Home' Defence Technology Review : DTR FEB 2015 Contents 33
DEFENCE TECHNOLOGY REVIEW | ISSUE 06 | FEB 2015
seagoing STOVL aircraft – the Harrier family – presented far less
aggressive jet exhausts, but even they presented challenges of flight
deck heating and erosion of the deck coatings.
The much higher landing weight and thrust power of the STOVL
F-35B therefore presented a real challenge in achieving the required
ability to operate from a wide variety of surfaces and environments,
including ship decks. As a result, the F-35 JSF programme included
a massive effort to model, replicate and understand the aircraft’s jet
efflux blast, temperature and noise, and its effect on various surfac-
es. This involved full and part scale rig testing, as well as testing with
the actual aircraft. The information from these has informed exist-
ing efforts to develop better flight deck coatings and noise protection
measures. It should also be understood that the way F-35B’s powered
lift system works means that the main engine exhaust is operating at
approximately half full power in ‘powered lift’ mode. This reduces
the scale of the potential problem.
While the detailed results of this work are not and cannot be pub-
licly released, a few important basic statements can be made.
Firstly, the F-35B will not melt the LHD’s flight deck. It is possible
that repeated landings on one spot could degrade existing flight deck
coatings. However, this issue can be managed by a combination of
managing landings to reduce thermal stress on a single area, or by
adoption of improved coatings now arriving on the scene. The US
Marine Corps is already looking at a ‘creeping’ landing technique,
which could be used on board, as well as the new Thermion non-
skid deck coating system which has characteristics aimed primarily
at dealing with the prolonged direct exhaust blasts of the F-35B and
V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor.
Comprised of bonded ceramic and aluminium, Thermion was
trialled by the RN as long ago as 2006, and trialled successfully on
USS Wasp, first in October 2011 and then again in August 2013.
Thermion is a candidate for being the new standard deck coating on
both USN and RN ships due to its high heat resistance properties,
improved skid protection and cheaper coat over a 10 year life cycle.
Secondly, the F-35B’s blast can be managed. It’s quite possible that
some items of deck equipment currently located around the LHD
flight deck may need relocation or shielding, but this is a normal part
of bringing a new aircraft to a flight deck; initial Sea Harrier testing
on the Royal Navy’s Invincible-class ships led to a number of de-
tailed changes. Sensationalist reports that modifications to the USN
Wasp-class ships show ‘severe problems’ or ‘failures’ of the F-35B are
simply wrong. Remember, putting aircraft on ships isn’t easy.
One area that will require some attention is noise. There is little
that can be done to reduce the noise of a jet engine, and the safety
regulations for exposure to noise are becoming ever more demand-
ing. The key area of concern for F-35 noise is actually on the F-35C
variant, for deck launching, and a series of programmes are under
way to develop improved aural protection systems for USN person-
nel. These are already entering service, and the new equipment will
be read across to the F-35B.
Summary: the environmental interfaces with an F-35B/LHD
combination present challenges, but they are a routine, known and
manageable aspect of naval fixed-wing aviation.
The Information Interface
This area has received less attention than the rest, and that is a pity, as
it is quite possibly the most important and most challenging aspect
of any F-35B/LHD marriage.
The F-35B has exactly the same exceptionally advanced packag-
es of active and passive sensors, communications links, onboard
computing and weapons systems as the F-35A and C models. It
represents a massive leap forward in generating and using tactical
information to achieve its mission, particularly in its ability to inte-
grate with modern military data networks. This means that F-35B
mission planning and post-mission analysis will require informa-
tion technology (IT) systems far beyond anything currently fielded
by the ADF. To its credit, the ADF has realised this, and Plan Jericho,
which aims to accelerate the integration of warfighting data net-
works, is a farsighted and well-aimed initiative led by Chief of Air
Force Air Marshal Geoff Brown.
This poses a challenge for any deployed F-35B formation, and in-
tegrating the required mission planning and mission support suites
– which will operate at a very high level of security – with any for-
ward base will be a challenge. Fortunately, modern warships already
possess capable communications and computing backbones, but the
challenges of integrating the F-35B’s IT suite should not be underes-
timated. This would also need to include the Autonomic Logistics
Information System (ALIS) which is required to manage the F-35B’s
Summary: the information interface is probably the most chal-
lenging area of F-35B/LHD integration, and the most important for
effective use of the capability at sea.
The Support Interface
When military aircraft go to sea, the support arrangements they use
are very different to those routinely deployed on land bases. The con-
straints of space for both equipment and personnel, and the totally
different ways in which aircraft are prepared, armed and repaired on
board a ship must be reflected in the design of both ship and aircraft.
