In June of this year, as part of the Red Flag exercise, a large number of aircraft from the US Air Force, Royal Air Force of Great Britain and the Australian Air Force practiced many joint tasks, including breaking through the layered air defense of a potential enemy.
Representatives of the Air Force took part in F-16, F-15, Eurofighter “Typhoons”, E-8 were the control aircraft, F-22 and F-35 played the role of covert escort. Almost the entire NATO set.
The enemy was represented by long- and medium-range air defense systems and fighters structurally similar to the Su-30. That is, the most powerful enemy was simulated.
In the end, the F-35s effectively decided the outcome by destroying air defense networks and transmitting data to missile-laden fighters like the F-16s, which completed the rout of the enemy on the ground and in the air.
That the F-35 can fly at speeds up to Mach 1,6 and can carry four payloads weapons in the internal compartments - this is not the most important thing. In fact, it is not the firepower that is important, but the processing power of the F-35. This is why the F-35 has become known as the "quarterback in the sky" or "the computer that flies."
“There has never been an aircraft that provides situational awareness like the F-35. In combat, situational awareness is worth its weight in gold."- Major Justin "Hazard" Lee, US Air Force F-35 instructor pilot.
But for quite some time, many have debated whether the F-35 was a game-changing platform or an example of a Pentagon weapons acquisition that didn't make sense.
It turns out that it’s both.
The aircraft we know today as the F-35 was built to serve multiple components of the military with one high-performance, versatile aircraft.
Having a long list of requirements from the US Navy, Air Force, DARPA, and subsequently the UK and Canada, the Joint Strike Fighter program already in 1997 organized a competitive selection of two prototypes: the X-35 from Lockheed Martin and the X-32 from Boeing " And the developers had to work hard: The Joint Strike Fighter needed to replace at least five different aircraft in different branches of the armed forces, including the F-14 Tomcat high-speed interceptor and the A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft at least partially.
While replacing all of these aircraft with one aircraft would (in theory) save money, the long list of requirements resulted in an avalanche of costly complications. In fact, while the X-35 was still vying for a contract, many were unsure that such an aircraft could be built in production.
Designed from the ground up with low observability as a priority, the F-35 may be the stealthiest fighter jet today. It uses a single F135 engine, with an afterburner thrust of 19 kgf, capable of accelerating the fighter to speeds of up to Mach 500.
The aircraft can carry four missiles or bombs inside the weapons compartment and six more on external nodes, but this will be to the detriment of stealth. Plus a four-barreled 25mm cannon.
The standard payload of all three F-35 variants includes two AIM-120C/D air-to-air missiles and two GBU-32 JDAM guided bombs, allowing the F-35 to engage both air and ground targets. In addition, Lockheed Martin has developed a new internal weapons carriage that will eventually allow the aircraft to carry an additional two missiles within the bay.
The F-35's cockpit eschews the array of sensors and screens found on previous generations of fighter jets in favor of large touchscreens and a helmet-mounted display system that allows the pilot to see information in real time. The helmet also allows the pilot to see straight through the aircraft, thanks to the F-35's Distributed Aperture System (DAS) and a set of six infrared cameras mounted in a circular pattern on the aircraft's fuselage.
"If you went back to 2000 and someone said, 'I can build an airplane that is stealthy, has VTOL capability and can go supersonic,' most people in the industry would have said it was impossible."" said Tom Burbage, Lockheed's general manager for the JSF program from 2000 to 2013.
“The technology to bring all of this together into a single platform was not available to industry at the time.”
While the X-32 and X-35 prototypes performed well, the deciding factor in the competition may have been the F-35's short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) flight. Since the US Marine Corps intended to use this new aircraft as a replacement for the AV-8B "Harrier II", the new American stealth fighter would serve the same vertical landing and short takeoff role.
Boeing's X-32 prototypes were more unusual-looking than its X-35 competitors and were in many ways less advanced.
