RAAF LOCKHEED MARTIN F-35A
After a troubled start, the Royal Australian Air Force’s Lockheed Martin F-35A capability has quickly ramped up to the point where Australia is now the world’s second largest operator of the Joint Strike Fighter.
After achieving an Initial Operational Capability (IOC) in late 2020, the RAAF will soon stand up its fourth F-35A squadron when the Tindal-based 75SQN transitions from the last of the RAAF’s McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A/B Hornets in 2022.
Australia’s first F-35A flew in 2014, and the RAAF’s first two pilots underwent training at Eglin AFB in Florida and Luke AFB in Arizona in 2015. At the same time, the RAAF established a foothold at Luke AFB, initially through a Participant Maintenance Liaison (PML) who accepted delivery of the first two jets and helped establish the RAAF’s presence and liaise with the USAF and other international training units.
RAAF pilots and maintenance personnel were initially embedded with the USAF’s 61st Fighter Squadron (FS) as part of a pooling implementation arrangement. A Chief of Air Force directive allowed them to operate within the US construct, and that meant all maintenance was overseen by Lockheed Martin in accordance with US procedures. These personnel were to become the backbone of the RAAF’s No 3 Squadron (3SQN) and No 2 Operational Conversion Unit (2OCU) at RAAF Williamtown in the transition of those units to F-35 operations.
The RAAF’s 3SQN was re-established at Luke AFB in early 2018 to begin pilot and maintenance training, and the unit received sovereign airworthiness certification in August of that year allowing it to operate F-35s under an Australian Military Permit to Fly.
Meanwhile, at Williamtown the building of a whole new $850 million ‘JSF Precinct’ was well-advanced. The precinct is a brand new secure facility within the Williamtown base perimeter which consists of three squadron headquarters and hangars, a vast ramp with shelter ‘carports’ and new access to the extended runway, and the F-35 Integrated Training Centre (ITC). Across the runway is a refurbished facility run by BAE Systems Australia designed to conduct depot-level maintenance on RAAF – and perhaps one day, foreign – F-35s.
F-35 prime contractor Lockheed Martin had a large early presence on Williamtown. In 2017 the RAAF established the off-board information system centre (OBISC) at Williamtown, and this serves as the RAAF’s point of connection with the global Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) network into which most global F-35 operators operate and feed aircraft usage, maintenance, and flight data.
“Our ALIS support team was the first part of our footprint established at Williamtown,” Lockheed Martin Australia’s F-35 program manager, Andy Doyle told ADBR. “We were able to draw on some highly-experienced individuals to lead that team from the outset, and effect the knowledge transfer to both RAAF ALIS administrators and Lockheed Martin Australia ALIS administrators to further grow the capability there.
“I give the RAAF a lot of credit for having the foresight to establish the OBISC in 2017,” he added. “The OBISC includes an Australian-unique capability to provide sovereign accreditation of new ALIS releases prior to being fielded on operational systems and aircraft.”
Despite ALIS reportedly having a poor record of instability and high error rate with other operators, the RAAF has not experienced this. Anecdotally, this appears to be due in part to the sovereign testing and accreditation undertaken by the OBISC, and also due to the RAAF’s centralised and standardised training and maintenance facilities at Williamtown.
The RAAF’s first F-35As were delivered from Luke to Williamtown in December 2018. Less than three years later, at time of writing there were 41 F-35As in residence at Williamtown with 3SQN, 2OCU, and 77SQN. 2OCU successfully completed its first ab-initio operational conversion (OPCON) course on the F-35A in 2020, and maintenance personnel trained at the ITC have successfully completed courses and graduated into the operational squadrons, completing the criteria for achieving IOC.
“The most exciting and also the most challenging aspect for the industry team supporting the F-35 has been the pace of RAAF transition to the new capability,” Doyle said. “The RAAF was not the first international user to take delivery of the F-35, but is now the largest international operator outside the US, and is continuing to pursue a rapid tempo of uptake of capabilities.
“In the space of less than four years, the RAAF F-35 program has achieved, or will shortly do so, a range of capability firsts,” he added. “This includes establishing four squadrons and two operational bases, the commissioning and ramp up of world class, in-country, sovereign training capability to grow and regenerate pilots and maintenance staff, the commencement of domestic and international deployments, and the establishment of a supply chain and industry support arrangements to underpin all of that.”
In those four years, Lockheed Martin has grown its team at Williamtown to more than 200 staff from the company and its partner organisations. The scope of sustainment includes flight line technical support, logistics optimisation, information system support, airframe repair specialists, training services, and support equipment repair, and it represents Lockheed Martin’s largest international F-35 sustainment footprint outside of the US.
Through the Joint Program Office (JPO), Lockheed Martin has been awarded contracts to provide sustainment of the F-35 for all US and international customers, most recently a three-year contract that covers 2021 to 2023. For the RAAF, Lockheed Martin sub-contracts many of its sustainment services to local organisations.
