Coming home

Australias first F-35A Lightning II aircraft 01 and 02 on transit to the Australian International Airshow in Avalon.Australia stakes its claim as the Asia Pacific hub for Joint Strike Fighter sustainment, as the F-35 prepares to make its Australian debut.

Minister for Defence Industry Christopher Pyne has vowed to continue arguing the case for Australia to act as the region’s hub for F-35 Lightning II sustainment, and intends to push for as much maintenance work as possible to be assigned to Australian industry when he meets with US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis during a visit to Washington this coming April.

“Last year I travelled to Washington…and helped secure Australia as the Asia Pacific hub for the componentry that has already been decided by the Joint Program Office, and of course we are strongly in the running therefore to win more componentry in the Joint Strike Fighter,” Minister Pyne told Australian Defence Business Review in early February.

“And to win that of course we had to beat countries like South Korea and Japan, and we are one of only four hubs in the world: the United States, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Australia.

“So we should be very proud of what we have managed to achieve so far in terms of our engagement with the building of the Joint Strike Fighter, which so far has been worth $800 million to the economy in exports, and it will be worth a great deal more in the years ahead.”

Australian industry stands to benefit from the assignment of the initial F-35 component repair responsibilities outside the continental US, which were announced in November.

From 2021 to 2025, three of the first 65 components (out of 774 in total) have been assigned to Australia to undertake repair work on a global basis, with the UK assigned 48 components and the Netherlands assigned 14.

Australia was assigned the repair technology group for three life support system components (onboard oxygen generator and two models of the seat portion assembly).

Then from 2025 onwards, Australia has been given responsibility for 64 of the initial 65 components in the Pacific region, leaving a single component assigned to South Korea for repair on a regional basis (the repair technology group for the egress system, with repair assignment for the ejection seat unit assembly).

“So far we have been very successful, and I expect there to be more good news to be announced in the months ahead,” Minister Pyne said.

“In terms of each of these milestones, whether it was engines, airframes or componentry, Australia has far surpassed people’s expectations in terms of winning the right to be the hub for those three areas.

“And I intend to continue to try and kick goals in this particular endeavour because it is worth jobs and investment for Australia, and also a sovereign defence capability in terms of maintaining and sustaining not only our own air platforms but also ones that might be visiting.”

Specifically, the Defence Industry Minister made it clear that he has US aircraft firmly in his sights.

“If their Joint Strike Fighters are operating in our region, and need to be maintained or sustained for any particular reason, the United States has full confidence, as has been demonstrated by us winning the right to be the Asia Pacific hub for these contracts; they have full confidence in Australia being able to look after their aircraft, as well as our own,” he declared.

The scheduled appearance of Australia’s first two F-35A aircraft at the Australian International Airshow on March 3 foreshadows the ferry of an initial pair of aircraft for permanent basing here in December 2018, which is the target ‘activation date’ for Australian industry’s debut as part of the global support system.

“I feel very confident that we will meet all of the targets that we have set for ourselves in the Joint Strike Fighter program,” Minister Pyne said.

“We have built in wriggle room to ensure that regardless of the program’s performance in the United States we will still have the availability of that particular platform on schedule.”

Going global

Australia expects to benefit from sustaining the F-35 by feeding its requirements into a global sustainment system that promises to not only realise economies of scale but also to draw on the diverse experience of participants in the multinational Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program.

“There is a real opportunity in the development of the global support system to build on the best of the partner nations’ contributions,” said Air Vice-Marshal Leigh Gordon, Head Joint Strike Fighter, Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group (CASG), in an interview with Australian Defence Business Review.

“The United States has got some experience doing business the way that it has done business; you have got the UK and Australia who have experience with more contemporary performance-based contracting as an example that we can bring to the table.

“I think in that melting pot, with the diversity that it brings, we have got the potential to have a far better outcome than any individual nation could do by itself.”

With an initial two F-35A aircraft scheduled to be ferried to Australia for permanent basing in December 2018, the clock is ticking.

“I have been doing this work for a long time, and I think it would not be an untrue characterisation to say broadly sustainment has been a bit of a poor cousin of the acquisition space,” AVM Gordon continued.

