- The Washington Times - Monday, September 18, 2006

FORT WORTH, Texas — The World War II P-38 Lightning fighter ruled the skies over the Pacific, producing the most aerial combat kills in that theater during the war.

Its new namesake, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, recently christened the Lightning II, is being developed to be just as dominant and the first-ever fighter produced in three mission-specific versions for the Navy, Air Force and Marines.

The radar-evading family of Lightning II, which Lockheed Martin is expected to test fly in the next two months, has been designed to enable the pilot to concentrate on fighting and tactics.

“Takeoffs, landings and getting from point A to point B need to be easy,” said Marine Lt. Col. Arthur “Turbo” Tomassetti, a former test pilot for the fighter’s experimental version (the X-35).

“Mission stuff — killing things and blowing things up — should be what is most challenging. You don’t need to complicate a pilot’s life by making the hardest part of his combat mission getting back aboard ship.”

The F-35, military and Lockheed officials say, will be highly maneuverable, stealthy, and when armed, capable of tracking and killing as many as eight enemy aircraft and 16 ground targets simultaneously.

And its engine will generate more thrust than any fighter propulsion system ever produced.

It is going to need those capabilities because in less than six years, it will begin replacing several of the top existing fighter aircraft in the U.S. arsenal, including the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the FA-18 Hornet, the AV-8 Harrier “jump jet,” even the “tank-busting” A-10 Thunderbolt.

All three U.S. services with fighter air arms will fly a version of the F-35, as will the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force and Navy, a unique plan to make it more cost effective in terms of operational logistics.

The three versions are:

• A conventional takeoff-and-landing (CTOL) variant for the Air Force.

• A short takeoff-vertical landing (STOVL) variant for the Marine Corps.

• A carrier takeoff-and-landing variant for the Navy.

“I see this one aircraft as a family of three airplanes that are 70 [percent] to 80 percent common,” says Lockheed spokesman John Smith. “The percent not common is used predominantly to tailor the airplane for the specific mission of the [military] service it will provide service to.”

Having three variants of one aircraft will help keep costs down by eliminating the need for individual assembly lines and individual development programs, but it’s still not a cheap airplane, costing between $45 million to $60 million each.

On Tuesday, U.S. Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne said that cutting funding to the F-35 program could delay its production and increase costs already projected at $276.5 billion for some 2,400 aircraft by 2027, Reuters reported.

Mr. Wynne was responding to reports that senior Pentagon leaders are weighing a Navy plan to cut the number of F-35s it plans to buy from fiscal 2008 to 2013, which could free up more than $1 billion for other priorities.

The first test flight for the F-35, slated for October or November, will be launched out of Naval Air Station/Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, and Lockheed hopes to begin production on the first five aircraft next year.

The F-35 will eventually join the already operational F-22 Raptor, an equally stealthy air-supremacy fighter that currently is outperforming all comers.

Nothing on the planet can see the F-22, much less outfight it. But when the F-35 comes online, the two will literally dominate the skies.

The F-35 will be able to see virtually hundreds of airplanes at distances far exceeding the scope of previous fighter systems. Tracking distances are classified, but the new aircraft’s sight range is said to be twice that of existing fighters (about 40 miles in every direction for existing aircraft).

The pilot may pick and choose what targets to engage first, and his onboard tracking systems will actually make recommendations.

“There are very few switches and knobs in the cockpit,” says Col. Tomassetti, who commands the Navy’s Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 at Naval Air Station Patuxent River. “Instead, there is a big TV screen that shows you a greater range of things than ever before.”

“A pilot in the F-35 cockpit will focus more on being a tactician and less on things like keeping the airplane airborne and going in the right direction.”

Besides the United Kingdom, countries that have become vested partners in the F-35 program include Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Turkey. Israel and Singapore are also participants.

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