Boeing saw this as a selling point for its design because the less innovative systems used in its design were cheaper to maintain. The aircraft used a forward thrust vectoring system for vertical landing, similar to that of the Harrier. In fact, Boeing engineers simply redirected the plane's engine thrust downward to take off, making it less stable than the X-35 in testing.
But Boeing's biggest mistake may have been its decision to field two prototypes: one capable of supersonic flight and one capable of vertical landing. The decision has Pentagon officials worried about Boeing's ability to fly one plane with all those capabilities.
The lift-fan design used in the X-35 connected an engine at the rear of the aircraft to a drive shaft that drove a large fan mounted in the aircraft's fuselage behind the pilot. When the F-35 hovered, air flow from the top of the plane would descend through the fan and exit the bottom, creating two balanced sources of thrust that made the plane much more stable.
Unsurprisingly, the F-35 ended up winning.
“You can look at a Lockheed Martin airplane and say it looks like what you would expect from a modern, high-performance, high-powered fighter jet.”, says Lockheed Martin engineer Rick Rezebeck -
"You look at a Boeing airplane and the general reaction is, 'I don't understand.'
Ultimately, Lockheed Martin defeated the unusual Boeing X-32 prototype in October 2001. The future looked bright for the prototype, called the F-35.
Deciding to start with the least complex iteration of the new fighter, Lockheed Skunk Works began designing the F-35A to be used by the USAF as a traditional runway fighter like the F-16 Fighting Falcon. After the F-35A was completed, the engineering team moved on to the more complex F-35B intended for use by the US Marine Corps, and then finally to the F-35C intended for carrier duty.
There was only one problem - fitting all the necessary equipment for different variants into one fuselage turned out to be extremely difficult. By the time Lockheed Martin completed design work on the F-35A and began work on the B version, they realized that the weight estimates they had set when designing the Air Force variant would result in the aircraft being nearly a ton heavier. . This miscalculation led to a significant rollback in development - the first, but not the last.
It can be difficult for the casual observer to spot the differences between each F-35 variant, and for good reason. The only real differences between each iteration of the aircraft relate to basing requirements. In other words, the most noticeable differences are in the way the fighter takes off and lands, but this has virtually no effect on the appearance of the machine.
Intended for use by the US Air Force and allied countries, the F-35A is a conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) variant. This aircraft is designed to operate on traditional runways and is the only version of the F-35 equipped with a 25mm integral cannon, allowing it to replace both the F-16 multi-role fighter and the A-10 Thunderbolt II "flying gun". .
The F-35B was purpose-built for short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) operations and was designed to meet the needs of the United States Marine Corps. While the F-35B can still operate off traditional runways, the STOVL capabilities offered by the F-35B allow Marines to fly these aircraft from short runways or from the decks of amphibious assault ships, often referred to as " lightning carriers" (from Lightning - "lightning").
The F-35C is the first stealth fighter ever developed for US Navy aircraft carriers. It boasts larger wings than its peers, allowing for slower approach speeds when landing on an aircraft carrier. A stronger landing gear helps with hard landings on the deck of an aircraft carrier, and this version has a larger fuel capacity (9 kg compared to the F-111A's 8 kg) for longer-range missions. The C is also the only F-300 equipped with folding wings, allowing them to be stored in the hull of the ships.
“It turns out that when you combine the requirements of three different armies, you end up with an F-35, which is an aircraft that in many ways is suboptimal for what each service really wants.”, Todd Harrison, an aerospace expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in 2019.
The expert’s rather frank statement actually carries a sound message: a universal machine will never be a full-fledged replacement for specialized ones. A universal combat aircraft can replace an attack aircraft or an interceptor, but we are not talking about a full-fledged replacement.
The Lockheed Martin team ultimately works out the intricacies of each individual modification, but executing this engineering trick has led to a series of delays and cost overruns.
