PARIS --- The Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter lived through what is arguably the most extravagant week in its 17-year life, beginning Sept. 21 when three additional Royal Norwegian Air Force F-35As flew to their new base at Orland, in Northern Norway, and ending on Friday Sept. 28 with its first crash, which destroyed a US Marine Corps F-35B after its pilot ejected a short distance from his base at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, in South Carolina.
In between these events, a Royal Navy pilot for the first time on Tuesday landed an F-35B on the Royal Navy’ new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, and US Central Command announced that an F-35B on Thursday carried out the type’s first combat strike, against a Taliban target in Afghanistan.
The week’s major F-35 event, however, was Lockheed’s Friday announcement that it had finally signed the contract for the Low Rate Initial Production Lot 11, which it said covers 141 aircraft and is worth $11.5 billion.
1) F-35s arrive in Norway
The latest three Norwegian F-35s landed in Norway on Friday Sept. 21, hailed by several official Norwegian Twitter accounts, but for unexplained reasons was only announced by the Ministry of Defence on Sept. 27, and then only in Norwegian. In previous years, all statements on the F-35 were also posted on the ministry’s English-language pages, but not this time.
These three aircraft, Norway’s last for 2018, bring to nine the total number of operational F-35As at Orland; from 2019 to 2024, Norway is slated to receive six aircraft per year, for a total of 36. Together with seven Norwegian-owned F-35As stationed for training purposes at Luke Air Force Base, in Arizona, this will bring Norway’s fleet to the 52 aircraft authorized by parliament. Full operational capability is scheduled for 2025, the defense ministry said.
According to Major General Morten Klever, Program Director of the Kampflyprogrammet (New Fighter Program), “The aircraft that Norway received this year (2018) cost about $ 95 million -- about $ 1.5 million less than planned.”
2) First landing on HMS Queen Elizabeth
Having lost its fixed-wing carrier aircraft in 2010 when a previous government retired its fleet of Harrier jump jets to save money, the Royal Navy last week marked the beginning of its return to carrier operations, when on Tuesday two F-35Bs flown by British pilots made the first landings and take-offs from HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Navy’s latest aircraft carrier, as she steamed off the shores of Virginia. For the record, although flown by British pilots, both aircraft in fact belong to the US Marine Corps.
However, as the Ministry of Defence press office had declared a news embargo on the event because - for the silliest of reasons - it had decided to announce the event with a blaze of publicity only four days later, on Saturday Sept. 29.
In fact, the news was broken by a major defense website which had not been told of the embargo, so the event was covered haphazardly on social media, while the Ministry of Defence’s press office tried for another two days to enforce its news embargo. It finally relented and announced the landings on Friday, Sept. 28, but was immediately overshadowed by news of the first-ever crash of an F-35B on the same day.
In the words of an observer quoted by the Thin Pinstriped Line blog, "They had 20 years to get this one event right, how could they screw up so badly?"
3) First F-35B combat strike
US Central Command announced on the morning of Thursday, Sept. 27 that an F-35B fighter from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 from the amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) carried out the F-35's first combat air strike on Sept. 27, 2018 against a target in Afghanistan.
“During this mission, the F-35B conducted an air strike in support of ground clearance operations, and the strike was deemed successful by the ground force commander,” the statement said, adding no other details.
The first combat strike by an aircraft as controversial and as widely criticized as the F-35, whose 17-year development was only declared completed in April, should have been the occasion for an overwhelming tsunami of publicity, and claimed as an enormous achievement by the F-35 community. Yet, as of today, four days after the event, not another word has been released on the event.
This contrasts no starkly with the program’s long habit of making much ado about non-events that it inevitably raises questions. Did something go wrong? Did it hit the wrong target? Did a system fail?
Also questionable is the utility of sending the Pentagon’s newest fighter to drop a bomb (as far as we know) on a target in the uncontested airspace of Afghanistan, where the US and its coalition allies have more strike aircraft than they will ever need. If the goal was to prove a point, the subsequent silence implies it wasn’t proven, which again raises the same questions.
4) First F-35 crash
Despite its many flaws, the F-35 had logged over 100,000 flight hours (as of July) without suffering a crash – an enviable record for a high-performance jet aircraft. This however changed on Friday, Sept. 28, when an F-35B belonging to the US Marine Corps crashed a short distance from its base on Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina.
The pilot ejected safely, and according to photographs of local rescue services, was able to sit in the ambulance that took him to hospital.
Shortly after the crash, the Marine Corps issued a statement saying that “A 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing F-35B belonging to Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 (VMFAT-501) stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort crashed in the vicinity of Beaufort, South Carolina at approximately 11:45 a.m. (EST), today,” Friday 28th.
“The U.S. Marine pilot safely ejected from the single-seat aircraft and is currently being evaluated by medical personnel. There were no civilian injuries,” and “Marines from MCAS Beaufort are working with local authorities currently conducting standard mishap operations to secure the crash site and ensure the safety of all personnel in the surrounding area.”
“The cause of the crash is under investigation. More information will be released as it becomes available.”
As of today, Monday Oct. 1, no additional information has been released, which is yet another surprise. Having “safely” ejected, and having seen sitting upright in the ambulance, the pilot was no doubt able to recount the circumstances of the crash.
As they have not been made public, once again one wonders why, especially as the fact that no grounding has been decided suggests that the circumstances aren’t very serious. Are the Marines simply hiding something that would be embarrassing to them, the pilot of the program?
5) LRIP Lot 11 contract
Also on Friday Sept. 28, Lockheed Martin announced that it had finalized “an $11.5 billion contract for the production and delivery of 141 F-35 aircraft at the lowest per aircraft price in program history.”
Lockheed added that the LRIP 11 agreement funds 91 aircraft for the U.S. Services, 28 for F-35 International Partners and 22 for F-35 Foreign Military Sales customers, and that deliveries will begin in 2019.
The Pentagon did not issue a press release on the contract, as it normally does, nor did it announce it on Friday as part of its daily release on contract awards – somewhat surprisingly because Friday was the last day of Fiscal Year 2018.
The F-35 Joint Program Office re-posted the Lockheed press release announcing the contract on its own website, JSF.mil, but added no comment nor statement of its own.
The Pentagon’s silence on this contract is another minor mystery in a series of missteps, information retention and departures from standard procedure that raise questions, and introduce a dose of uncertainty that eats into the credibility of most official announcements about the F-35, yet could be easily avoided.
We return to this contract, and analyze its cost and claimed savings, later this week.
All of these news item, with accompanying photos, are posted in full, in our Press Release section with today’s date.