Large Number of Air Force F-35As to Red Flag 17-1, Navy Works Through F-35C Launch Problem, Marines Continue to Lead in F-35B Integration.
January of 2017 has been a busy month for the ongoing integration of new Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters into U.S. operational deployment with the U.S. Air Force and testing with the U.S. Navy.
Most recently the U.S. Air Force has deployed flight and maintenance crews of the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings from Hill AFB to Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, on January 20, 2017 for Red Flag 17-1. The units are reportedly contributing an unprecedented total of thirteen F-35As to the exercise according to spotters on the ground outside Nellis.
The F-35As join twelve U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors from the 149th Fighter Squadron of the Virginia Air National Guard 192nd Fighter Wing flying to Nevada from Joint Base Langley–Eustis, Virginia. This marks a significant exercise to utilize the interoperability of the F-35A with the F-22 as a unified force.
P-51, F-35 and F-22 Heritage Flight
Col. David Lyons, 388th FW commander told official Air Force media, “Our Airmen are excited to bring the F-35 to a full-spectrum combat exercise. The Red Flag battle space is going to be a great place to leverage our stealth and interoperability. It’s a lethal platform and I’m confident we will prove to be an invaluable asset to the commander.”
The Red Flag deployment for Air Force F-35As is significant since it marks a major milestone in one of the aircraft’s primary roles, flying as an interoperable sensor and intelligence gathering platform in combination with other tactical aircraft. Maj. Jeffrey Falanga, director of operations for the 414th Combat Training Squadron that hosts Red Flag told media, “Red Flag is important because of what it provides,” Major Falanga went on to say, “(Red Flag) provides our training audience with a realistic environment enabling them to practice in all domains–air, ground, space, and cyber–and also to be able to practice interoperability with not only U.S., but joint and coalition forces. Which is important since we’ll operate with these forces in our next engagement.”
Last year the U.S. Marines deployed six F-35B Lightning II’s from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 to Red Flag 16-3 in July-August 2016. The Marine F-35Bs have since been deployed to the western Pacific. This suggests the Marines have had the highest degree of success in integrating F-35s into an operational setting even though they fly the most complex version of the F-35, the “B” version with the STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) capability designed to operate from small assault carrier ships.
The year had a bumpy start, literally, for U.S. Navy F-35C tests and evaluation. In a Jan. 11, 2017 news story the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) for the U.S. Navy’s F-35C program was quoted as reporting that, “Excessive vertical oscillations during catapult launches make the F-35C operationally unsuitable for carrier operations, according to fleet pilots.”
The problem that prompted the report is predominantly the result of the nose landing gear suspension settings and/or design according to AviationWeek.com. The nose landing gear is not adequately damping the strong vertical movement that results when the nose gear is released from the catapult launch apparatus at the end of the flight deck. The vertical oscillations were severe enough that pilots could not read flight-critical data on their instrument displays according the report. The oscillations caused most pilots to lock their seat harness during launch, which made emergency controls difficult for some pilots to reach. The test pilots deemed this situation “unacceptable and unsafe,” according the report portions published by AviationWeek.com.
During carrier launches the nosewheel suspension is compressed both by the tension of the catapult towbar and to a smaller degree by thrust applied when the pilot advances the throttle to take-off power settings. The front of the aircraft “squats” or assumes a slightly nose-downward angle of attack compared to when it is not attached to the catapult towbar for launch.
Once the catapult is fired and the hold-back behind the nose landing gear is released the aircraft begins its trip down the flight deck propelled by jet thrust from the engines and either by hydraulic, or on newer aircraft carriers, electromagnetic force through the catapult. At the end of the flight deck on the bow of the ship where the flight deck ends the towbar releases the nose landing gear and the nose of the aircraft rapidly rises, increasing angle of attack to facilitate optimal lift at the speed the aircraft is traveling when it reaches the edge of the deck. The amount of launch force used by the catapult is different for each launch depending on the gross take-off weight of the aircraft being launched. It varies with type, fuel load and payload.
The problems were reported during the latest round of sea trials on board the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN-73). These latest reports conflict with earlier reports from sea trials onboard USS George Washington in August of 2015 when Cmdr. Ted “Dutch” Dyckman, a pilot with Strike Fighter Squadron 101, the “Grim Reapers”, told the Virginian-Pilot newspaper, “It’s just easy, It’s really easy to fly.”
The Navy’s Patuxent River-based Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 is the unit that reported the take-off anomalies. Flight operations for the later phase of tests by Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 (VX-23), included taking off and landing with externally mounted simulated weapons and asymmetrical loading. These additional loads may be a factor in the outcome of the testing and the subsequent report.
While this is a negative report about U.S. Navy F-35C operations, the final version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to enter U.S. service (The U.S. Marine F-35B and Air Force F-35A are already operational), it is a relatively minor potential defect in the program that will likely be corrected as a result of this finding.
