Thursday, June 14, 2018

F-35 Distributed Aperture System Replaced

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.

  1. 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?

  1. 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.

  1. 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? 

  1. “Five times the reliability”?  Just how bad is the reliability of the existing DAS?  It must be absolutely terrible!

  1. 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?

  1. 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. 

  1. 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.

  1. Lockheed assured us originally that the DAS was a piece of near-magical equipment.  That turned out to be a lie inaccurate.  Why would we believe these new, even more miraculous claims?

  1. 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 SensorColin Clark, 13-June-2018,

(2)US Dept of Defense, “Air Force Declares F-35A Lightning II ‘Combat Ready’”, 3-Aug-2016,

(3)Defense News, “Raytheon snags F-35 system business previously held by Northrop”, Valerie Insinna, 13-Jun-2018,


  1. Not surprised the 35 is the ultimate pork barrel project for all of the contractors and big business notably Lockheed if possible it should be terminated ASAP but I really don't think it can it has become To Big To Fail


    The dogshit hypothesis is looking better and better. :)

  3. The quality of optical sensors no matter civilian or military improves in a matter of months nowdays not years.

    Just think what camera and video quality you phone had 10 years before and now , and thats a basic comparison.

    Now if those optical DAS sensors are 10 years old technology of course upgrading them makes sense, a modern fighter gets a radar upgrade every 5-7 years.

    So yes if the F-35's life is supposed to be 30+ years expect all kinds of optical sensors to be upgraded several times.

    And giving another contractor to do it drives competition up and prices down.

    So there is no news here

    1. You're summarily dismissing a LOT of questions in one sweeping "upgrades are normal" generalization.

      If upgrades are so easy, so improved, so much cheaper, etc. then why didn't Northrop provide such upgrades?

      If the upgrades are so inevitable and so effective then how much is it going to cost us to upgrade the existing aircraft and how effective are those aircraft compared to new aircraft - oh, wait, these are new aircraft.

      I'm not going to repeat my list of questions but you've clearly not given them much thought.

      There is news here.

    2. "then why didn't Northrop provide such upgrades"

      Hmm let me thing . . maybe because someone had a rare sound idea of giving out a contract to other companies also thus driving price down in the long run

      Anyways that DAS is peanuts in comparison to what they lost on a big potential saving item in the past - the engine.

      If they had funded a second engine option now you could have a real saving.

      Just like they funded two engine types for the F-15/16s

    3. Seriously, does this pass the smell test for you? For similar items (identical, in this case), massive savings by switching suppliers is typically on the order of 5%. Does claimed savings of 40-50% seem believable to you? And, if the savings are really that significant and the items are identical, why is Lockheed going to wait five years to insert the new system into production?

      Come on, think this through a bit more.

    4. If they wait 5 years to put it in, won't it be obsolete as soon as they put it in?

    5. "If they wait 5 years to put it in, won't it be obsolete as soon as they put it in?"

      You've got it! This suggests to me that the Raytheon "product" is non-existent - just a proposed concept and they need five years to develop it. If it were an existing, ready to go product, they'd insert it into the production line today.

      As with so much of the F-35, I think we're being lied to again.

    6. Or could it just be that they planned ahead ?!

  4. What it tells me is that the sensor portion of DAS (the cameras) was bad, but the software/fusion portion of it was just fine.

    Pull out the cameras that were designed a decade ago, replace with newer better cheaper ones, and everyone win.

    It probably helps from a cost point that Raytheon makes its own IR detector chips, while Northrop had to source them from yet another company.

    1. You think that explains a 40/50% cost reduction?

      Why didn't Northrop offer improved replacements?

      If these new systems are so much better, what does that say about the combat effectiveness of the aircraft we've already built and will continue to build for the next five years until the replacements enter production! If these new systems are that much better, should we stop producing aircraft with such inferior systems?

  5. "What it tells me is that the sensor portion of DAS (the cameras) was bad, but the software/fusion portion of it was just fine."


    It might be they are grasping at straws in a poorly managed product, with so many irons in the fire it's hard to narrow down the issues.

    The F-35 is a back breaker for me. I've been reading more and more about the Apollo program, its costs, and the technical problems they had to overcome. Then I look at the Tomcat and it's development.

    And all I can think of is that the military industrial complex has utterly taken over, and procurement is just flat out broken.

    I'd love for them to find a way to make the F-35 really work, affordably. , but even then it's a LO strike craft being moved into a partial air defense role for Navy; and it has room for only 4 AMRAAMS and no gun.

    That's a lot of money for a plane that doesn't have a ton of firepower.

    The whole thing, coupled with the LCS and the Zumwalt, make me pretty pessimistic for the future.


    1. Me either for just when they something working they move on to next more expensive new toy ignoring all past lessons along the way

  6. There really wasn't a competition, according to the article, NG dropped out and RTN won on just staying on board! Why would NG just leave the field to RTN? How can we be so sure RTN will provide so much in savings when they know NG isn't going to be around to provide a second source?

    I wonder how much this $3 billion dollar number in reductions is just made up crap.

  7. F35 , Ford , LCS , endless humvee replacement for COIN/LIC

    do you suspect that the pentagon and MIC do not really expect a peer vs peer conflict in the near future ? and their weapons development program in reality a bloodline to keep MIC profitable even with barely functioning products ?

    tinfoil hat aside , the data of incompetence in weapons procurement indicate such collusion.. makes one wonder if there's one head that control this chaos , or it is a multi headed hydra with every head seeking profit for itself

  8. Sounds to me like Lockheed-Martin is feeling the heat to try and get the cost of the F-35 under control so are looking for a way to slash budget cost on ever line item, and Northrup was not willing to see their profits cut to the bone.

    Raytheon can promise the world, and have five years to sing & dance about it. Then when delivery date hits, the company can backpedal on their claims.

    1. It appears that the Senate, not the House, beginning to apply severe pressure on containing F-35 sustainment costs by requiring DOD to report quarterly. Sen Todd Young proposal incorporated in FY2019 bill, if costs not curbed the F-35 numbers will have to be cut.

      In response the president of Pratt & Whitney's military engine group said this week the company is working to cut the cost to fly the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter's propulsion system in half over the next 10 years, its a "top priority for the engine manufacturer".

      I'm sure the Lockheed action on the DAS as the P&W words is a palliative to the earlier GAO report on the massive sustainment costs of the F-35 to keep Congress quiet and the $Bs rolling in.

    2. "Raytheon can promise the world, and have five years to sing & dance about it. Then when delivery date hits, the company can backpedal on their claims."

      I think you've pretty much got it right!

    3. But does this mean that the helmet thing is going down the toilet? Maybe the new DAS is a piece of hardware that actually works, but the helmet itself is going to be replaced by a much simpler system?

      This is just a question, I am not saying this is the case with 100% certainty.

    4. Answering my own question... I was wrong, it is a next generation DAS and does not mean that they are getting rid of the helmet


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