“We would be in a better position if more contracts were in place and more advanced, but we are progressing the work that we need to progress to ensure we are ready.”

As the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) works to better define the global sustainment system, here in Australia the focus of work for Joint Strike Fighter Division, which AVM Gordon has led since March last year, is determining how to integrate the capability into the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

“We have got some experience through operating the C-17 as part of a global fleet already; now, the F-35 is a next step up, and indeed being a combat aircraft we take some of our sovereign requirements fairly seriously,” he said.

“I am quite comfortable with the approach to the global support system; I think it is an intelligent way to manage the cost of ownership and the cost of operation, and I think there are significant benefits for Australia in doing it that way.

“I do not have any concerns from the way that I expect the system to be able to respond, we just need to be good at characterising very good requirements on behalf of Australia as our input to the system.”

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) currently has four qualified F-35 pilots, and the first group of about 25 technicians has departed for the US to undertake maintenance training.

Although not formally qualified as an F-35 maintainer, an Australian engineer has been in place at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona to monitor the operation of the first two Australian aircraft, which were delivered there in 2014.

Besides the 30 or so Australians embedded with the JPO, there are about 150 people working to transition the capability into Australia, mostly located in Canberra but with a growing number at RAAF Base Williamtown in New South Wales.

Meanwhile, Wing Commander Darren Clare has been designated as the future commanding officer of 3 Squadron, which will become the RAAF’s first F-35A unit.

Building support

AVM Gordon said that he visited Williamtown in November and was impressed by the “phenomenal” amount of facilities work occurring there.

The first building to have been constructed is the software support centre, known as the Off-Board Information Systems Centre (OBISC), where Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) computer systems are being installed for testing of how the information infrastructure for the F-35 will integrate with the Defence information environment.

ALIS is suffering “continued shortfalls and delays”, according to the FY2016 annual report from the Director, Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E), who is the senior advisor to the US Secretary of Defense on operational test and evaluation.

Version 3.0, which is considered necessary to provide full combat capability, is not expected to be fielded until mid-2018, while a number of capabilities that were previously required are now being deferred to later versions, the report states.

“There are follow-on versions of ALIS that do introduce additional functionality that will make the logistics process more efficient, but without them there we do have workarounds at the moment to manage those, so I do not see it being a problem from a logistics point of view in terms of [how] we will be able to manage the data and pass the information around,” AVM Gordon explained.

“It will certainly be better for us when the next versions of ALIS get released…there will be some functionality in [ALIS version 3.0] that will make the system more efficient than it is at the moment, but from the material that I have seen it is not something that is going to stop us operating the aircraft.”

F-35 prime contractor Lockheed Martin says it anticipates that ALIS 3.0 will begin to be fielded in the first quarter of 2018.

“ALIS is supporting the global F-35 fleet today, and continues to mature as we move toward completing [the System Development and Demonstration phase]; we do not foresee any issues that would impede Australia in using ALIS to sustain its F-35s,” Mary Ann Horter, vice-president of F-35 sustainment support at Lockheed Martin, said in a statement provided to Australian Defence Business Review.

ALIS achieved its first Australian cyber-security accreditation from the RAAF and the Chief Information Officer Group (CIOG) within Defence in November, confirming that there are sufficient protection measures in place to counter both external and internal cyber threats.

Over in the US, establishing the reprogramming capability that will build the mission data files for Australian aircraft requires the construction of a laboratory facility at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

“We have got Australians starting to arrive there in numbers to populate the lab that is being constructed out of the project for us in partnership with the UK and Canada, and so that is an area of focus as well, making sure that we have the mission data files in place to allow the aircraft to be able to operate in Australia,” AVM Gordon said.

“Now, we do have an opportunity in the mission data files to be able to partner with the US and leverage off some of their work, but ultimately we will be in a position where we are building our own mission data files in partnership with the UK to meet our sovereign requirements.”

The RAAF also stands to benefit from deployments of the F-22 Raptor to Australia to demonstrate fifth-generation fighter operations and requirements, including unique maintenance procedures, as outlined by US Pacific Command commander Admiral Harry Harris in an address to the Lowy Institute in December.

