PARIS --- US Air Force plans to replace the F-35 fighter’s avionics, radar and engines are an implicit admission that the current aircraft is already obsolete and that, despite a unit cost of over $250 million, it cannot match the latest foreign fighters coming into service.
This is the first time a customer acknowledges that the obsolescence of the F-35’s sensors has degraded the aircraft’s still unproven nominal capabilities to the point that a radical upgrade is necessary, more than a year before it enters service.
The upgrade plans were revealed by Major General Jeffrey Harrigian, the USAF’s F-35 program chief, in an April 7 Reuters interview.
"We are already considering and thinking through what are some of the technologies that will be part of the F-35," Reuters reported Harrigian as saying. "This is not the time to rest on your laurels." Reuters added that “Harrigian gave few details but said potential upgrades could include new avionics systems, radar, laser weapons and a new more fuel-efficient engine,” and quoted him as saying "I don't think we would take anything off the table at this point."
$400 billion and still needs upgrades
In reality, Harrigian’s statements mean there will be little left of the F-35 that is now being procured under Low-Rate Initial Production contracts once its engine, avionics and radar are replaced by new systems.
Critics will no doubt question the wisdom of spending nearly $400 billion to develop and produce an aircraft that, years before it enters service, already needs an upgrade to all of its major components and systems.
The need for upgrades at this early stage completely also undermines the many claims of the F-35’s alleged across-the-board superiority made by the US military services, by foreign governments justifying their purchase, by manufacturer Lockheed Martin and by program officials at the F-35 Joint Program Office.
These are now shown to be little more than an officially-sanctioned marketing spiel, intended to cover up the aircraft’s well-documented deficiencies, which its backers nonetheless steadfastly continue to deny.
What do foreign buyers know?
It is debatable whether foreign partners and customers, for example, would have committed to spending billions of dollars on the F-35 if they had known they would have to pay for a costly upgrade to achieve the capabilities they were promised.
It also raises the issue of who will pay for the upgrades, given that the aircraft’s engine costs about $15 million, and that new avionics and radar are likely to add as much again, plus their development and installation costs.
The F-35 -- and its components -- was designed in the 1990s, its development contract was awarded in 2001 and it is due to reach Initial Operational Capability (IOC) with the US Air Force in mid-2016 – 15 years after contract award. USAF plans call for the F-35 to reach Full Operational Capability (FOC) around 2021 or 2022 – 20 years after award of the development contract.
No deviation from current plans
The most remarkable aspect of this interview is that, despite conceding that “the Air Force was already looking at follow-on capabilities for the F-35, given rapid technology development by potential adversaries,” Harrigian remains unperturbed, and confirms that the F-35’s Initial Operational Capability is still planned for August or September 2016.
However, he is “keeping close tabs on key items required to meet the target date,” Reuters reported, adding that “Those issues include software development, modification of existing jets to incorporate design changes, further work on a complex automated logistics system called ALIS and ensuring a sufficient number of technicians are trained to service the jet.”
"There's a lot of work to be done,” Harrigian said “but from where we sit, we're on the right glide path to IOC.”