The F-35 on Final Approach

Nov. 26, 2014

The huge, hyper-complex F-35 strike fighter program, rightfully described as the Pentagon’s most expensive—and most capable—fighter aircraft project ever, is only seven months away from its most critical milestone and acid test: operational service.

The program is tightly focused on giving the Marine Corps everything needed to declare initial operational capability with the F-35B variant by July 1, 2015. The list of essentials includes 10 identical aircraft with the 2B version of software, trained pilots and maintainers, an adequate stock of spare parts, and mission computers fully loaded with combat-relevant data. There’s a countdown calendar in the program office’s conference room, marking days to Marine Corps IOC, and for the Air Force’s, 13 months later.

“As you can see, we measure it by the day,” F-35 Program Executive Officer Lt. Gen. Christopher C. Bogdan said at a late October press conference. The July 1 goal is still in force, he said, even as he acknowledged “we’ve got to work …really, really hard” to make it.

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor on the F-35, with BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman as principal subcontractors.

A problem with the Pratt & Whitney engine, causing an F-35 to burn in June at Eglin AFB, Fla., and causing a series of groundings and flight restrictions, “put us behind … about 45 to 50 days,” he observed. Flight tests can be made up, but that puts pressure on certifying the full combat envelope before July. Another challenge is the mission data files. As Bogdan explained, “We populate the brains of the airplane with all kinds of information about the threat data and about the [geographical] area” in which the F-35 is expected to operate. That data loading is done by Air Combat Command, and it’s trying to do it for the Marine Corps and the Air Force at the same time. The work is done at Eglin, the only “factory” loading those files right now. More such programming centers are being set up, but the mission data represents a “risk” to IOC, Bogdan admitted.

“We have a throughput problem,” he said.

Still, even with these pressures, “there’s no way in the world” that Marine Corps IOC will be late by months.

“We’re talking weeks, here” on “a program that’s been years late” in the past, Bogdan pointed out. And “I see nothing in front of me” that indicates the IOC will slip past the “threshold” date—the no-fail, must-happen deadline—of late 2015.

At the Air Force Association’s Air & Space Conference in September, Bogdan said Air Force IOC is “in even better shape” than that of the Marine Corps because there’s a further year to hit the necessary marks. He assessed Air Force IOC in August 2016 as “low risk, quite frankly.”

By late October, however, he’d become “very worried.”

The Maintainer Challenge

In developing beddown plans, the program office told the Air Force “you have to have about 1,100 maintainers” to declare IOC, Bogdan explained. However, USAF had planned to bring about 800 of those from the A-10 program. It takes far less time to convert an “experienced” maintainer from one aircraft type to another than it does to train a new maintainer.

“So here’s where the problem comes in,” Bogdan explained. If Congress doesn’t allow the A-10 to be retired, a far greater proportion of F-35 maintainers will be inexperienced airmen, and “it’s going to take me longer” to train them. The difference could be nine to 12 months. The program office was working with the Air Force on a solution, but didn’t have any answers yet.

Maintainers and flight test schedules have little to do with the F-35’s technical capabilities, however, and in his AFA speech, Bogdan said technical issues are being systematically retired, even as new ones emerge.

Software, he said, remains a chronic challenge, but code-writers still have some schedule cushion. Fixes have been determined for the engine problem. Parts supply is a major headache and the logistics system is still being figured out, but a whole raft of previous headline-grabbing problems—including a jittery helmet display, a tailhook redesign, a fuel dump issue, and certification for flight in thunderstorms—are all effectively resolved.

Costs continue to fall. Bogdan has predicted the fifth generation F-35’s unit cost, by 2019, will be comparable to that of fourth generation fighters.

The F-35 project is enormous by any standard. It will produce at least 3,243 aircraft to meet the needs of three US military services and at least 11 foreign countries, with three variants replacing nearly a dozen other types. Besides the airplane itself, it involves a simulation and training system; depots and field maintenance; creation of a “global sustainment” enterprise with foreign companies and support facilities; tactics development; and more.

Since he took over as program manager two years ago, Bogdan said he’s worked to ensure the myriad elements are “moving in the same direction” with a holistic approach—something not done early in the project. Consequently, progress has not been “as fast as we would really like,” but “any time we try and fix one thing on the program, we’ve got to make sure all the other pieces and parts are moving together in a synchronized kind of way, so that when we do deliver a weapon system, it’s all ready to go.”

Bogdan has also pushed to balance the risk borne by contractors and the government. Contractors have stepped up to accept responsibility for deficiencies and bear the cost of correcting them, he said.

More than 100 F-35s are flying at eight locations—Edwards AFB, Calif.; Eglin; Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth, Texas, location; Luke AFB, Ariz.; MCAS Beaufort, S.C.; MCAS Yuma, Ariz.; NAS Patuxent River, Md.; and Nellis AFB, Nev.—with two depots established and a final assembly and checkout facility in Italy now active. There will be 22 or more operating locations within five years. Basic F-35 training has been underway at Eglin for more than two years. Marine and British pilot training for the F-35B is in progress at MCAS Beaufort. The international F-35A training center at Luke has received the first nine of an expected 144 aircraft.

