  On smaller programs, the proportional cost of the non-recurring engineering effort to integrate upgrades can be prohibitively expensive for any given customer.  Comparatively, on a large program such as the F-35, the corresponding cost for a customer with a relatively small fleet will be significantly lower.  Moreover, because the F-35 is the foundation for tactical air power for the U.S., the partner nations, and Israel and Japan going forward, should Korea select the F-35, they can be confident that the necessary upgrade investments will be made to ensure the continuing technological superiority of the F-35 throughout its life.