95.According to The Times, the Generation III helmet’s night vision capability malfunctioned during an exercise, putting a pilot in danger as he tried to land on an aircraft carrier at night.
96.Other helmet-related issues, reported by The Times, are:
97.While The Times’s reporting acknowledged that the helmet is still in development “and many bugs will be ironed out”, it nonetheless highlighted the fact that many countries, including the UK, are purchasing the F-35 today, “meaning that they could face higher bills to upgrade the helmet as solutions are discovered”.
98.Among the sources cited by The Times in its investigation was the Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) 2016 annual report. This identified issues with the Generation III helmet, particularly in relation its night vision capability. Even with improvements to the helmet, “limitations with night vision capability remain”.
99.According to DOT&E, “pilots using the Gen III helmet for night operations report that visual acuity is still less than that of the night vision goggles used in legacy aircraft”. As a result, the identification of targets and detecting markers is made “more difficult, if not impossible”. While steps have been taken to reduce the ‘green glow’, whereby light leaks around the edge of the display during low-light conditions, this is still a concern.
100.Justin Bronk told us that the helmet, in its current software configuration, was “clearly not fit for combat use” and was “still causing potentially dangerous problems in testing”. Overall, his assessment was that the “Gen III helmet is not currently suitable for combat operations but it will have to be, so the US will eventually fix it, but the question is when”.
101.Harriett Baldwin admitted to us that there had been issues with the Generation III helmet, but added that “the supplier has been able to correct those to the satisfaction of the senior responsible owner” [SRO]. Air Commodore Taylor, the SRO, confirmed to the Committee that the previously identified issues of “the green glow, the jitter, the gun sight aiming [ … ] have now been resolved to the satisfaction of the user” and that he was now satisfied with the helmet. On the question of whether any additional costs had arisen to UK taxpayer as a result of rectifying the issues with the helmets, both Mrs Baldwin and Air Commodore Taylor said that any such costs would be borne by the company and the JPO instead.
102.The Times also suggested that the US documents have revealed that the initial F-35Bs purchased by the UK are too heavy to perform the vertical take-off and landing function safely:
… when early versions were upgraded, they would be over the weight permitted for a safe landing. Britain bought four of the 14 aircraft affected, records suggest. The report estimates further upgrades, to bring the aircraft up to its full potential, would push it over an even stricter “structural limit”. Without the upgrade the aircraft will miss out on future software and hardware updates.
103.The DOT&E report cited by The Times states that modifications to the 14 Lot 2 F35-Bs, required to bring those aircraft to the Block 3F configuration, “are expected to bring those aircraft to potentially an additional 350 pounds [in weight]”. This would push those aircraft “above the objective not-to-exceed weight” to meet the vertical landing bring-back (VLBB) key performance parameters.
104.According to the DOT&E report, estimates for the additional weight accrued from follow-on-modernisation (FoM) to the Lot 2 F-35Bs include an extra 250lbs “which will exceed the vertical landing structural limit not-to-exceed weight of 33,029 pounds for the Lot 2 through Lot 4 aircraft”. As mentioned in The Times, the report suggested that “this additional weight may prevent these aircraft from being upgraded to the Block 4 configuration”.
105.In response to The Times’s investigation, the MoD dismissed their claims as “nonsense”, arguing that a specific technique had been developed “to ensure that a heavy aircraft can land on the deck”. This technique (Ship-borne Rolling Vertical Landing) “will be tested on the Flight Trials of HMS Queen Elizabeth over the next couple of years”.
106.We asked Alexi Mostrous and Deborah Haynes about their claims that the F-35 was too heavy. Mr Mostrous made clear that these claims were specifically confined to the F-35s purchased by the UK from the Lot 2 and Lot 4 production rounds, rather than those built more recently. Both witnesses repeated the claim that those earlier aircraft were “potentially” too heavy to land vertically.