“The US Air Force in particular has learned a lot with the F-22, and we need to make sure we build on that to help successfully roll out the F-35 for Australia,” AVM Gordon said.

“From a transformation point of view, we need to make sure that we are able to execute what I call fifth-generation logistics, workforce management, engineering; where data is the key and shared awareness is the force multiplier.

“So I think some of the work that Air Force is doing in Plan Jericho and leveraging that to the wider ADF, and indeed into industry, is an important transformation as part of getting the F-35 into service.”

The first deployment of 12 F-22s arrived at RAAF Base Tindal on February 10, to conduct integrated training activities with 75 Squadron F/A-18A/B Hornets, along with ground assets and personnel.

Transitional arrangements

Although, broadly speaking, the RAAF will be responsible for operational-level maintenance and industry will have responsibility for deeper-level maintenance and upgrade work, AVM Gordon said the intention is to adopt a “blended approach” to F-35 sustainment that would bring together Air Force and industry, and indeed CASG.

“We want the ability for industry to be able to step into the operational area and support Air Force as required,” he said. “Say, for example, we want to get a number of aircraft serviceable to support a deployment or an operation, then we want to be able to call on industry to come and help Air Force.

“And by the same token we are looking for opportunities for Air Force members to be able to get experience on the deeper-level maintenance of the platform through being able to flow back into the industry base from time to time.

“So while we have this notional split of operational and deeper maintenance we are looking for a more blended approach so that we can build an organisation, and we are actually looking at the capability as a whole capability.”

At the end of 2014, it was announced that the US Department of Defense had assigned regional maintenance, repair, overhaul and upgrade (MRO&U) capabilities for airframes and engines in the Asia Pacific, with Australia nominated to provide the airframe MRO&U capability for the Southern Pacific and the initial engine heavy maintenance capability for the wider Asia Pacific region.

BAE Systems Australia was assigned the F-35 airframe MRO&U role, while Queensland-headquartered aerospace company TAE has been selected as the engine heavy maintenance provider.

While the announcement made by the JPO stated that both of these capabilities would be required by early 2018, BAE Systems and TAE are now working towards a target date of December 2018.

“The activation date is responsive to available workload,” F-35 Joint Program Office public affairs director Joe DellaVedova told Australian Defence Business Review on February 14.

“Initial workload forecasts at the time of regional assignment in 2014 led us to believe an MRO&U capability was needed in early 2018. During 2015 and 2016, as fleet data matured and modifications were being incorporated in production, the targeted initial depot capability date for [the Australian] regional airframe and propulsion MRO&Us was rescheduled to late 2018.”

The JPO believes that BAE Systems’ airframe MRO&U depot at Williamtown will be ready to induct aircraft, if required, by December 2018, while acknowledging that TAE’s engine MRO&U capability “was behind schedule, primarily due to availability of suitable facilities for maintenance and engine test”, according to DellaVedova.

“The Australian Government and TAE have worked together to reduce risk in the activation and pull the anticipated activation date to the December 2018 target,” the JPO public affairs director stated.

Representatives of the JPO, the US Air Force, Pratt & Whitney, the Australian Government and TAE are said to be working as an integrated team with the aim of setting up the engine heavy maintenance capability at Amberley.

“As an example of this teamwork, the integrated government-contractor team met for a two-week period on RAAF Base Amberley in December 2016 to perform an in-depth site survey and baseline the current capability status,” DellaVedova stated.

The team has identified issues requiring management action, developed plans to address potential areas of concern, and performed a workflow design analysis to ensure an efficient facility layout to inform the final facility design.

“I am keen to ensure that the capabilities are in place as early as they can be to both support Air Force’s transition but also to be available to undertake global work, or certainly regional work, if the need arises; we certainly do need to do some work on the engine [maintenance capability],” AVM Gordon said.

“We are conscious that it is a tight schedule there that we need to be focusing on, but we are looking hard at that and we realise that there are lots of advantages in getting [the engine capability] in place as early as we can, and we will work through those issues.”

When it comes to contracts, Australia intends to leverage off the global sustainment system as far as possible, AVM Gordon said.