Lockheed Martin's poor weight class arithmetic delayed initial development by 18 months and cost a daunting $6,2 billion, but it was only the first of many problems facing the new Joint Strike Fighter. It wasn't until February 2006, five years after Lockheed won the contract, that the first F-35A would roll off the assembly line. But these early F-35s weren't even ready for combat because the Pentagon decided to start production before they had completed testing.
In general, this is normal practice in the world: to begin serial production of an aircraft before testing is completed. Tests are underway, the planes are being assembled. If testing reveals something that needs to be corrected/reworked, it usually does not cause much of a problem in the plant environment. Of course, if the shortcomings are not critical. But if a significant flaw was discovered, then all previously produced aircraft would have to be returned for major repairs. That is, everything is as always: time plus money.
By 2010, nine years after Lockheed Martin was awarded the JSF contract, the cost of a single F-35 had risen more than 89% over original estimates. It would be another eight years before the first operational F-35s entered combat.
So what really sets the expensive F-35 apart from the fighters that came before it? Two words: Data management.
Today's pilots have to manage a huge amount of information while flying, and that means dividing your time and attention between traveling at the speed of sound and the barrage of information from screens and sensors that often scream for your attention. Unlike previous fighter jets, the F-35 uses a combination of head-up display and helmet-mounted augmented reality to keep important information directly in the pilot's field of view.
Each Gen III helmet is customized to fit the wearer's head to prevent slippage during flight and ensure the displays appear in the correct locations. To do this, technicians scan each pilot's head, mapping each feature and configuring the helmet's inner lining to fit the head.
Previously, pilots had to switch to night vision attachments when flying in the dark. The Gen III projects environmental night vision readings directly onto the visor when the pilot activates the system.
The shell is made of carbon fiber, which gives it its characteristic checkered pattern. A spool of patch cables extends from the back of the helmet to connect it to the plane, Matrix-style. When the user turns their head in a certain direction, the wires feed the corresponding camera frames to the helmet.
The communication system has active noise reduction. The speakers produce sound that minimizes wind noise and the low-frequency drone of jet engines so pilots can hear clearly.
“In the F-16, each sensor was tied to a different screen/dial... often the sensors showed conflicting information.”, Lee says in an interview with Popular Mechanics.
“The F-35 integrates everything into a green dot if it's a good guy and a red dot if it's a bad guy—it's very pilot-friendly. All information is displayed on the panoramic cockpit display, which is essentially two giant iPads.”
It's not just about how the information gets to the pilot, but also how it is collected. The F-35 is capable of collecting information from a wide range of sensors located on the aircraft and from information received from ground surveillance, unmanned aerial vehicles, other aircraft and nearby ships. It collects all this information, as well as network data about targets and nearby threats, and spits it all out into a single interface that the pilot can easily control while flying.
With a divine view of the terrain, F-35 pilots can coordinate with fourth-generation aircraft, making them more lethal in the process.
“In the F-35, we are the quarterback of the battlefield—our job is to make everyone around us better.”, says Lee.
“Fourth generation fighters like the F-16 and F-15 will be with us at least until the late 2040s. Since there are many more of them than us, our job is to use our unique assets to shape the battlefield and make it more survivable for them.".
All of this information may seem daunting, but for old-time fighter pilots faced with the complex task of gathering information from dozens of different screens and sensors, the F-35's user interface is nothing short of a miracle.
Tony "Brick" Wilson, who served in the US Navy for 25 years before joining Lockheed Martin as a test pilot, has flown more than 20 different aircraft, from helicopters to a U-2 spy plane and even a Russian MiG. 15. He says the F-35 is by far the easiest aircraft he has encountered to fly.
“As we moved into fourth-generation fighters like the F-16, we moved from pilots to sensor managers.”, says Wilson.
“The F-35 has a sensor processing system that allows us to take some of the control headaches away from the pilot, allowing us to be true tacticians.”.
In May 2018, the Israel Defense Forces became the first country to send the F-35 into combat, conducting two airstrikes with the F-35A in the Middle East. By September of that year, the US Marine Corps sent its first F-35Bs to hit ground targets in Afghanistan, and then the US Air Force used its F-35As for airstrikes in Iraq in April 2019.
