A preliminary design review (PDR) of a Full Motion Video Data Link (FMVDL) for the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35 is planned before the end of the year, according to the company.
“Overall FMVDL development, including aircraft installation, is progressing per plan to field in 2024,” per Lockheed Martin.
In June last year, Lockheed Martin awarded Cubic [CUB] Mission Systems a contract to provide FMVDL for the F-35 to give Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) full-motion video and thus better situational awareness for improved targeting and fewer chances of fratricide and collateral damage.
The F-35 is to receive enhanced close air support (CAS) capabilities through the Block 4 software upgrade program, which the Government Accountability Office estimated will cost $10.5 billion.
While the aging Air Force A-10 provides the bulk of close air support, the service has not prioritized a follow-on to the A-10. Last year, under the Light Attack Aircraft experiment, the Air Force chose to buy several Embraer–Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) A-29 Super Tucano aircraft and Textron [TXT] AT-6 Wolverine turboprops.
In the absence of an Air Force charge toward an A-10 successor, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has stepped in. The DoD fiscal 2021 budget request includes $106 million for SOCOM’s armed overwatch program for armed reconnaissance, strike coordination and reconnaissance, and airborne forward air control. The program is to be a three-phased competition culminating in a live-fly demonstration next month.
Likely competitors for armed overwatch include Embraer-SNC, Textron, Air Tractor, and Leidos [LDOS], which plans to offer the Bronco II multi-mission aircraft in a team with Paramount Group USA and Vertex Aerospace.
The command plans to examine the offerings ahead of a potential downselect to the demonstration phase next month and could award up to four contracts of $4 million ahead of a tentative production contract. SOCOM could procure up to 75 aircraft between the next five to seven years. In addition, SOCOM has said that it would also consider unmanned systems although they may be more expensive to operate than SOCOM is seeking.
SOCOM “has an operational need and requirement for light attack aircraft for combat mission advisor support,” and congressional legislators “expect the secretary of the Air Force in coordination with the commander of USSOCOM to consider options to synchronize and leverage Light Attack Aircraft experiments efforts to accelerate the procurement or development of aircraft for supporting the Combat Air Advisor mission requirements,” according to the report on the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, P.L. 116-92.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have criticized the way the Air Force handled the light attack experiment, and appropriators called for SOCOM to take over the process during the markup of the FY ’20 National Defense Authorization Act (Defense Daily, Nov. 25, 2019).
A Republican congressional staffer said that FMVDL is important for the F-35 to have against technologically advanced adversaries, like Russia and China, but flying at lower speeds to spot targets, loitering over the battle, and landing on rugged airstrips is more important for CAS against extremist forces. The staffer suggested that improving F-35 CAS can wait.
Since August last year, the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) has not responded to email questions on requirements for FMVDL, the compatibility of F-35 avionics with the L3Harris [LHX] Full-Motion Video Extension Unified Relay (FEURY) system and the L3 Harris Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver (ROVER) system carried by JTACs for the exchange of full-motion video. ROVER is compatible with targeting pods, such as the Northrop Grumman [NOC] Litening and Lockheed Martin Sniper. The JPO has said that draft responses to the questions are under security review.