However, it is yet to be determined whether it would be better for the Australian Government to put in place a contract with industry on behalf of the JPO, or whether Australia’s sustainment arrangements should instead be managed through a US contract, he added.

“We are trying to understand some of those pros and cons at the moment,” AVM Gordon said.

“While we need to have the sustainment system established to support aircraft operations by 2018, as with most of our platforms we need to recognise that once we have got a few years’ experience under our belt we need to be able to then effectively reset the system to match what is really occurring out there.

“Now, the JPO was talking about doing that in terms of the global support system and that they are looking to be able to reset the arrangements – not a huge reset that I am talking about; I am not talking about an earthquake here – but to recognise: okay, with five years’ operation under the belt it is about time to go back and have a look at the performance framework we have got and the [key performance indicators] and those sorts of things.”

With the RAAF’s declaration of initial operational capability (IOC) for the F-35 expected to occur in December 2020, Australia will need to be in a position to hit the reset button on its approach to sustainment in the early 2020s in order to align support arrangements with the way the aircraft is actually being operated by that time, he explained.

“What we are really talking about over the next four or five years in some ways are transitional arrangements,” AVM Gordon said.

“We are trying not to establish something so set in contract that it ends up being wrong and unchangeable in the early 2020s.”

Airframe MRO&U

As the Southern Pacific provider of F-35 airframe MRO&U capability, BAE Systems Australia is on track to have two aircraft bays available at its Williamtown facility from December 2018, ready to perform maintenance and modification work.

The company is setting up a depot that is primarily being designed to handle the RAAF’s F-35A conventional takeoff and landing variant aircraft, but which will in addition have the potential to accommodate the F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing variant and the F-35C carrier variant.

BAE Systems is investing in the order of $20 million as it prepares to undertake the F-35 airframe work at the facility, which has direct taxiway access across from RAAF Base Williamtown, located northeast of Newcastle.

The work will be carried out in the main hangar, known as the south hangar, which was opened in 1999 and is where the company is currently conducting Hawk 127 deeper maintenance activities, as well as upgrading the aircraft under the AIR 5438 Phase 1A Lead-In Fighter Capability Assurance Program.

BAE Systems plans to extend the north hangar, which was opened in 2007 and currently houses ‘classic’ Hornet wing x-ray work, and intends to move lead-in fighter operations there in late 2018.

Some areas of the existing south hangar will be repurposed to add secure facilities to meet the security requirements of hosting the ALIS information system, with personnel from the Off-Board Information Systems Centre expected to be on hand at the BAE Systems facility to manage the flow of data, while the inside of the hangar will be equipped to suit the F-35.

The site also has a warehouse that the company says could easily be expanded to meet F-35 regional warehousing requirements in the Asia Pacific.

“This is a unique opportunity, being part of the global support system: that is very unusual, certainly from my experience, certainly in BAE Systems Australia’s experience,” said Andrew Gresham, F-35 program director at BAE Systems Australia, speaking to the media at the Williamtown facility in January.

“Being part of that larger program brings a level of uncertainty and ambiguity; we are working closely with the JPO, JSF Division and Lockheed to mature the requirements to ensure we are ready day one when the aircraft arrive.”

Speaking separately to Australian Defence Business Review, Gresham described how representatives of the JPO, Lockheed Martin and CASG’s Joint Strike Fighter Division spent four days with BAE Systems in December in order to assess the company’s airframe MRO&U plans by subjecting them to something akin to a preliminary design review.

BAE Systems is due to submit all of its costings relating to the activation of the site at the end of March, and is scheduled to undergo the equivalent of a critical design review in April.

The company intends to start recruiting and training members of staff in early 2018, as well as beginning the infrastructure program at the facility.

“Firstly you competed to be assigned, then you get a contract for site activation for capability mobilisation, and then you get a contract to actually do the maintenance work,” said Gresham.

“It is very different from an ASDEFCON [Australian Standard for Defence Contracting] style contract for us, like we have experienced on a lot of other programs.

“But, that being said, we have got a great relationship with the JPO and the JSF Division and Lockheed to be able to work that through; I think that is what has made the journey possible is those relationships.”

