An F-35 Lightning II has flown for the first time in the new Technology Refresh 3, or TR-3, configuration. TR-3 is intended to significantly upgrade the core processor, memory unit, and associated avionics of the Lockheed Martin-built Stealth Fighter so that the platform can better support all of the new capabilities scheduled to equip the type under the upcoming Block modernization program. 4, which I now know includes a new radar.
According to the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO), a developmental test team from the 461st Flight Test Squadron (FTS) at Edwards Air Force Base, California, in conjunction with the F-35 Integrated Test Force 35 Lightning II supported the test flight, which took place on January 6. For the mission, US Air Force Experimental Test Pilot Major Ryan Luersen flew the F-35, tail number AF-7, as a specially instrumented flight test aircraft and the first with TR-3 upgrades installed. AF-7 has been in the Edwards test fleet for years, but now it is helping to lead the charge with the new upgrade path.
In August of last year, the ‘Deadly Jesters’ of the 461st FTS from Edwards Air Force Base and the F-35 Lightning II Integrated Test Force took delivery of the first of what will eventually become a fleet of six test jets. Improved F-35. According to the service, the remainder of the batch will be delivered gradually over the next several years and will be used to evaluate new F-35 capabilities, weapons, and operating system tied to TR-3 and the related Block 4 initiative.
During the Jan. 6 test, Luersen performed what’s known as a functional check flight profile intended to “verify aircraft airworthiness and system stability” of the TR-3 aboard the F-35, the F-35 explained. JPO. The overall flight lasted 50 minutes over the Mojave Desert and he watched the stealth plane reach heights of 35,000 feet and a speed just below the speed of sound. The test served only as the start of flight evaluations with the TR-3, as the JPO added that development and operational testing will continue through 2023.
“This is a significant achievement for the F-35 program,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Mike Schmidt, executive officer of the F-35 JPO program. “TR-3 is the critical upgrade to the F-35’s computer processing electronics that will continue to give all of our pilots the capability they need to succeed against any adversary. There is still a lot of work to be done and I am confident that our industry partners and the government team will get the job done.”
Today, TR-3 is widely known as the initiative that will revamp the F-35’s central processor to achieve 25 times more computing power, its memory unit, and its panoramic cockpit display system. This would be an improvement over the jet’s current computer system, TR-2, which has been deemed inadequate to support the powerful capabilities Block 4 will bring to the F-35 platform, some of which are software-based.
“Refresh 3 technology modernizes the computational core of the F-35 air vehicle,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Christopher Campbell, commander of the 461st FTS and director of the F-35 Integrated Test Force. “Therefore, the new TR-3 hardware and software affects almost all of the aircraft’s functions. Today’s event was just the beginning of a comprehensive flight test campaign that will verify and improve the safety, stability, and performance of the entire F-35 weapon system in this new configuration.”
While some of these Block 4 upgrades remain classified, others are known to include a new Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar designated AN/APG-85, a major upgrade to the Distributed Aperture System (DAS) and the electro-optical guidance of the aircraft. (EOTS), and the integration of a number of new weapons such as the GBU-53/B StormBreaker precision-guided bomb. Although it’s worth noting that changes to the airframe or stealthy skins on the plane are also a possibility in Block 4.
However, finally getting to the point where the TR-3 could be flight tested was not easy. The Government Accountability Office reported last year that complexities in TR-3 development increased the cost of the overall Block 4 modernization effort by $330 million in 2021 and contributed to schedule delays. In what was likely a response to this complication, the JPO in its flight test announcement said that “the TR-3 program has overcome technical complexity challenges with hardware and software, and is now on track to deliver capability.” .
All three F-35 variants will be subject to this review. The current goal is for the TR-3 to launch with new batch 15 deliveries through 17 F-35s, and Lockheed Martin expects to start delivering batch 15 aircraft in mid-2023. With the Air Force’s fiscal year 2023 budget, the upgrade will accommodate fighters dating back to Batch 11. The subsequent Block 4 upgrade package is not scheduled to be finalized until 2029, and if all goes to plan, it will It is projected that it will be introduced from the variants of Lot 17.
There are concerns in the United States and among other F-35 operators about the potential that Block 4 upgrades would be cost-prohibitive to integrate into older aircraft if that’s the route Lockheed Martin and the JPO end up taking. To date, Lockheed Martin has delivered more than 890 F-35s of all types to a variety of customers, and the price of upgrading even a portion of these older models to the TR-3 configuration with at least some Block 4 capabilities would probably be significant. . Still, the capability that the Block 4 brings, which you can read more about here, could well be worth the price.
Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon recently finalized a mammoth $30 billion contract to deliver up to 389 modernized F-35 fighter jets for the US military and international customers. The order consists of 145 Lot 15, 127 Lot 16 and the option of 126 Lot 17 to be delivered to Finland, Belgium and Poland. Canada has also just closed its own deal to procure 88 Block 4 F-35s to replace its aging CF-18 Hornets, with first deliveries expected in 2026.
It is safe to say that the F-35 will undergo a great evolution in the coming years. The transformation will seek to increase the aircraft’s overall survivability, lethality, reliability and utility as Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon work to better future-proof the aircraft so that it can face high-level threats in the coming decades.
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