Mark Collins – F-35 “Challenges” Round-Up, Esp. US Air Force and Marines

1) The program generally:

At Crossroads, F-35 Still Faces Challenges

Over the past five years, the F-35 joint strike fighter has overcome massive cost overruns, schedule delays and a host of technical snags. The US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps jets are now on track to meet key deadlines, and proponents of the program brag that costs have remained steady since 2010.

But as the Pentagon prepares for a new challenge — tripling production of the next-generation fighter jet — F-35 program leaders are bracing for an uphill climb.

Next year, F-35-maker Lockheed Martin will deliver 43 aircraft to the services. During the three years after that, the Pentagon will ramp up production to more than 120 aircraft each year, according to Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, head of the F-35 joint program office. The JPO is concerned the F-35 manufacturing base will not be able to keep up with such a drastic surge, he said.

“Acquisition rule of thumb says we probably, year-to-year, don’t want to do more than about 50 percent what you did the year before,” Bogdan said Wednesday at the ComDef conference in Washington. “If you do the math and you are going to triple in three years, you are not on a 50-percent-per-year slope.”

“That gives me some pause,” Bogdan said.

…since the Pentagon decided to move to initial production before completing the test program, maintainers must install fixes to operational planes as problems crop up with the test fleet. Maintenance teams are busy installing these modifications to existing aircraft and jets coming off the ramp, for instance the engine fix that stemmed from a fire at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, last summer.

“So when we have those 493 airplanes out in the field in 2019, guess how many will be in what I consider to be the right configuration? Not a one,” Bogdan said. “Every airplane coming off the line now and coming off in the next two and a half years, plus all the airplanes we’ve built already, will need some form of modification to get them up to the full capability that we promised the war fighter.”

Each aircraft confined to the depot for modification is one less plane the services can use to train pilots and maintainers, Bogdan emphasized. This is a particular problem for the Air Force, which must meet certain training requirements in order to declare IOC in 2016.

To address this gap, the JPO is sending field teams to do F-35A depot work at the bases, rather than bringing the jets to the depots, Bogdan said. This saves time on the front and back end of the process, allowing the maintenance teams to move the jets through modifications more quickly…

2) USAF–further to this post about US Navy, and other services’ numbers,

How Many F-35Cs for US Navy Department (and services overall)?

the air force won’t find it simple to implement this way of bringing F-35A costs down:

U.S. Air Force still evaluating options for F-35 ‘block buy’

The U.S. Air Force on Monday [Sept. 14] said it is still examining a possible “block buy” that the Pentagon hopes to put together to lower the cost of U.S. and foreign military purchases of Lockheed Martin Corp’s F-35 fighter jet in coming years.

Air Force acquisition chief William LaPlante said the U.S. military services and international partners are studying options for such a deal, which would pool planned purchases over a number of years to benefit from larger economies of scale and drive down the price of the new stealth fighter.

“All the services and the partners are just beginning to examine a bock buy. If in fact there is merit to it, we have time to do it,” he said at the annual Air Force Association conference.

Major General Jeffrey Harrigian, director of the Air Force’s F-35 integration office, earlier said that timing issue would make it “very difficult” to align the Air Force’s budget process in time to benefit from a block buy starting in fiscal 2018.

He said the Air Force, the largest U.S. buyer of F-35s, had nearly locked down its fiscal 2017 budget plans for the program and an accompanying five-year plan, but gave no details. But he said officials were still looking at possible “hybrid” options.

Congress generally authorizes U.S. military spending one year at a time unless specific targets are met, and that usually occurs when a program has matured beyond where the F-35 is now.

Air Force and industry officials said that the Pentagon would find a way to enable the Air Force’s participation in a discounted purchase plan, if an agreement was reached.

Harrigian said the issue would be further complicated if the U.S. Congress fails to pass a budget for fiscal 2016, which some fear may result in a full-year continuing resolution.

Production of the $391 billion F-35 fighter jet program is due to ramp up rapidly in coming years, with Lockheed slated to go from building 40 jets a year to 120 jets for the United States and the nine countries that have already placed orders: Britain, Norway, Australia, the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey, Israel, Japan and South Korea.

Pratt & Whitney, the United Technologies Corp unit that makes the jet’s engine, said it had submitted an estimate of additional savings that could result from the block buy but gave no details…

3) Marines–further to this post and “Comments”,

F-35 Update as US Marines’ IOC Approaches

bit of a glitch about that F-35B IOC declaration:

Pentagon weapons tester calls F-35 evaluation into question

When the Marine Corps put its version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter through a series of tests aboard an amphibious assault ship last spring, officials said that the aircraft performed so well that the service soon declared it ready for combat.

But the Pentagon’s top weapons tester said in a report in July that the exercise was so flawed that it “was not an operational test … in either a formal or informal sense of the term.” Furthermore, the test “did not — and could not — demonstrate” that the version of the F-35 that was evaluated “is ready for real-world operational deployments, given the way the event was structured.”