BAE Systems envisages incrementally increasing the capacity of its airframe MRO&U depot over the coming years to meet the demand that is anticipated to be created by Australia and the wider region; however, at this stage there are no aircraft from any other F-35 operators programmed to come into the Williamtown facility.

Indeed, F-35 component repair activities offer the company much better prospects of securing export work, potentially derived from aircraft located in the Pacific, operated by the US Marine Corps, Japan and South Korea, according to Gresham.

BAE Systems Australia will be the
lead provider of repair services for life support system components (covering the oxygen system and US16E ejection seat assembly) on a global basis from 2021 to 2025.

As part of its approach to the component repair work, BAE Systems envisages hosting a common user facility at Williamtown, where specialised test equipment unique to the F-35 would be located.

The company expects to have a number of different contracts for F-35 sustainment with different customers, Gresham explained.

Separate contracts for the airframe MRO&U and component repair activities, covering aircraft from Australia and elsewhere, are anticipated to be signed with Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, acting under the direction of the JPO.

Meanwhile, BAE Systems believes that any ‘sovereign’ work solely relating to RAAF aircraft would be conducted under a contract with the Australian Government.

Engine maintenance

Having secured regional MRO&U responsibility for the Pratt & Whitney (P&W) F135 propulsion system that powers the single-engine F-35, TAE has spent the past two years working with the JPO, Joint Strike Fighter Division and P&W with a view to gaining a complete understanding of the scope of work that the assignment entails, volume expectations and when the work is due to begin.

Preparation activities are now ramping up, with TAE required to be ready to accept the F135 engine by December 2018, which is when the first two RAAF aircraft are due to be ferried to Australia for permanent basing, and with the F-35B having already arrived at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Japan.

TAE expects to be undertaking depot-level maintenance of the engine in the Asia Pacific, covering Australia, South Korea, Japan and any US aircraft in the region.

Indeed, the assignment of MRO&U responsibility is about much more than just servicing the RAAF’s aircraft as it positions the company as a key piece of the F135 global sustainment capability for many years to come, TAE chief executive officer Andrew Sanderson told Australian Defence Business Review.

“TAE is committing a lot of resources to make this stand-up successful, including a major visit to the US in 2016 to see how P&W and the US Air Force are maintaining the engine today,” Sanderson said.

“This visit gave the TAE team some great insights into the size and scale of the engine, which is by far the most complex engine to ever be maintained in Australia. As the P&W people say: this is a big engine.”

The process of getting to a final contract for the work is broken down into three phases: preparation, facilities and capability stand-up, Sanderson said, explaining that the preparation and stand-up phases are contracted through Pratt & Whitney as it is ultimately responsible for F135 availability globally.

TAE says it is well into the preparation phase, and although no TAE members of staff have yet been trained on the engine, training is expected to commence in mid-2018.

“As TAE is one of the first depots to be established, a lot of the work and contracting effort is being developed for the first time, which often requires first-time decisions in the US,” Sanderson said.

“So there is almost daily dialogue with P&W, with regular communications with the Australian JSF Division team in Canberra too, to make sure the Australian effort is aligned for a great industry outcome in the long term.”

The development of appropriate maintenance facilities, including an engine test cell that can be used for testing the F135, is central to the success of the depot stand-up.

TAE plans to perform the work at or near RAAF Base Amberley, where the company has its headquarters, building on the capability that supports the Hornet’s GE F404 engines and the Super Hornet’s F414 engines (and will also support the Growler’s engines), as well as maintenance of the Honeywell AGT1500 gas turbine engine from the Abrams tank.

“The company has been working through several options for this key infrastructure project with JSF Division, the JPO and P&W, including the potential for a new maintenance facility for all engines adjacent to Amberley, and an upgrade of the engine test facility on RAAF Amberley that is used to test F404 and F414 engines today,” Sanderson said.

“Decisions on these important steps are expected by the end of March 2017, which will make the rest of 2017 and 2018 a very busy and exciting time for the company.”

This feature was first published in the March-April 2017 issue of Australian Defence Business Review.