The F-35A version to be used by USAF is a conventional takeoff and landing airplane. It’s the simplest of the three, with the lowest cost, though it alone carries an internal gun. USAF has never wavered from its requirement for 1,763 of these fighters.

The F-35B is the short takeoff and vertical landing model. The most complex, it employs a “lift fan” behind the cockpit as well as a series of air inlet doors, wing vents, and a downward-rotating main exhaust, all to enable vertical flight and hover. It will be first to achieve IOC because of the urgency of replacing the AV-8B—and because the B model got extra attention early in the program when it was overweight and suffered from other problems, since resolved.

The Navy version is the F-35C, with larger wings and control surfaces to give it extra range and controllability for aircraft carrier landings. The Marine Corps will buy 340 F-35Bs and the Navy 340 F-35Cs. The first F-35C landed on a carrier in November.

The development partners—Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, and Turkey—together have a requirement for 612 airplanes. Israel, Japan, and South Korea have ordered 101 airplanes collectively under foreign military sales, a number likely to increase. Singapore is also a participant, but has not yet ordered any aircraft. Including the partners, Lockheed Martin forecasts an international market of 1,500 aircraft or more.

Air Force acquisition executive William A. LaPlante, in his own AFA speech, said the F-35 has been “remarkably stable in the last year and a half.” He offered a succinct program summary: “IOC for the Air Force is two years away. Challenges are ALIS [Autonomic Logistics Information System], availability/reliability, keeping the parts moving. 3I software still needs to be finished, but it looks like it’s still on track. 3F software somewhere between zero and five months behind. There, I just gave you the F-35 status.”

Although there will certainly be more things found in flight test, Bogdan said there are two main things that F-35 stakeholders should watch closely: software and rework.

Some 10 million lines of code support the F-35 and its logistics system. The software is delivered to the fleet in blocks, each of which builds on the last and adds more capability. When one is being delivered, the next is being developed or flight-tested; there are various subreleases within each block.

The Software Problem

The 2B block, which will equip the first operational Marine Corps jets, uses all the flight test-vetted flight control software, along with capability for basic weapons—such as the AIM-120 AMRAAM, laser guided bombs, and Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs—plus more sensor modes and data links.

The 3I block will include some new capabilities, but will be hosted on new, faster processing hardware. The 3F block—the end-state software for all the services’ first operational F-35s—will add even more sensor fusion, more sensor modes, and a greater variety of weapons. Air Force IOC will be declared with 3I software. 3F is to be ready in 2017, months before Navy IOC in 2018, but all versions will eventually get it. Some 99 percent of all F-35 software has already been written, and 90 percent is in some level of testing. Requirements for a Block 4 version are being discussed.

“You always hear that our software’s been delayed. True statement,” Bogdan said in his AFA speech. However, “we built some margin into our plans,” so there would be cushion between the due date and the must-have date.

“We built six months of margin into that plan from the very start.” He said, “We’re not at the point where we’ve moved any major milestones on the program.”

However in an interview, Bogdan admitted that the 3F software is, “no kidding, two months behind in flight test,” meaning that all the margin has been used up—and then some. Moreover, “I’m carrying four months more of risk downstream.” He thinks those months could be recovered, but software remains one of the “big schedule drivers … that worry me.”

Rework is another. “Every lot of airplanes we deliver … is different [from] the one before it,” Bogdan explained, because flight test is ongoing, and as new issues crop up, they must be corrected. The production line is adjusted accordingly, but aircraft already delivered to the field must be modified to keep them current with the latest configuration. An “awful lot of airplanes” must be modified “at different times, for different things,” and Bogdan called this effort to attain a common configuration “a monster.”

The problem is parts. “We are stressing the supply chain … to do three things at once: produce parts for … production, produce parts for current sustainment of airplanes in the field, and produce parts for kits for modifications.” From the same supplier, that can mean three different versions of the same part.

“We really didn’t take a disciplined, systematic approach to the mod program until last year,” Bogdan admitted, because the program was focused on “pumping airplanes out.” Setting hard IOC dates forced the program to confront the mod issue.

The Marine Corps needs “58 different modifications to those 10 airplanes” to achieve IOC on time. They are grouped in three depot-level activities and “one or two field-level activities.” Rather than take the time to send all the airplanes through depot, field teams have been dispatched to make the changes wherever the airplanes are.

There’s room for guarded optimism because more suppliers are coming on line. “The way Lockheed structured this was, as the ramp rate went up, that’s when the industrial participation for partner countries started to kick in,” Bogdan explained. This year the program is set to produce 43 airplanes; next year, 57 in Lot 9; and in Lot 10, 74. “So between now and three years from now, we’ll [nearly] double production,” and after that the rate goes to 117 a year. More production means more parts being generated and more suppliers.