107.Ms Haynes also questioned the shipborne rolling vertical landing (SRVL) technique that the MoD will employ for the F-35Bs, noting that the language used in the MoD’s response implied that the technique “has not actually been tested and categorically verified that it will work”.
108.Justin Bronk suggested to us that the weight issue with the F-35s was “very significant in terms of upgrade or retrofit growth potential, as well as bring-back of weapons” and also, potentially, in relation to resolving vibration issues with the aircraft. According to Mr Bronk, where vibration issues have emerged in the past the usual solution would be to investigate and locate the source and to then add cross-braces. As the F-35 B was “already very close to its weight target, for a lot of the vibration issues the traditional solution is likely to be weight sensitive”.
109.We also asked Mr Bronk about the SRVL technique. He took the view that the question was not whether the F-35 was capable of performing such a manoeuvre, but rather “when the software will be developed to conduct such a landing”. He explained that the SRVL technique would be a largely automatic process and, as such, the development of the software required to perform this landing would take “some time”.
110.Lockheed Martin’s Peter Ruddock conceded to us that three F-35Bs procured by the UK were above the specified weight. However, he insisted that this did not mean that those aircraft were too heavy to land on the aircraft carriers and noted that they “can land and have landed vertically”. Indeed, he suggested that while these aircraft were unlikely to be deployed, “they would be able to land and to bring back the entire weapon load internally” in the event that they had to be used in operations.
111.On the general weight of the aircraft, Mr Ruddock told us that, aside from the first two lots of aircraft procured by the UK, the rest of the aircraft “are actually within weight” and went on to suggest that “remarkably, on the B model, there has been no weight growth whatever in the past seven years”. Insisting that he had “no concerns about the weight” of the F-35, Mr Ruddock pointed both to the SRVL technique being pioneered by the UK, which, he suggested, would enable F-35Bs to land with an additional 2,000 pounds of ordnance, and also to the level of capability already built-in to the F-35. According to Mr Ruddock, this level of built-in capability “future-proofs” the aircraft and meant that “the risk of weight growth to the programme is much less than on legacy programmes”.
112.In supplementary evidence to the Committee, Lockheed Martin clarified these remarks, suggesting that “since October 2010, there has been zero weight growth in the F-35B that was not driven by the addition of customer requirements”. According to Lockheed Martin, there has been an additional weight growth of 300 pounds in the weight of the aircraft over this period “to accommodate additional requirements and new capabilities requested by customers”.
113.Mr Ruddock’s confidence in the weight capacity of both the three over-specification F-35s and the rest of the fleet was echoed by Harriett Baldwin and Air Commodore Taylor. The latter explained that the three aircraft procured from Lots 3 and 4 which were overweight were test aeroplanes based at Edwards Air Force Base. He said that while “they are slightly heavier than baselines weight” they would still be able to land vertically on the Queen Elizabeth carriers if required. He insisted that this would be the case even “with estimated weights of follow-on modernisation”, although they might not be able to have “the standard loadout” of weapons and fuel. He added that UK aircraft carried only 500 pound bombs, as opposed to the 2,000 pound bombs mentioned in the weight specification, thus providing additional weight capacity for the UK’s fleet.
114.Overall, Air Commodore Taylor was enthusiastic about the “simply exceptional” performance of the F-35:
We are bringing back and vertically landing on to the carrier full stores loadout, with enough fuel to land or, if you cannot land the first time, to go round and have another go and still land vertically with the aeroplane.
93 Alexi Mostrous (17 July 2017), Malfunctioning £309,000 F-35 helmet left pilot floundering in darkness, The Times,
94 Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, Annual Report, 2016, FY16 DoD Programs: , p.70
98 Qq229, 232
100 Alexi Mostrous and Deborah Haynes (17 July 2017), Britain spends billions on flawed F-35s, The Times,
101 Alexi Mostrous (17 July 2017), Malfunctioning £309,000 F-35 helmet left pilot floundering in darkness, The Times,
102 Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, Annual Report, 2016, FY16 DoD Programs: , p.63
110 Qq111, 115
18 December 2017