Joint Strike Fighter

All F-35 maintenance to be performed in Australia

Byline: Kym Bergmann / Canberra

Speaking to the media on August 23 August in Canberra, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 program manager Tom Burbage explained that once Australia’s F-35s are delivered they will never have to return to the US for maintenance. He seemed surprised that the media was surprised by the information, but this appears to be the first time that the matter of in-country support had been clarified so emphatically.

The F-35 has a vast number of design parameters, including many that are aimed at reducing the cost of maintenance and support. As well as an array of self-diagnostic systems, the aircraft takes advantage of the digital revolution – for example, once installed the radar is designed never to be removed. It can be accessed, but the assumption is that because it has no moving parts – unlike mechanically scanned arrays – it can remain in place for the design life of the aircraft and can be updated through software changes and processing improvements. Another case is the extensive use of electrically driven actuators rather than hydraulics to perform activities such as aileron and rudder control. Small electric motors are more reliable and far easier to maintain – or replace – than large numbers of hydraulic lines full of fluid dependant on a large number of pumps.

However, even though the aircraft is unlikely to be as maintenance-intensive as those it replaces, work will still need to be done. Until now, many observers of the project had assumed that the Australian aircraft would have to be returned to the US at some point for deeper level work. Not so, according to Mr Burbage. He was definite that once in Australia, they will be supported here for their lifetimes – though individual components might need to be returned to their manufacturer, depending on the circumstances.

He and his colleagues were complimentary of the up-front work that the RAAF has required from Lockheed Martin to define what will be needed for in-country support and he indicated that Australia is more advanced than other F-35 customers in this regard. Exactly how support activities will be arranged is a question for the future. The RAAF itself is likely to do some of it. However, it seems highly probable that Lockheed Martin will lead a team of local companies – probably based near RAAF Williamtown outside Newcastle – to also take on a percentage of the work.

The F-35 is approximately 25% through its flight test program and it is already proving to be as reliable as planned. As the number of flying hours increase, so too does the hard data on supportability – and the results are encouraging. Sometimes aircraft are returning from test missions with no faults recorded at all – an encouraging pattern at a relatively early stage in the program.

The flight test schedule continues to progress on, or ahead, of schedule. An important milestone was achieved on August 8, when an F-35 released a weapon in flight. This was a GBU-32 – a 1,000 pound JDAM, released at 4,000 feet (1,200 metres) while the aircraft was traveling at 400 knots (740kph). A Joint Project Office media release said:

“While this weapons separation test is just one event in a
series of hundreds of flights and thousands of test points
that we are executing this year, it does represent a
significant entry into a new phase of testing for the F-35
program,” according to Navy Captain Erik Etz, director of test for F-35
naval variants. “The release of a JDAM was the result of extraordinary effort by our team of
maintainers, engineers, pilots and others who consistently work long hours to deliver F-35 warfighting
capability to the U.S. services and our international partners.”

Forthcoming tests will involve many more weapons release activities and – exciting to view – aircraft spin tests. These involve taking the jet initially to 20,000 feet and deliberately putting it in an uncontrolled state in the form of a spin and then letting the flight control system take over and recover the aircraft.

Also, the first Australian aircraft is starting to take shape – literally. Mr Burbage was able to identify parts that have been produced that will go into the two F-35s that the RAAF have ordered. The aircraft itself will come off the Fort Worth production line in 2014, probably in the early part of the year.

Asked if the aircraft was living up to its promise as an air superiority fighter, the answer from Mr Burbage was an emphatic yes. This is based on a combination of the very low observable characteristics of the aircraft – assisted greatly by the internal carriage of weapons – and its powerful mix of sensors. Measurements of radar cross section are proving to be even better than planned and the special coatings that help reduce the aircraft’s signature are robust and require relatively little maintenance and repair. In essence, this combination means that the F-35 will be invisible to earlier generations of aircraft and ground based radars, while its own sensors and weapons will allow it to engage targets at great range.

While giving an overwhelmingly positive briefing, Mr Burbage cautioned that there are still a large number of tests to be performed and some items require further development. These include the data-displaying helmet that requires further fine-tuning, mainly to eliminate jitter in some circumstances. The radical Distributed Aperture System – which displays images of the outside world via cameras to the inside of the pilot’s helmet – is also under scrutiny to verify that the picture it presents is completely accurate and reliable. While from a logical point of view Lockheed Martin cannot rule out future nasty surprises, as the flight test program and software releases continue these are becoming progressively less likely.

The main dangers for the program are now probably economic rather than technical. The unit cost of the aircraft reduces as more of them are purchased. The United States has slowed the pace of it acquisition and has still not signed a contract for the 5th batch of low rate initial production (LRIP) batch of F-35s – though this is expected soon with Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon now negotiating over the final few percent of the order. Of the nine partner countries only two have not yet made a purchase – Canada and Denmark. In Canada the topic has become highly politicized, though for the moment the country remains in the program. Britain has started to receive its aircraft and the Netherlands is not far behind. However, the world economic situation is still unstable and any further deterioration might force countries to look at the number of aircraft they are able to afford.