“It’s certainly a very integrated working set of relationships between the RAAF and industry,” Doyle explained. “The RAAF is innately organised to provide the frontline operational maintenance for its F-35 squadrons. At the point of interface with our global support solution, we have field service engineers placed at each of the squadrons to provide first line technical ‘triage’ in real-time to provide advanced trouble-shooting and to help formulate any action requests that need to go back to the larger program for resolution.”
There is also an integrated RAAF and industry team – the largest part of Lockheed Martin’s Williamtown footprint – providing training services and supporting ALIS. Instead of going through the JPO, the Commonwealth has contracted these services directly with Lockheed Martin Australia.
“In the ITC within 2OCU, we have a team of around 60 contractor staff that are embedded in the squadron which numbers over 200 staff overall – including its aircrew and maintenance cadre,” Doyle added. “Most of the synthetic training environment in the ITC is operated and supported by contractor staff.”
Milskil has provided simulator training to the RAAF classic and Super Hornet/Growler community since 2008, and has also been engaged by Lockheed Martin for F-35A pilot training. Most of the Milskil trainers are former fast-jet pilots or weapons system operators (WSO) who also provide instruction services for major exercises and the biennial Air Warfare Instructor Course (AWIC).
The deeper level F-35 maintenance is operated by BAE Systems Australia through Lockheed Martin. “Our partnership with BAE Systems Australia for providing airframe repair services is one that we’re really proud of,” Doyle said. “The F-35 modification facility was commissioned adjacent to RAAF Williamtown earlier this year, and this provides the capability to incorporate major block upgrades to the RAAF fleet, and that is a real cornerstone of sovereign resilience and future-proofing the RAAF’s F-35 air combat force.
“We have a close working relationship with BAE,” he added. “In particular the injection of Lockheed Martin program management, engineering support, training, and mentoring of BAE’s maintenance workforce to establish the airframe depot, and our ongoing involvement as the prime contractor to provide OEM engineering, logistics, and information systems support to the critical airframe depot capability.”
As part of the F-35 Program assignments of airframe depot, Australia has been nominated as the aircraft depot location for F-35 operators in the wider Indo-Pacific region, although operators such as Japan – which has its own F-35 final assembly and checkout (FACO) facility – South Korea, and Singapore will likely have their own sovereign requirements.
“There are a range of government-to-government partnership issues to go through in terms of what other countries might seek to access that capability,” Doyle explained. “But the fundamental design of the program is that the capability and capacity is there for more than just the RAAF fleet.
“There is also the propulsion depot in Queensland under contract with TAE,” he added. “That’s already on strength and repairing propulsion modules for the benefit of the broader international program. And later in the decade, component repair capabilities that are being assigned to BAE, RUAG, and Northrop Grumman – as those come on stream under subcontracts to Lockheed Martin – are also intended to be capabilities to support the Indo-Pacific fleet, not just the RAAF fleet.”
Lockheed Martin has other sustainment partnerships in Australia, including with TR Calibration, HI Fraser, Westrac, Marand Engineering, Collins, Martin Baker, and Survitec. We also partnered with Varley to develop the deployable cyber-secure ALIS shelters which have already been deployed on exercises in Australia and internationally to Exercise Red Flag Alaska.
The company has drawn its workforce at Williamtown from a mix of expatriate US and local staff, and has established relationships with local educational instructions to grow its local ‘gene pool’.
“We’ve set ourselves up for the longer term by establishing a range of STEM partnerships,” Doyle said. “We’re working through Hunter Regional Development Australia and New South Wales TAFE on the STEM Start program to further augment our ALIS workforce with entry level employee opportunities and career pathways.
“And we also have a relationship with the University of Newcastle called the Altitude Accord, that is seeking to develop university level curriculum and employment opportunities in programs in the Hunter like the F-35, and for AIR 6500 and a range of other national security endeavours,” he added.
With the establishment of 75SQN at Tindal in 2022, Lockheed Martin has been working for nearly two years to establish relationships with small-to-medium enterprises in the Northern Territory to establish the training systems, logistics, the support equipment, the specialist personnel, and industry support arrangements for the capability at that remote location.
“Sourcing the workforce for Tindal was probably more straightforward than we thought it was going to be, in that we had a lot of interest from folk that were resident in the Northern Territory to take up F-35 workforce opportunities,” said Doyle. “We’ve got up to 20 roles in the Lockheed Martin team at Tindal through a combination of global support solution contracts, where we’ll be putting in a cadre of field service engineers who initially will be US expatriate staff.
“Alongside them, under the two sovereign contracts that we have for ALIS and training services, we’ll have Australian nationals and they have been staffed with people with the appropriate background and experience who are already resident in the Northern Territory.”
In closing, Doyle said the F-35 program is tracking ahead of its program requirements and predicted aircraft reliability and availability rates. “One of the things that has really impressed me coming out of a career of about 30 years as an engineer in the Air Force and then with Lockheed Martin on the F-35 program, is to get to see first-hand the way the program draws on the failure data from the fleet of more than 700 jets and growing,” he said.
This article appeared in the Sep – Dec 2021 issue of ADBR.
In Part 2 we’ll cover the RAAF’s Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler.