The US Air Force wants evidence that Lockheed Martin will be able to produce Block 4 upgrades for the F-35A fighter jet before boosting the plane’s purchase, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said on May 13.
The service’s fiscal 2023 budget reduces the anticipated purchase of F-35As from 48 planes in fiscal 2022 to 33 planes in 2023.
“The reduction we took this year will probably extend into next year was based on several factors,” Kendall said in answer to a query from Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) about why the Air Force cut its projected F-35A purchase in fiscal 2023.
“There were several things we need to do in the TacAir (tactical aircraft) portfolio. One of them was to buy out the remaining inventory of F-15EXs that we need, for the capabilities that the F-15EX will provide. We want to increase the funding for the Next Generation Air Dominance [platform], which will be the follow-on to the F-22. We’ve got some other programs we need to move forward as well, ” he added.
He made it clear that the US Air Force is interested in having Block 4 capabilities for the F-35, but the contractor has been slow to provide them thus far. Before expanding production, the service wants to have proof that the manufacturer will be able to do it, so that was a key consideration as well.
The Air Force has also reduced its projected F-15EX acquisition goal from 144 to 80, “all while shifting expected timelines for the NGAD project significantly later than originally planned,” according to Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), the vice-chair of the House Armed Services Committee’s tactical air and land forces panel, who testified at a hearing on April 27.
Issues with Block 4
To “unlock” the F-35 Block 4 updates, the Technical Refresh 3 upgrade is required.
TR3 features a new core processor, upgraded radar, a redesigned cockpit display, and software upgrades to improve electronic warfare capabilities. However, Lockheed Martin has taken longer than projected to produce this.
The L3Harris [LHX] integrated core processor poses a significant issue for TR3, and the Government Accountability Office is concerned about the likelihood of further delays in processor delivery as well as the low software quality for Block 4.
The TR3 upgrade will be available in Lot 15, scheduled for 2023, according to the F-35 Joint Program Office. Kendall started early on in his tenure that he had previously dealt with concerns relating to the Joint Strike Fighter program as the undersecretary of defense for procurement, technology, and logistics.
His approach was to freeze acquisitions for several years to put pressure on Lockheed Martin and to avoid buying jets that would eventually have to be updated.
Similarly, a report by Mitchell Institute previously highlighted that delays in the delivery of Block 4 aircraft until 2029 might have an impact on the US Air Force’s acquisition plans.
The improvements under the Block 4 program will greatly increase the jet’s technological capabilities. Block 4 will include the integration of 16 additional weapons on the F-35.
The Block 3F F-35 software upgrade, for example, boosted the Joint Strike Fighter’s (JSF) weapons delivery capabilities, allowing it to launch a Small Diameter Bomb, the 500-pound Joint Direct Attack Munition, and the AIM-9X Sidewinder missile.
The F-35 fighter plane can launch the Sidewinder missile “off-boresight,” as well as an increasing number of other armaments, due to software improvements.
The report also expresses reservations about Block 4’s arrival date, emphasizing the importance of quickly incorporating new software to improve the planes’ ability to fight in military conflict.
It further claimed that in a high-end clash with an unusually advanced enemy like Russia or China, even some of the most modern fifth and sixth-generation aircraft are likely to be lost or destroyed, implying that the US requires more fighter jets.
According to the study, “operational analysis has indicated that the even more advanced Block 4 configuration is required to be effective in a fight with China”.
“However, delays in maturing all of the Block 4 technologies have pushed the whole Block 4 suite’s delivery date back to at least 2029, and this is a major factor in the Air Force’s decision to delay F-35A procurement”.