The numbers matter quite a bit. Bogdan said that holding quantities intact—high volume—accounts for 80 percent of the unit cost of the airplane. “If you built the perfect production line and wrung out all the inefficiencies in it, you’d save only 20 cents on the dollar,” he said. Still, on a program now valued at about $800 billion, including 53 years’ worth of support, that’s a big deal. Everything possible is being done to push costs down.

After an F-35 executive steering committee meeting in June, Pentagon acquisition, technology, and logistics chief Frank Kendall said the program would seek to stabilize the ramp rate—at risk in the US due to the likely return of sequester in Fiscal 2016—by finding ways to fill in with foreign buys if the US defers some of its F-35 purchases.

Typically at maturity, a program will seek permission from Congress to enter “multiyear” status—a commitment to buy a certain number over a given period beyond the usual two-year budget cycle. With more certainty about what they’ll be building, contractors can hire and train a more efficient number of people and order materials in more efficient quantities. It always saves money.

The F-35 isn’t considered mature enough for a multiyear contract yet, however, so the program seeks to bring in partner production early, for those air services that already have approval from their governments to buy their share of F-35s.

“Bunch that together, contract for it one time, and then reap those savings,” Bogdan explained. The supply chain, he said, “is thirsting for this. They want it really bad, because they’ll have years of known production now where they can invest and drive costs down.” For Lockheed Martin, “it’s good … because they know what’s coming instead of year by year by year of guessing. For me, [it’s fewer] contracting actions, and the savings are there to be had.” Foreign partners will buy on the same contract as the US government, with “a separate set of terms and conditions for that block of airplanes.”

Bogdan wants to get the F-35 flyaway unit cost down to about $85 million—in 2010 dollars—by 2019. As part of that effort, he’s entered a deal with the contractors called “Blueprint for Affordability.” Under it, the builders invest about $170 million in materials, processes, or parts changes to reduce costs.

Lockheed Martin F-35 program manager Lorraine M. Martin, briefing reporters in September about the initiative, said it “saves the government approximately $1.8 billion by 2019” and will reduce the cost of each F-35 by about $10 million.

Some 66 such projects are underway. They include changes to the way the canopy is made; the old method had repeatability problems and rework created waste. For an investment of $342,000, there will be savings of $31.5 million, Martin said. Other projects include robotic painting, producing rudder parts with less touch labor and weight, and virtual testing. The projects are the most surefire among hundreds suggested by the major suppliers.

Stealthier than a Raptor

The contractors will get their money back out of the savings generated.

“Here’s the part I like the best,” Bogdan said. When the government and Lockheed Martin agree to a project, “I get to book that savings before it ever happens,” meaning the expected cost reduction is included in the first production lot after the project is approved.

“When I go in to negotiate Lot 9, right off the negotiated price comes … the return on investment savings for that initiative, whether it happens or not.” In order to get paid back, “Lockheed needs to make it happen” and so has a strong incentive to make the improvement pay off quickly. Down the road, Lockheed Martin’s lower costs turn to profit, while the government reaps the savings for every lot thereafter.

The cost of the F-35 will be the least of the Pentagon’s problems, however, if the airplane doesn’t perform as needed.

Gen. Gilmary Michael Hostage III, then head of Air Combat Command, said at AFA’s September conference that the F-35 “has drawn a lot of criticism” for some of the sacrifices USAF has had to make to pay for it. However, “it is my professional judgment that recapitalizing our aging legacy fleet with a fifth generation capability is a national imperative,” he declared.

Hostage caused a stir in late spring when, in press interviews, he said the F-35 would be stealthier than the F-22, its larger USAF stablemate. Conventional wisdom had pegged the F-22, with its angled, vectored-thrust engines, as a stealthier machine than the F-35. Hostage also said the F-35 would be unbeatable when employed in numbers, which is why the full buy of aircraft is “so critical.”

“I would say that General Hostage … is accurate in his statement about the simple stealthiness of the F-35 [with regard] to other airplanes,” Bogdan said in the interview. The statement was accurate for radar cross section, as measured in decibels, and range of detectability, he said, and he scoffed at the notion that anyone can tell how stealthy an aircraft is just by looking at it.

The comment about the effectiveness of F-35s together “has less to do with stealthiness and more to do with overall survivability,” he said.

“We are going to ask the F-35 to do things that no other airplane—fourth gen or otherwise—is going to be able to do in the future,” he stated. For some of those missions, “it would be much better to do it with more than one F-35.”

Besides their stealthiness, the F-35s share information and can perform electronic warfare, electronic attack, and cyber missions.

“When you put two F-35s in the battlespace, … they become even more survivable when they do it together,” Bogdan asserted. With two or more, “the sum of the parts is greater than the whole,” especially when the aircraft are teaming up “from different parts of the airspace, on the same targets. It becomes quite effective.”