Finally, in F-35 airshow news we learned in a phone conversation with Mark Thibeault, civilian contractor speaking about the U.S. Air Force Heritage Flight Team, that the team’s schedule will include “fourteen dates” in 2017. The final scheduling for the F-35 Heritage Flight Team will be completed within 2-3 weeks according the Thibeault.
Author with Major Will Andreotta
Major Will Andreotta returns as the F-35A Heritage Flight pilot for 2017.
Chinese Carrier Liaoning Crosses Taiwan Air Defense Identification Zone: Provokes Taiwanese Response.
Media and intelligence sources report the Chinese Aircraft Carrier Liaoning has crossed the politically sensitive Taiwanese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) along with several escort ships. The Liaoning sailed up the west side of the median line of the strait separating the Chinese mainland from Taiwan.
The Chinese government issued a release stating the Liaoning and her support vessels were conducting drills to test weapons and equipment in the disputed South China Sea and that these operations are in compliance with international law.
In response, Taiwan dispatched patrol and fighter aircraft to monitor the passage of the Liaoning group. The Taipei Times reported a similar incident on Tuesday, Dec. 27th, 2016. During that incident people in the city of Hualien photographed Taiwanese F-16 and RF-16 aircraft taking off in response to the sighting of the Liaoning in monitored waters. Reports also indicate that Taiwan’s E-2K Hawkeye and P-3 Orion aircraft were dispatched to the area to maintain patrol and surveillance. These same aircraft likely responded to this passage of the Liaoning.
Although the deployment to Iwakuni is not a direct U.S. response to escalating tensions in the region as it represents a planned phase of the normal operational integration of the F-35B force for the U.S. Marine, the deployment of the most advanced American aircraft to the region has also a symbolic value.
MCAS Iwakuni is approximately 2,000 kilometers (1,079 nautical miles) northeast of central Taiwan. Range of the F-35 is generically reported as 1,200 nautical miles (2,200 kilometers) with a stated combat radius of 625 nautical miles (1,158 km) unrefueled.
The F-35B STOVL variant is intended for shipboard operations however, and was recently tested on board the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) that is currently operating from the west coast of the United States for deployment in the Pacific theatre. USS America is one of three amphibious assault ships in this class that also includes the USS Tripoli (LHA 7) and USS Bougainville (LHA 6).
The Liaoning (Chinese CV-16) has a complex history.
It started life as a Russian (then Soviet) Navy Kuznetsov class carrier christened the Riga and launched in late 1988. It was the largest Russian naval ship ever built. The ship was re-named the Varyag in 1990 after nearly being commandeered by Ukraine. The Chinese initially had a plan to repurpose the ship as a floating casino, but China eventually elected to use the vessel as a training aircraft carrier and presumably a full-scale feasibility study for the operation and development of new Chinese aircraft carriers.
China is well underway in construction of their second aircraft carrier, the Type 001A now designated the Chinese CV-17. The new carrier is an indigenous Chinese design that does still use the ski-jump style aircraft launch technique as opposed to a steam or magnetic driven catapult as with U.S. carriers. That only one of these new Chinese-engineered carrier class vessels is under construction suggests that China may be developing another, more advanced carrier class. Additionally, intelligence indicates the Chinese are developing an indigenous magnetic catapult launch system.
Reports in Chinese media indicate that the Liaoning has an onboard compliment of 36 aircraft total. They include up to 24 Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark fighters that are reported to be restricted from carrying heavy strike weapons by take-off performance on board the ship according to Russian media. If accurate, this limits these aircraft to the air superiority role while flying from Liaoning. The J-15 Flying Shark is analogous to the Russian Su-33, sharing a plan form similar to the entire Su-27 series of Sukhoi aircraft.
The remainder of the ship’s compliment is limited to rotary wing aircraft including the Changhe Z-18F anti-submarine patrol helicopter and the “J” variant of the Z-18 helicopter configured for airborne early warning. The ship also reportedly carries two smaller Harbin Z-9C helicopters for rescue operations, an important role given the experience of the Russian carrier in anti-ISIL operations off Syria.
Given the aircraft onboard Liaoning currently the ship’s role is limited, in an operational sense, to air security patrol. The ship’s aircraft have no strike or even heavy anti-ship capability beyond its ASW helicopters.
Iwakuni becomes the first airbase outside the U.S. to host a permanent deployment of US military F-35 stealth jets.
On Jan. 9, 2017, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121), an F-35B squadron with 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, departed MCAS (Marine Corps Air Station) Yuma, Arizona, for relocation to MCAS Iwakuni, Japan, in what is the first deployment of the U.S. Joint Strike Fighter outside of CONUS (Continental US).