Lockheed Martin is under continual pressure to reduce their costs and the company says that they are consistently coming in under production estimates through improving their processes. Around 65% of costs are external to Lockheed Martin and are in the F-35 global supply chain; so all participating companies face the same pressure to find greater efficiencies – including those in Australia.

The situation in the United States also has a level of uncertainty because of the prospect of further large reductions in defence spending early in 2013. This is the process known as sequestration – an automatic 10% cut in the defence budget that will come into effect if Congress cannot agree on other ways of reducing the budget deficit. In fact Congress has given up for the moment and the Republicans and Democrats seem to be calculating which side will suffer the worst political damage if sequestration – with its massive job losses – comes into effect.

The consequences of sequestration for the F-35 program cannot be precisely defined, other than to say that a 10% reduction in the program budget will probably mean an identical percentage reduction in the number of aircraft being purchased each year. This would mean that LRIP 5 would be reduced from 30 F-35s to 27 – with some impact on price, presumably increasing the unit cost of each aircraft.


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  1. Over the past 20 years, I have yet to recall any favors offered by the USA Military Alliance to Australis’s Defense Force weapons acquisition program… The reality is that the largely orchestrated sales personnel tell Australia what it is, that the US Arms & Weapons manufacturing corporations’ are not in the business of asking what Australia requires.

    For example, the likes of Lockheed Martin: say listen-up Australia, you buy what we in the USA tell you to purchase; otherwise, you threaten us with a lessening of the now-defunct Anzus Military Alliance.
    We in Australia are still to receive the full number of the now downgraded F-35’s we in Australia had been committed to purchasing back in 2002.
    Australia’s Defense Forces must avoid weapons acquisitions under the USA’s instructing yet terrifying Vampire Squid A & W manufacturing corporations.

    Australia must resist the W & A lobbyists demanding to expand our Defense Budget purchases way over and above but to stay within the constraints that Australia’s integrity will allow.

  2. What a bargain the F35 is for Australia, $35 billion, for 73 airframes, a tenth of the world fleet, in a $1.7 trillion dollar project, not $170 billion. The nuclear submarines at 8, will cost $350 billion, ten times as much, as the entire F35 lightning fleet, which gives us real strategic power. All of our aircraft, are upgradable to Block 4 and that is the plan, although the Chinese have 200 stealth fighter bombers, they remain in maintenance hell.

    Only a tenth of the Chinese fleet, can be airworthy at any one time, more than 60% of our aircraft, can be fielded at any time, they are stealthier, more accurate, more ready to pair with Ghost Bat loyal wingman stealth fighter bomber unmanned drones than the Chinese fleet. As the head of a war fleet, they can knock out the Chinese Air Force, navy and Army strategic forces, with high kill rates, accuracy, network centric combat, the Chinese are in a state of economic collapse. Which will make it harder, for them to get out of maintenance hell, a decade, whilst we arm up, with Ghost Bats, submarine drones, missiles.

    By the time the Chinese are out of maintenance hell, we’ll be purchasing, our first batch, of next generation fighters and drones, make no mistake though out of maintenance hell, with upgrades, a thousand J35’s, with drones, will be a formidable force, in 2033. But the money from clean disruption, the third Industrial Revolution, the roaring twenties, in Australia, will equip us, with a war fleet, to take us, through the inevitable market saturation, Grand depression years, of the 2030’s. A North Korea style China, would find it hard, to keep up, with the systems, that could be funded by a third Industrial Revolution.

    Russian rearmament, has after all turned out, to be a complete disaster, defeated by an adversary, with a fraction of the resources, a tiny Air Force, almost no navy at all, fingers crossed.

    • Thanks Stuart, you make a number of excellent points, particularly about F-35s representing value-to-money. I will add to that: Virginia class submarines have a poor availability rate of around 25% – that’s USN data. Because of the RAN’s truly bizarre decision to acquire 2nd hand Virginias for the initial batch of two – who is signing off on this idiocy? – their availability will presumably be even less than that since the older a submarine it is the more support it needs. If all goes well under the Plan, we might acquire another 1 – 3 new Virginias while we wait for the mythical AUKUS submarine to become available in the 2040s (personally I think 2050s, if ever). This means until the 5th Virginia class enters service we will have less than 1 nuclear powered submarine available at any point in time. It’s completely ludicrous.

  3. I think we should purchase ‘off the shelf’ submarines from abroad and spend a large part of the approximately 380 billion dollars proposed for the AUKUS on other naval, air and ground assets. Would you care to comment Kym?

    • I totally agree with the 1st and 3rd parts of that. I believe there is still time – just – to build AIP equipped diesel-elecrtic submarines in Australia, though a case can certainly be made for doing the first one in the parent yard. I’ve discussed this in detail with DSME (now Hanwha Ocean) and if the RAN wanted the KSS-III Batch 2 they could have the first in 2029 if: a) they were given a contract in the next 12 months; and b) the first of class was done in Okpo, with a transition of the build to Osbourne. The money saved would be vast – though of course the RAN will never go along with such a sensible and constructive idea, they would have to be instructed to do it. Hint: have a listen to my next podcast, which will be online on Monday.

  4. Thank you Kym. Richard Marles ‘phone line busy so will email him with your observations re manufacture in Australia.


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