For the test, which happened in late May aboard the USS Wasp, to be “bona fide,” it would have had to be under “conditions that were much more representative of real-world operations than those that were used during this deployment,” J. Michael Gilmore, director of the Pentagon’s Operational Test and Evaluation Office ]website here], wrote in a memo.

The memo, which had been previously reported on by Bloomberg, was released Monday [Sept. 14] by the Project on Government Oversight, which said it obtained the document through the Freedom of Information Act [see POGO’s article here].

Among the problems Gilmore cited were the lack of other aircraft in the test, which would share space on the flight deck and ground support equipment. He also noted that “key combat mission systems were not installed in the aircraft or were not cleared for use.”

During the tests, the aircraft were “not cleared to carry or employ any ordnance,” Gilmore wrote. And he said that uniformed personnel “received significant assistance from embarked contractor personnel who would not be part of combat operations.”..

4) And one challenge in particular:

ALIS Biggest Challenge For F-35 IOC: Gen. Harrigian

The biggest pole in the tent for the F-35A is ALIS, the autonomous parts management and maintenance system key to managing the Joint Strike Fighter program’s in the long term.

That’s the word from Maj. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, director of the Air Force’s F-35 integration office. Harrigian, who oversees all F-35 issues for the service, also said readiness rates for the plane are barely scrapping 60 percent.

Lee Method, who leads the Air Force work on ALIS and just retired as a colonel, sent a clear message to both Lockheed Martin and to Capitol Hill: “The ALIS software will get there and we’re going to help them get there.”

Harrigian, with a shake of his head, noted the surprising fact many parts still have to be entered by hand. That cannot help readiness rates or parts monitoring.

Harrigian noted that both Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, and Deborah Lee James, Air Force secretary, “have had high level talks with Lockheed about the timeline. Let there be no doubt that we know what we need for ALIS and for Lockheed to deliver that capability.”

But about those readiness rates: “Over the last six to eight months we’ve touched 60 percent three separate times,” Harrigian told reporters. That old bugaboo, concurrency, remains a major stumbling block to readiness because modifications have to be made on planes that are supposed to be on the flight lines.


Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds


22 thoughts on “Mark Collins – F-35 “Challenges” Round-Up, Esp. US Air Force and Marines”

  1. More on the US numbers game (note at post itself “How Many F-35Cs for US Navy Department (and services overall)?”):

    ‘U.S. Air Force warns F-35 order review could damage program

    U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh on Tuesday warned that short-term moves to revise downward the Air Force’s planned purchase of 1,763 Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 stealth fighters could damage the program and scare off foreign buyers.

    “Let’s delay this discussion for a little while until we see what happens in the world,” Welsh told reporters at the annual Air Force Association conference, citing efforts by Russia and China to field more advanced fighter aircraft of their own.

    “All we do right now is risk damaging a program that’s now gaining some momentum and is about to become operational,” he said.

    Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, who takes over as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff this month, sparked questions about possible changes to the U.S. military’s plans for a total fleet of 2,457 F-35s during his U.S. Senate confirmation hearing. The Pentagon later said no formal review was underway.

    Admiral John Richardson, who takes over as chief of naval operations on Friday [Sept. 18], also told lawmakers he would take a hard look at the Navy’s current requirement for 340 F-35 C-model jets that can take off and land on aircraft carriers…

    Welsh told reporters the program was doing well after years of cost overruns and technical challenges, and it was critical to keep moving toward full production to ensure continued cost reductions. He said the jet was likely to cost about $80 million per plane by 2019, comparable to other fighter jets.

    [Pentagon’s F-35 program manager, Air Force Lieutenant General Chris] Bogdan told Reuters that none of the services had asked the his office to participate in a reassessment of their overall F-35 procurement plans, and he did not expect them to carry out revisions in the near future.’


    Mark Collins

  2. So LockMart can’t compete for new RCAF fighter? And RCN has no icebreakers–they are CCG responsibility:

    “Trudeau says no to F-35 fighter jets

    Liberal party Leader Justin Trudeau says if elected his government would not purchase F-35 fighter jets and instead buy planes at a lower cost to replace the military’s aging aircraft.

    Trudeau says the money saved by scrapping the F-35 procurement would go primarily to increasing spending on the Royal Canadian Navy.

    The Liberal leader made the comments Sunday [Sept. 20] at Pier 21 in Halifax, a National Historic Site and home to the Canadian Museum of Immigration.

    He said a Liberal government would use an open process to procure new fighter planes and the money saved would go towards buying icebreakers and surface combatants for the navy.

    The Conservative government had planned on purchasing 65 F-35s for the Royal Canadian Air Force but the procurement process was put on hold after the auditor general accused the government of fudging project costs and not doing sufficient research.

    The purchase would have cost taxpayers an estimated $44 billion over its four-decade lifetime.

    Trudeau said he would also immediately launch a review of military spending but promised to maintain current National Defence funding levels as well as planned increases.”

    Mark Collins

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