Patrick Durrant | Avalon
This week at the Avalon air show US F-35 program executive director Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan and Australian head of the JSF division Air Vice Marshal Leigh Gordon provided an update on the program.
LTGEN Bogdan, a regular visitor to Australia, was keen to give what he described as a balanced assessment of the program status; "that means I'm going to tell you the good and the bad".
“I guess I could just sum it up by saying the F-35 dominated the wartime gaming exercises".
He stated the program was vastly different now since his first visit to Avalon in 2013: “the program today is on a much better trajectory, it's growing and accelerating and is changing in a lot of good ways”.
Recent achievements had been the USAF's early declaration of IOC for the F-35A, and the overseas deployments (Japan, UK, The Netherlands, Israel, Italy).
“The USAF basically said 'if called upon we will take the F-35 today, as is, into combat' – even though the aircraft has a limited interim capability they felt they could still make a difference.”
The general added they had done this only two days into the three month window at which they could declare IOC, “which we thought was pretty phenomenal, it really showed us the confidence they had in the capabilities of the aircraft”.
The recent Red Flag exercise, in which the RAAF also participated, had been hugely successful according to LTGEN Bogdan: “I guess I could just sum it up by saying the F-35 dominated the wartime gaming exercises”. He did however prefer that warfighters like US Marine Corps Deputy Commandant for Aviation LTGEN Jon “Dog” Davis speak to the F-35's capability - for more see ADM's earlier story from Avalon this week.
The demonstration the US Navy had performed last year, where an F-35 had guided a naval extended range anti-air warfare SM-6 missile to intecept a low altitude high speed target, had a lot of significance, particularly for Australia as it sought to integrate fifth generation capabilities across all platforms.
"It displays an ability to make everyone else on the battlefield smarter, more lethal and more survivable.".
Regarding the performance of the program as a whole: "when you have folks tell you the program is still in trouble, that it's tragic and out of control, go back and remember what it looked like before 2011, and what it looked like after, and then make that case," LTGEN Bogdan said.
“We have risks, there are challenges ahead, but since 2011 when the program was re-baselined, we have been on a much better footing than ever before.”
The recent unit price for the F-35A for Lot 10 (comprising six Australian units) had fallen to US$94.6 million and LTGEN Bogdan saw no reason why the price couldn't continue to drop towards or even below US$80 million.
“Our promise to the enterprise has always been that an A model bought in 2019 would cost US$85 million - well I'm here today to tell you that's not enough – we need the airplane to be lower than that and I think we can get there.”
Current risks included older production aircraft proving to be more of a maintenance burden than newer aircraft, with significant modifications required to bring them to the same standard and also the anticipated ramp-up of production and the strain that would place on the support of the 200-odd aircraft already in the field.
“Because those companies that are building parts for the production line are the very same companies that we're relying on to fix older parts on the airplane”.
Software would always be a risk on the program, “now, and 10, 15, and 50 years from now - it's just complicated,” he said.
However, a lot had been learned and stability issues that had been plaguing the software development were now largely resolved.
The Autonomic Logistic Information System (ALIS) was performing well in the field according to the General, with feedback indicating that maintainers never wanted to go back to previous systems, but there was still a lot of work to do.
“It is not nearly as good as it can be and quite frankly it's late - ALIS is a risk on the program that we're continuing to monitor and attempting to improve.”
He confirmed the schedule to commence operational testing (OT) in September 2017 would not be reached and it was more likely it would begin in February 2018.
“The problem is that some of the oldest jets are OT jets and we have to get those jets into the newer production configuration and that takes time.”
LTGEN Bogdan finished up his brief by saying “we're never as good as we'd like to be, but sometimes we're not nearly as bad as the critics say we are, and alluded to the "many myths, misconceptions and misinformation regarding the program”.
AVM Gordon said Defence was on schedule, both in time and cost, to deliver IOC for the RAAF's aircraft in December 2020, with 12 aircraft in an operational squadron (No.3) and six in the training squadron (No.2 OCU).
He also provided a summary of Australia's progress to date preparing for the aircraft, for more see our recent story in the February air power edition of ADM.
In responding to questions on the topic of workshare for the F-35 maintenance, repair, overhaul and upgrade facilities (Australia, Japan), LTGEN Bogdan said that regardless of the outcome of future purchases of the aircraft in our region, the USMC and the USN would be operating there regularly, and Australia would be the primary recipient of work.
"Australia is the only partner in this program that has industrial-based capability in the Pacific, and that means something."
Japan is an FMS-only customer of the F-35.