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.