* Helmet, logistics systems still need work
* F-35 would "kick in the door" in future operations
* B-model exceeds wind limits of current fleet
By Andrea Shalal-Esa
ABOARD USS WASP, Aug 29 Two F-35 fighter jets
have completed dozens of test flights from the deck of this
amphibious assault ship over the past three weeks, but several
flights were scrapped on Wednesday for maintenance issues, just
as more than a dozen journalists arrived for a demonstration.
U.S. Marine Corps officials said the jets had made more than
90 successful vertical landings on the USS Wasp this month,
including many at night - showing the growing maturity of
Lockheed Martin Corp's F-35B fighter. The officials said
groundings were rare during the recent 19-day test period.
But Wednesday's failed demonstration was a reminder of the
problems faced by the F-35 program, which has seen repeated cost
increases and schedule delays since it began in 2001. Lockheed
is developing three variants of the F-35 to replace over a dozen
warplane types now in use around the world.
The Marines plan to start using the newest U.S. fighter in
combat just two years from now - in mid-2015 - but the $392
billion program, the costliest weapons program in U.S. history,
still faces technical and budget challenges.
Brigadier General Matthew Glavy said the radar-evading
nature of the F-35 B-model, which can make short takeoffs and
land like a helicopter, would make it a key asset in future
missions against countries with surface-to-air missiles, like
"It would kick in the door," Glavy said, highlighting the
benefits of the stealthy F-35B during a visit to the Wasp - one
of the large Navy warships that will carry the new warplanes
when they become operational.
He said the plane's stealth would allow it to penetrate
enemy territory undetected, delivering the first punch in future
Glavy said Wednesday's temporary halt in flights was
disappointing, but the overall tests had demonstrated progress
for other guests, including Pentagon chief arms buyer Frank
Kendall and Navy acquisition chief Sean Stackley.
"They've come and seen that this is not a PowerPoint brief.
We're flying airplanes ... on and off these ships. That's where
they belong," said Glavy, the No. 2 officer for Marine aviation.
The Marines have vowed to safeguard the F-35B, their top
acquisition priority, despite tough budget reviews under way at
the Pentagon. But the other services may see big changes.
One option under discussion, if U.S. lawmakers do not
reverse a 10 percent cut in Pentagon spending for fiscal 2015,
would result a two-year pause in orders for the U.S. Navy's
F-35C carrier variant, said four sources familiar with the
The sources stressed that no decisions had been made but
said mandatory budget cuts were pressuring the program, which is
still working through residual technical challenges.
The sea trials also come at a critical time for Britain,
which has spent $2 billion to help develop the new warplane. UK
authorities are facing its own budget pressures but must decide
in coming weeks whether to proceed with the purchase of 14
additional B-model aircraft, a deal worth around $1.5 billion.
TESTING WIND LIMITS
Two test jets were completing about 90 percent of their
planned flights until some maintenance issues cropped up this
week. At least one of the jets did resume flying later Wednesday
after the journalists left, said Pentagon F-35 spokesman Joe
To date in the sea trials, which will end Friday, the planes
had completed 90 short takeoffs, 92 vertical landing, including
19 pairs of takeoffs and landings at night, DellaVedova said.
That compares to 72 shipboard landings and takeoffs during
the first sea trials in October 2011. A third round of sea
testing is slated for summer of 2016.
U.S. Navy Captain Erik Etz, director of testing and
evaluation for both the B- and C-models of the F-35, said the
plane had proven during the latest tests that it can be operated
at over 35 knots of headwinds and over 15 knots of crosswinds.
"That envelope is in excess of what the fleet has currently
had with legacy platforms. It is what we had hoped to get ... so
the aircraft is matching expectations," Etz told reporters.
HELMET, LOGISTICS SYSTEM STILL POSE PROBLEMS
U.S. officials say the F-35 has made strides in recent
years, but test pilots on the Wasp cited continued problems with
a new pilot helmet that fuses data from radars and other sensors
and projects it onto the pilot's visor. A computerized
operations and maintenance system called ALIS is making
progress, but also remains far from pilot-friendly, they say.
Glavy said the helmet being developed by a joint venture of
Rockwell Collins Inc and Israel's Elbit Systems
was "not exactly" where officials wanted it, but was
optimistic that a useable helmet would be ready by mid-2015.
He cited progress on the helmet, but said the Pentagon
continued to fund work on an alternate helmet by Britain's BAE
Systems through the third quarter of fiscal 2014.
Marine Corps Captain Michael Kingen, one of the F-35 test
pilots, said there were still some issues with the helmet's
night vision, especially on dark nights; a lag in the data
streaming into the helmet; and with some "jitter" in the view.
But he said the helmet did provide pilots with more data
than previous aircraft systems, and the overall approach was
useful to help pilots accomplish their mission.
Wing Commander Nic Hindley, the UK liaison to Marine Corps
headquarters, said Britain was keeping a close eye on the tests
since it must decide by October on buying 14 more F-35 B-models.
He said testing results were encouraging, as was recent news
that the Pentagon had lowered its estimate for the long-term
cost of operating and maintaining the planes.
"It's been impressive to see how this jet has developed.
It's a huge leap forward from 2010, when the B-model was on
probation," Hindley said, referring to a one-year period when
former Defense Secretary Robert Gates had threatened to cancel
the B-model variant unless it showed significant progress.