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F-35 successfully targets aerial drone (is still a moneypit)

Fri, 11/01/2013 - 11:28am
Kasey Panetta, Managing Editor

The F-35 Lightning II program, which surpassed 10,000 flight hours in September, finally has another reason to celebrate.

On October 31, the F-35A, a 5th generation fighter, successfully launched an AIM-120 radar-seeking missile from the internal weapons bay. The AIM-120 advanced medium range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM) was deployed against an aerial drone strike and, according to observers and test data, successfully used the mission systems sensors to identify and target the drone. Before the actual hit, the AIM-120 was sent a self-destruct signal to preserve the drone for future tests.

The missile itself is a beyond-visual-range, radar-guided, air-to-air missile powered by a solid-propellant rocket motor, which is used by the U.S. military as a standard air-intercept missile on tactical fighters. It’s utilized in all-weather, day or night missions. After the missile is launched from the F-35, a data-link is used to provide mid-course corrections for the path using four movable tail fins. The AMRAAM also has a radar seeker that is activated within close range, allowing for autonomous “terminal homing.”

As of the end of September, the F-35 had racked up 6,492 flights and 10,077 flight hours.

This all sounds really great—Lockheed Martin worked the PR pretty hard there—but as we’ve reported before, the project has been absolutely blasted by critics. For one thing, the price tag — estimated to be 81 million per plane — has doubled to 181 million dollars per plane. That is an unholy amount of money for one plane. Though the 181 million includes — according to defenders — the “learning curve fees”, the 120 million per plane after they figure everything out is still quite some sticker shock.

What could you possibly have in a plane that would cost 181 million to build?

For one thing, helmet-mounted displays that give pilots x-ray vision. Rather, they would give the pilots x-ray vision if they, you know, worked. The technological hiccups have cost the government dearly as they (we, the people?) have poured nearly 1.5 trillion dollars into the program since 2001.

While the Marines are claiming their planes will be ready by 2015 — the Air Force and Navy are a little slower on the pickup — it’s hard to imagine that everything will be together in just one year, given the bad press and somewhat disastrous PR.

The F-35 is one of those technological innovations that will be really cool if they ever get it right, but for right now, it’s just a money pit.

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