Fortunately, the F-35B’s requirements for support systems were
explicitly tailored to reflect the very restricted spaces available in
the Wasp-class. Interestingly, the tightest constraint on what was
called the logistics footprint was applied by the UK. This drove a
number of hard decisions on the design and operation of key aircraft
and ground support systems. This included key dimensions such as
height requirements for maintenance and refuelling system design.
LHD design changes to accommodate the F-35B would be restrict-
ed to any specialist support spaces, and probably to weapons storage
and preparation spaces. There are lessons to be learned here from the
UK, who took on the challenge of putting the maintenance intensive
Sea Harrier on board the very small Invincible-class ships. Some
shuffling of spaces was required, but no major changes to structure
or layout. As ever when aircraft go to sea, there will be challenges.
But a healthy measure of ingenuity and adaptability from service
personnel is as important as the design solutions offered by industry.
It’s also important to note that the F-35B’s avionics suite and many
other critical components are common with the F-35A – this should
help ensure that spares and repair infrastructure beyond the ship
operates at a highly efficient level.
Summary: assertions that the F-35B could not be supported on
the LHD should be treated with extreme caution. Operating the
F-35B should certainly be supportable on the LHD without major
The Personnel Equation
Another issue raised by those who seek to dismiss the possibility of
F-35B/LHD operations is that of personnel numbers, and the prob-
lems of accommodating them on board.
Firstly, there is never a direct correlation between the aircraft
design and the numbers of personnel used to support it. Other fac-
tors, such as required flying rates affect the sums, but less appre-
ciated factors such as the systems used for maintenance and per-
sonnel trade structures can significantly affect deployed numbers.
Moreover, when looking at embarked operations, the iron law of
numbers of beds available often limits the decisions on numbers.
Generally, aircraft units designed to operate at sea use less per-
sonnel than equivalent units based on land. It has to be stressed
that this does not mean that land-based units are inefficient – it’s
more that staffs planning embarked aviation have an in-built
culture of restricting numbers at the outset. And there should be
some margin – the LHDs are large ships, and should have a num-
ber of spare bed spaces available for embarkation of visiting units
and support personnel. It would be very surprising if they were
already completely full.
In any case, a constant experience of warships is that the num-
ber of personnel on board increases with the years in service.
Again, the UK’s experience may be relevant. The Invincible-class
saw a rapid increase in total numbers of personnel embarked from
under 800 to well over 1,200. It wasn’t easy, but they coped well.
What should be obvious is the importance of developing the
personnel aspects of the challenge – successful embarked aviation
depends on committed, trained and experienced personnel who
can handle the challenges of delivering combat air power from
confined, moving spaces a long way from home.
Summary: F-35B support personnel numbers should not be a
deciding factor in whether to embark the aircraft on the LHD.
This brief has attempted to set out some of the technical facts sur-
rounding the issues of F-35B integration on the Canberra-class
LHDs. Hopefully, it will serve to inform an important debate, as
An F-35B hovers over an area of flight deck coated with the new
Thermion heat-resistant deck coating during trials on USS Wasp
in August 2013.
the ADF and Government put the finishing touches to the 2015
Defence White Paper.
A final thought. The subject of maritime aviation generates
emotive discussions, often around the ownership and control of
assets, as well as theories of ‘air power’ and its application from
various bases and whether Australia should or should not be in
the aircraft carrier game. It would be unfortunate if the F-35B/
LHD debate focussed on these aspects and ignored the opportu-
nity the ADF has to develop a highly flexible and effective capabil-
ity to complement land-based aviation.
It is not often appreciated that maritime aviation has been used
operationally in almost every year since World War Two. Every
single aircraft shot down by UK armed forces since that conflict
fell to an aircraft operating from a ship. Today, US naval aircraft
are delivering a significant proportion of the sorties against IS
forces in Iraq and Syria.
This is a time for cool heads, facts and experience. The White
Paper’s deliberations on this issue would benefit massively from
an expert panel of STOVL maritime aviators. Fortunately, Aus-
tralia has plenty of these rare assets available. They should be
called up now. DTR
Steve George served as an Air Engineer Officer (AEO) in the Royal
Navy for 28 years, achieving the rank of Commander. His service career
included work with both rotary and fixed-wing aircraft, as well as specialist
appointments in weapons procurement and international collaboration with
the US. He served on HMS Invincible during the Falklands War of 1982,
and subsequently held a range of appointments associated with Harrier
operations at sea.
He left the Royal Navy in 2002 and joined BAE Systems as a specialist
ship /aircraft integration engineer on the F-35 JSF programme, based first at
Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, Texas, and then in the UK.
He left BAE Systems in 2007 to start his own aerospace consulting
company, Wisma Consulting Ltd (email@example.com).
Designed from the outset to operate from mixed flight decks
and onboard the tight confines of amphibious assault ships,
the window for Australia to decide whether or not the F-35B
capability is now well and truly open.
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