One of the key capabilities of the F-35, arguably, the most important capability was supposed to have been the AAQ-37 Distributed Aperture System (DAS) which, in theory, allows the aircraft to integrate six electro-optical sensors to provide a synthetic, 360 degree view around the aircraft by supplying imagery for the pilot through the magic helmet. Specific functions include,
- Missile detection and tracking
- Launch point detection
- Situational awareness IRST & cueing
- Weapons support
- Day/night navigation
Development, however, has been beset by problems with reliability, helmet performance, image integration and latency, etc. Director, Operational Testing and Evaluation (DOT&E) has consistently panned the technology and the helmet has undergone complete redesign. The point of this post is not to look at the specifics and flaws of the DAS but to note the sudden and unexpected announcement by Lockheed that they are switching DAS system supply from Northrop Grumman to Raytheon, as reported by Breaking Defense website. (1)
The Raytheon DAS will be substituted into production in the 2023
Lot 15 run, five years from now.
In its announcement, Lockheed claimed that the Raytheon DAS “will provide five times the reliability of Northrop’s product.”
“…Lockheed’s director of F-35 international business development, Steve Over, told Aviation Week: “We’ve found a supplier that can produce a better DAS system at a significantly lower price that has significantly better performance.” (1)
Lockheed is claiming astounding cost reductions.
“Lockheed projects that the new Raytheon DAS will cost $3 billion less than Northrop’s over the lifetime of the program, with an estimated 45 percent reduction in the price per unit and a 50 percent cut to sustainment costs.” (3)
This is a highly unusual move, to switch suppliers of the major aircraft sensor at this stage and it raises a lot of questions.
- What about the hundreds of aircraft already manufactured? If the Northrop DAS is so costly, so poor performing, and so unreliable, will the existing aircraft have to have their DAS replaced?
- If the existing DAS is so bad, doesn’t that mean we’ve been lied to because we’ve been told all along that the DAS is technology so advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic.
- Didn’t the Marines and Air Force declare Initial Operational Capability (IOC) which means the aircraft are combat ready? (2) How is the F-35 DAS combat ready if the reliability and performance are so bad as to need replacing?
- “Five times the reliability”? Just how bad is the reliability of the existing DAS? It must be absolutely terrible!
- If Raytheon could develop a better, cheaper DAS without any government development contract (that I’m aware of) and in its spare time, this must not be very sophisticated software and hardware. Doesn’t that suggest that every aircraft in the world, including Russian and Chinese, could have a DAS if they want it? Doesn’t this also suggest that we’re giving out too many development contracts and that we should let manufacturers develop products on their own dime and time?
- This suggests that the real driving force behind this is the program sustainment costs. There have been rumblings that Congress has balked at the sustainment costs and have hinted that significant production cuts could occur. This appears to be a desperate attempt to stave off cuts.
- The magnitude of the unit cost reduction and the sustainment cost reduction lead one to wonder if the cost cuts are being achieved by cutting quality, performance, and capabilities despite Lockheed’s claims of significant improvements in all areas. If not, then the only other conclusion is that Northrop was engaged in price gouging.
- Lockheed assured us originally
that the DAS was a piece of near-magical equipment. That turned out to be
a lieinaccurate. Why would we believe these new, even more miraculous claims?
- If it’s going to take five years to get this kind of improvement into production, does this suggest that Raytheon doesn’t actually have a production-ready DAS product? That they’re going to need five years to develop a production-ready product? That five years down the road we’ll find out that the claims of miraculous improvements in cost, reliability, and performance were all just PowerPoint claims and can’t actually be achieved?
No answers, just lots of questions!
(1)Breaking Defense website, “‘Major Upset’ As Lockheed Ditches Northrop For F-35 DAS Sensor” Colin Clark,
(2)US Dept of Defense, “Air Force Declares F-35A Lightning II ‘Combat Ready’”,
(3)Defense News, “Raytheon snags F-35 system business previously held by Northrop”, Valerie Insinna,