There is almost a certain chance of Lightning, of the Lockheed Martin kind, occurring in Australia in 2018, as the RAAF prepares for the arrival of its first pair of F-35As.
As things stand at the end of 2017, the arrival of the first two aircraft at RAAF Williamtown remains on-track to occur sometime in December 2018 and, more importantly, Initial Operational Capability also looks likely to be achieved on-schedule by the end of 2020.
The Australian F-35A Project is now starting to ramp up significantly, with eight more aircraft due for delivery to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona during the year and training of both aircrew and maintainers continuing apace.
Perhaps the most tangible evidence that the program is maturing occurred during the course of 2017, with the appearance of the first two aircraft at the Avalon Airshow. The two aircraft took time out from their training duties with the USAF’s F-35 training school at Luke specifically to appear at the show and were flown across the Pacific by the RAAF’s first two qualified Lightning II pilots, Wing Commander Andrew Jackson and Squadron Leader David Bell.
With the publicity around the Avalon debut behind it, the F-35 project is now looking forward to the hand-over of the third aircraft (from Low Rate Initial Production lot 10) at Fort Worth early in the New Year. The aircraft (A35-003) was rolled out of the paint shop at the Lockheed Martin facility in November, wearing the markings of 3 Sqn, the first operational RAAF squadron.
There are now six RAAF pilots trained on the aircraft and more undergoing their conversion, including the future Commanding Officer of 3 Sqn, Wing Commander Darren Clare. WGCDR Clare recently made his first flight in the F-35A at Luke, fittingly in one of the two RAAF jets and launched by an Australian crew chief.
“The simulators set you up very well for the flights,” he said after his first flight in September. “The jet feels very similar to a Hornet in most flight regimes, and it was exciting to take off in an aeroplane for the first solo.”
Twenty-five Australian maintenance personnel have also completed their initial training with the US Air Force at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and most of these are now at Luke gaining experience on the aircraft alongside Lockheed Martin maintainers.
“They are getting experience on how the aircraft are maintained and I think we are really benefitting from that exposure,” Air Vice Marshal Leigh Gordon, Head Joint Strike Fighter program for CASG explained to ADM. “We’re finding Lockheed Martin is a good partner for us to work with on-site at Luke, because they have a very good understanding of ALIS (the F-35’s Autonomic Joint Logistics Information System) and a good understanding of the maintenance that’s required on the platform.”
The two Australian aircraft had achieved 600 flying hours each by early November and together this forms over one per cent of the 100,000 hours achieved by the global F-35 fleet to date.
From a production standpoint, the eight Australian jets in LRIP 10 are now undergoing final completion in Fort Worth and will be delivered to Luke during the course of 2018. The first of these aircraft (AU-3/A35-003) is also the first RAAF F-35A to be fitted with Australian-made vertical tails, made by BAE Systems Australia and Marand.
The current plan is for all of the aircraft to initially be delivered to Luke, before two are selected from the pool to be ferried to Australia to begin Verification and Validation testing in the Australian operating environment in early 2019.
Preparing for the storm
In the meantime, there’s a lot of work being performed in Australia to prepare for the arrival of the aircraft, including major capital works at Williamtown.
The Joint Strike Fighter Division recently established an F-35 Off- Board Information Systems Centre (OBISC) at Williamtown, a unique capability that hosts the ALIS system.
“The opening of the OBISC in July is a very intelligent risk reduction activity, which allows us to take ALIS and practice using the system and start trials with hooking it up to the Defence Information Environment,” AVM Gordon said. “That’s progressing and I’m glad we started it when we did. We’ve now installed some of the classified mission planning elements into the system and we’re starting to get some real experience with the platform and the support systems that work around it.”
The next major delivery of infrastructure at RAAF Williamtown will be the Integrated Training Centre, which will be the hub of training operations at No.2 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) and will include simulator bays, classified areas, classrooms and a flight line and hangar, able to accommodate seven aircraft.
The simulators themselves are due to be delivered in the second half of 2018 and maintenance training is due to begin in the facility in the same period.
In the US a software reprogramming laboratory is also under construction, which will support JSF aircraft from Australia, Canada (should Canada eventually purchase the F-35) and the UK. Known as the ACURL (Australia, Canada, UK Reprogramming Laboratory), the facility is adjacent to a similar USRL (for the US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps) and NIRL (for Norway and Italy). A further reprogramming laboratory will support the remaining partner nations and FMS customers at NAS Point Mugu in California.
“We have Australians operating at Eglin right now, albeit in temporary facilities, learning how the various reprogramming tools work and at Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, they are building the tools that will be installed in our laboratory next year,” AVM Gordon explained.
Defence has recently signed contracts with SRC Australia to produce data sets for operational missions for the F-35 and to help deliver the Ghosthawk mission support system, which will be used to produce trusted mission data sets.
“Ghosthawk is a tool that will allow Air Force and the ADF to manage its intelligence mission data, and support the generation of the mission data files that each of the platforms will need to operate,” AVM Gordon added. “In particular, it will allow us to feed mission data to the ACURL.”
The risk of Lightning
From a program standpoint, aircraft software development and ALIS’ functionality and maturity continue to represent the significant risks to the Australian F-35 Project, but these are now reducing in response to work undertaken over the past 12 months. The version of software that the RAAF wants for IOC, Block 3F, is now working well under test and was released to the Fort Worth production line in August. It will begin operational test and evaluation (OT&E) with the US Air Force in the second half of 2018.
“We’re now very confident that we’ll have 3F in our aircraft, which come off the production line in 2018 and our first two aircraft will be upgraded to 3F configuration during the year as well,” AVM Gordon said.
Although acknowledging that ALIS still has some deficiencies at the moment, AVM Gordon said that the US is rolling out another software load at the present time and there will be at least one further drop before the RAAF begins operating the aircraft in Australia.
“ALIS is already a far better tool than the tools it is replacing in Australia, it already has better functionality than we have at the moment, but we’re focussing on things like the protection of sovereign data,” he said. “That’s one of the key risks around ALIS, but we have an architecture concept in place which involves us introducing some data gateways and we think it’s a practical outcome. It’s just a matter of working through that and making sure it doesn’t compromise the way ALIS works.”
The first two jets to arrive in Australia will conduct Verification and Validation (V&V) activities in the unique Australian operating environment. This work is not intended to replicate the OT&E work done in the US, but rather to ensure that operations in the Australian environment, including the interface with the local IT environment are fully understood.
“We will also have an opportunity to compare the aircraft against the requirements we’ve identified for IOC and make sure we are fully prepared to meet those,” AVM Gordon added. “We’ll also do things like looking at the curriculum that we’re going to use for training and, towards the end of the program, we’re going to have some small group tryouts where qualified personnel will undergo training as if they were students, to ensure that training is effective and on time from the word go.”
To minimise the risk in the start up of pilot training in Australia, consideration is being given to retaining a training footprint at Luke to ensure that any difficulties experienced in transitioning the training continuum to Australia can be resolved without impacting the overall program.
“There is always risk but, at the moment it is on schedule and we’re forecasting to deliver on schedule in accordance with our plan to IOC. So, as I talk to you today, everything’s on track for IOC in December 2020 and indeed on track to support the first two aircraft arriving in Australia in December 2018,” AVM Gordon concluded.
This article first appeared in the February 2018 edition of ADM.