Formerly a 3rd MAW F/A-18 Hornet squadron, the VMFA-121 “Green Knights” was re-designated as the Corps’ first operational F-35 squadron on Nov. 20, 2012. About three years later, on Jul. 31, 2015, IOC (Initial Operational Capability) was declared and in December 2015, the Squadron flew its F-35Bs in support of Exercise Steel Knight, “a combined-arms live-fire exercise which integrates capabilities of air and ground combat elements to complete a wide range of military operations in an austere environment to prepare the 1st Marine Division for deployment as the ground combat element of a Marine Air-Ground Task Force.”
In October 2016, a contingent of 12 F-35Bs took part in Developmental Test III aboard USS Amerca followed by the Lightning Carrier “Proof of Concept” demonstration on the carrier on Nov. 19, 2016.
During the POC, the aircraft proved it can operate at-sea, employing a wide array of weapons loadouts with the newest software variant, so much so, some of the most experienced F-35B voiced their satisfaction for the way the aircraft is performing: “the platform is performing exceptionally,” they said.
The first two F-35B deployments aboard U.S. Navy amphibious carriers will take place in 2018.
NORTH PACIFIC OCEAN – An F-35B from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, refuels in flight while transiting the Pacific from Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Jan. 9, 2017, with its final destination of Iwakuni, Japan. VMFA-121 is the first operational F-35B squadron assigned to the Fleet Marine Force, with its relocation to 1st Marine Aircraft Wing at Iwakuni. The F-35B was developed to replace the Marine Corps’ F/A-18 Hornet, AV-8B Harrier and EA- 6B Prowler. The Short Take-off Vertical Landing (STOVL) aircraft is a true force multiplier. The unique combination of stealth, cutting-edge radar and sensor technology, and electronic warfare systems bring all of the access and lethality capabilities of a fifth-generation fighter, a modern bomber, and an adverse-weather, all-threat environment air support platform.
Despite criticism, Israel decided to exercise the option for another 17 aircraft. And there might also be some F-35Bs at the horizon to enable the Israeli Air Force to continue operating from dispersed locations in case of attack.
On Nov. 27, the Israeli Ministerial Committee for National Security, headed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu decided to purchase another 17 F-35A Conventional Take Off and Landing (CTOL) aircraft, bringing the total to 50 Lightning II jets.
The first two examples of the controversial, expensive, advanced 5th Generation aircraft, designated “Adir” (“Mighty One”) by the Israeli, are expected to be delivered to the Israeli Air Force (IAF), at Nevatim Air Base in southern Israel, in about three weeks.
The Israeli F-35s will have some components contributed by Israeli companies, including Israel Aerospace Industries that will produce the F-35’s outer wings, Elbit Systems-Cyclone, that will provide center fuselage composite components as well as Elbit Systems Ltd. that will provide Gen. III helmet-mounted display systems to be worn by all Lightning II pilots.
Although the extent of “domestic” modifications is still unknown, the IAF F-35As will be somehow different from the “standard” F-35s, as they will embed national EW (Electronic Warfare) pods, weaponry, C4 systems etc. This is the reason why Israeli F-35s are sometimes dubbed F-35I (for Israel), as if they were a different variant from the three baseline versions (A, B and C).
For sure, the new sales represents a good promotion for Lockheed Martin, considered the fame of the Israeli Air Force, known to be one of the most advanced and very well equipped: if the F-35s were deemed to be able to meet all the requirements of a service with a really strong reputation, that has been at war for decades and has employed its combat planes to perform some really complex operations (like the air strikes on the Iraqi nuclear reactor and the Syrian nuclear facility in 2007), then they should be good for most of the world air forces (some of those continue to invest in the program.)
By the way, the news comes few days after Canada announced the plan to use F/A-18E/F Super Hornet multi-role fighters as “gap fillers” until Ottawa decides on a replacement for its fleet of legacy Hornet aircraft. In fact, after investing in the program for several decades, the new Trudeau Government canceled Canada’s planned purchase of the F-35 (considered too expensive) and announced a new, forthcoming open competition for a permanent CF-18 replacement.
Anyway, it seems that the IAF might end up operating F-35Bs as well.
Israel is a small country and its main airfields could be easily threatened by long-range weapons in the hands of state actors or handed over to militant movements like Hamas and Hezbollah: IAF’s only chance to continue operating in case of attack would be dispersing aircraft to remote locations, an option that would be viable only thanks to the unique F-35B STOVL capabilities.
Although the F-35B has been developed to meet the requirement of the nations that operate ski-jump ramp-equipped aircraft carriers, it could also attract the interest of those air forces that need to disperse their aircraft to remote locations in order to safeguard their own efficiency after the first day of war. In fact, its STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) capabilities enable the F-35B to operate from quickly-prepared landing strips close to the front and away from the fixed airfields that would rapidly come under attack during wartime.