Preceded only by the HARRIER and the Soviet era Yakovlev Yak-69, the Lockheed Martin F-35B LIGHTNING II is a member of a very exclusive club of jets to operate from carriers without catapults and arresting gear.
This it achieves with the aid of a thrust vectoring nozzle for the engine exhaust, a lift fan behind the cockpit that blows through a box containing movable vanes and a pair of variable area thrusters (known as roll posts) under the wings that provide roll control using compressor bleed air.
That vectored exhaust can damage any surface on which it impinges; even without the use of afterburner it can buckle deck plating and the structure underneath if it is not adequately protected. On the British Royal Navy’s new carriers, QUEEN ELIZABETH and PRINCE OF WALES, for example, a coating protects the flight deck surface from exhaust gases at temperatures of up to 1,500 °C to which it is exposed when a jet is in the hover and making a vertical landing. Monitor Coatings, which developed the material, says that it is a compound of aluminium and titanium that is sprayed onto the deck in molten form and is intended to last for the vessels’ 50-year design life.
In spite of this need to protect against heat damage, the F-35B arguably makes fewer and smaller physical demands on an aircraft carrier than a conventional jet of the same size and weight because it needs neither catapults nor arresting gear (although the ski-jump that enables short take-offs at greater weights is far from a trivial feature of a ship’s deck). The F-35B’s power-plant and flight control systems provide it with several alternative ways of launching from and recovering aboard an aircraft carrier. Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing, proven over many years of HARRIER operations, works particularly well aboard ski-jump-equipped vessels, allowing greater take-off weights. A standard vertical landing involves bringing the aircraft to a hover next to the deck and then translating sideways before briefly hovering once more and touching down. However, weight limits on vertical landings mean that aircraft might have to dump fuel and weapons.
This is why the British F-35B test team devised the Shipborne Rolling Vertical Landing (SRVL) technique, which was carried out for real for the first time in October 2018 by British pilot Peter Wilson after more than 2,000 practice landings in the simulator. The technique requires the pilot to make a conventional looking approach to the carrier at speed from astern while using a combination of wing lift and vectored thrust to bring it to a touchdown at a speed low enough to roll safely to a halt.
Make Room for ALIS, then ODIN
A major element of the total F-35 system that is not trivial to accommodate is the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS). Every F-35 unit has an ALIS, which consists of a computer server system and terminals that form a Standard Operating Unit (SOU). A deployable version fits into a standard shipping container. Integrating operations, maintenance, prognostics, supply chain, customer support services, training and technical data, ALIS is designed to be a single, secure information environment that provides users with up-to-date information through web-enabled applications on a distributed network. It is a complex and bulky system that has exhibited problems and is set to be replaced around the middle of the decade with the Operational Data Integrated Network (ODIN).
The US Marine Corps (USMC) has been exploring shipboard LIGHTNING II operations since 2015 and has tested the new Lightning Carrier concept under which up to 13 of these jets have flown from its WASP (LHD-1) class and AMERICA (LHA-6) class amphibious assault ships. These vessels reportedly lack the command and control capabilities needed to exploit the data the LIIGHNING II’s sensor suite can generate. Accordingly, the USMC is considering operating SAN ANTONIO (LPD-17) class amphibious transport docks in cooperation with the Lightning Carriers because they have much more sophisticated C2 systems.
F-35s are fifth generation jets that principally communicate over the stealthy Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL). However, most US allies use Link-16 that is not designed to handle certain 5th generation information. Solutions to most of this problem include gateway translation systems aboard airborne warning and control aircraft or the GLOBAL HAWK high-altitude long-endurance UAV. However, direct translation of messages into Link-16 format within MADL systems has been demonstrated.
Preparing the Queen
A number of other firsts for the British carrier programme preceded the October 2018 SRVL trial. During a deployment off the US eastern freeboard in the autumn of that year by QUEEN ELIZABETH, the first F-35B deck landings on the Royal Navy carrier were completed on 25 September followed by the first night landings a few days later. Shortly afterwards, the first weapon launches from an F-35 operated from the carrier took place using inert PAVEWAY II laser guided bombs assembled from kits aboard the ship.
QUEEN ELIZABETH returned to the US east coast in the autumn of 2019 to work up with RN/RAF and USMC F-35Bs, testing aircraft, aircrew and shipboard support crew in realistic war fighting scenarios as a cohesive carrier strike group that also included a Type 45 air defence destroyer, a Type 23 frigate, a tanker, MERLIN and WILDCAT helicopters. The group was also joined by other US Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps units.
One milestone was the attachment of a full 22,000 lb weapon load to the jet aboard the carrier for the first time, which included inert PAVEWAY bombs and Advanced Short Range Air-to-Air Missiles on external pylons and in the internal bay. This allowed “bomb-head” air engineer technicians to exercise the carrier’s Highly Mechanised Weapon Handling System. Remotely controlled “moles” carry weapons on pallets along tracks and via lifts to preparation areas or the hangar. Prepared weapons are then moved on another set of lifts to the flight deck and wheeled to the aircraft. The aircraft launched from the carrier to practice dropping weapons.
The exercise culminated in the launch of four F-35Bs from QUEEN ELIZABETH’s deck within seconds of each other.
Early 2020 saw the carrier in the North Sea, with four F-35Bs completing night landings as part of joint RN/RAF operational conversion unit 207 Squadron’s qualification of aircrew and landing signals officers. Despite postponement of operational sea training for COVID-19 testing, ship and crew were ready by 18 July, enabling 617 Squadron, the first operational UK LIGHTNING-II unit, to take part in Exercise Crimson Ocean 2020. Here, the F-35Bs mounted combat air patrols involving simulated combat against RAF TYPHOONs, practice strikes against simulated targets ashore and aerial refuelling.
This paved the way for participation in the overlapping GroupEx 2020 and Joint Warrior/Griffin Strike 2020 from September into October. With F-35Bs from USMC squadron VMFA-211 in addition to those from 617 Squadron, 15 jets operated from QUEEN ELIZABETH and dropped live weapons for the first time on Scotland’s Cape Wrath Weapons Range.
Initial Operational Capability (IOC) was expected to be declared around the end of 2020 and was formally announced on 4 January 2021.
Other navies are watching these developments with close interest. These include Italy, whose carrier CAVOUR came out of a 16-month overhaul and refit in early May 2020 to equip the vessel to operate and support the aircraft. The refit notably included a thermal coating to protect the deck. Cavour can accommodate a maximum of 16 F-35Bs, with 10 in the hangar and six on deck. The Italian Navy plans to acquire 15 of the type (another 15 will be operated by the Italian Air Force) with an IOC scheduled for 2024.
Japan is to upgrade its two IZUMO class helicopter carriers to operate the type, having announced its decision in late 2018. Initial work on the IZUMO was reported to be in progress by July 2020. Elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region, South Korea reportedly plans to acquire 20 F-35Bs for its future LPX-II light aircraft carrier, which is expected to displace between 30,000 and 35,000 tonnes. However, suggestions that Singapore’s future Joint Multi-Mission Ship could embark the 12 or so F-35Bs that the nation is acquiring are thought to be largely speculative.
Australia’s amphibious assault ships CANBERRA and ADELAIDE are other speculative contenders for F-35B operation, although a more likely possibility is the Spanish JUAN CARLOS I, which was the model for the Australian ships and already operates HARRIERs. With an eye to interoperability with the RN and other F-35B operators, a French parliamentary report published in October said that studies are underway to analyse the implications of including a dedicated landing spot on its future aircraft carrier.