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2 September 2016

New tanker and fighter jet ready for take off

F-35 declared combat ready and KC-46 ready to enter production

August may traditionally be the month of days spent by the beach and long summer evenings, but it seems life has been somewhat busier at Lockheed Martin and Boeing in August 2016. Last month saw the companies achieve major milestones for the F-35A and KC-46 tanker respectively.  The F-35A has now reached Initial Operating Capability (IOC) and the KC-46 has been approved to enter production. These are significant achievements because the products have both had eventful development phases and both aircraft should be important drivers of profitability going forward, at not only the prime manufacturers but for suppliers as well, notably BAE Systems with its significant programme share.

On 2 August, the US Air Force (USAF) declared IOC for the F-35A. It now has twelve aircraft capable of providing basic close air support (CAS) and air interdiction, as well as limited suppression or destruction of enemy air defences. It also has sufficient pilots, mechanics and equipment to support the aircraft. The USAF can now theoretically send its first operational F-35 unit into combat operations if required. The F-35B reached IOC with the US Marine Corps (USMC) last year and the US Navy is expected to reach IOC with the C variant in 2019.

The F-35 is the largest ever defence procurement programme. It has been in development for fifteen years and has been blighted by cost overruns and delays. However, the B variant and now the A variant have met their IOC deadlines which were set in 2013. In fact they have not only met them, but met the earliest planned date (i.e. for the F-35A IOC was targeted for August 2016 but the latest threshold was December 2016). Does this mean that the F-35 is now over the worst? It looks as though this may be the case, and bodes well as Lockheed Martin looks to ramp up production. The cynics in the industry though will be quick to point out that the services set their own standards for IOC so the benchmarks are largely arbitrary and do not necessarily indicate that the aircraft will be used in combat any time soon.

The US DoD declared the KC-46 Pegasus tanker fit for production on 12 August 2016. It passed its milestone C requirements which saw it refuel five different aircraft in using its hose and drogue system and its boom; it also had to receive fuel from another tanker. Air to Air refueling (AAR) is technologically complex and challenging, and Cobham is to all intents and purposes the supplier of AAR equipment due to its long history as the pioneer of the equipment.

However, developing and then integrating the AAR equipment for the KC-46 has been problematic for both Boeing and Cobham, so successfully reaching milestone C is an important achievement. In July 2016 Boeing stated it would miss the August 2017 contractual delivery deadline, and that the first 18 tankers will be delivered in January 2018. The US tanker fleet is aging and as a result the KC-46 was given the highest priority in the US 2014 Quadrennial Defence Review. 179 aircraft are due to be in service by 2028.

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