Today, more than 500 F-35 Lighting II aircraft have been delivered to nine countries and operate at 23 air bases around the world. This is larger than Russia's fifth-generation Su-57 fleet and China's J-20 fleet combined. With literally thousands of orders, the F-35 promises to become the backbone of the US Air Force.
And unlike previous generations of fighter jets, the F-35's capabilities are expected to keep up with the times. Thanks to a software architecture designed to allow the F-35 to receive frequent updates, the aircraft's shape has remained the same, but its function has already changed radically.
More about the F-35
“The plane that first flew in 2006 may have looked identical on the outside, but it was a very different plane than the one we fly today.”, says Wilson.
“And the F-35 flying in ten years will be very different from the one we fly today.”
The F-35 will also serve as a test bed for technologies that will become commonplace in the next generation of jets. Flying in coordination with artificial intelligence-enabled drones will be a staple of any sixth-generation fighter, and these new fighter tricks will likely come first in the form of the F-35.
“I look at the most capable, most connected, most survivable aircraft on the planet and what we can achieve with it today.”, says Wilson.
“I can only imagine what tomorrow’s F-35 will be capable of.”.
However, “tomorrow” is a very vague concept.
The F-35 Lightning II is the most sophisticated program ever developed and implemented in the United States. The American military wanted not just a fighter, but a kind of universal aircraft, so that it would not only function as a fighter and bomber, but also push the boundaries of new technologies, including stealth, sensors and networks on the battlefield.
Today, 20 years after the F-35 program launched and 500 aircraft were delivered, an outside observer would be forgiven for thinking that the F-35 is already in full production. But that's not entirely true: the aircraft is actually in low-rate initial production (LRIP).
Under a system known as the aforementioned “parallelism,” Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon agreed that they would order smaller quantities of the aircraft while continuing to refine their features. Once the F-35 is considered "ready", the company will - ideally - go back and upgrade all of the older aircraft to the new standard. The idea was to get the planes into the hands of pilots as early as possible.
And the economic part of the idea is to make the F-35 cheaper. It is known that the larger the batch of aircraft, the lower the cost in the end. And yes, the plane is really getting cheaper. The price of one F-35A under the 2019 series contract is $89,2 million (5,4% lower than in the previous batch of the 2018 contract - 94,3 million). The price of the F-35B has been reduced to 115,5 million (from 122,4 million), the F-35C to 107,7 million (from 121,2 million). The goal is to reduce the cost of one F-35A to $80 million. And this is normal from an economic point of view.
But what is not normal is another indicator.
An F-35 flight hour cost $2011 thousand in 30,7, which is comparable to that of the fourth-generation F-15 fighter. And by 2017, the cost of combat use of the vehicle increased to 44 thousand dollars per hour. In January 2020, it was announced that the cost of maintaining one aircraft continued to decline for the fourth year in a row (by 2015% since 35). But if you calculate the total cost of creating and maintaining the aircraft before disposal (this is about 8 hours of flight time per aircraft), it will be about 000 million dollars, which is much more expensive than a mass of gold equal to the weight of the aircraft.
As a result, we have this situation (voiced by the Americans themselves):
- The F-35 is the quintessence of the American aircraft industry. It is truly an advanced aircraft in many aspects;
- The F-35 is truly versatile and capable of performing many missions on the battlefield. Perhaps - to perform well, despite its universality;
- The F-35 is a very expensive aircraft. Not comparable to the F-22, but still;
- The F-35 is a very expensive aircraft in the future, since modifications and further upgrades require not only time, but also huge sums of money;
- all story Operation of the F-35 will go hand in hand with a history of multi-million dollar costs.
Therefore, indeed, the F-35 is “Two in one”: both a very advanced and promising aircraft, and a huge financial headache at the same time. The aircraft is more expensive than gold, but capable of performing the combat missions assigned to it.