December 10, 2018 was a red-letter day for Australian air power, with the arrival at RAAF Base Williamtown of the first two Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II fighters to be permanently based in the country.
The two aircraft, actually the ninth and tenth aircraft to be handed over to the RAAF, are the vanguard of at least 72 F-35As to wear the kangaroo roundel. They have since began a two-year period of verification and validation testing under local conditions, which will culminate in the declaration of Initial Operational Capability (IOC) at the end of 2020. Further pairs of aircraft will arrive at intervals throughout 2019 and by the end of the year, eight aircraft are expected to be on the ramp at Williamtown.
With the arrival of the first pair, Australia becomes the seventh F-35 partner nation or Foreign Military Sales (FMS) customer to have F-35s located on its home turf, joining Israel, Italy, Japan, Norway, the UK and the US. Williamtown becomes the 16th F-35 base in the world and according to Lockheed Martin, in excess of 340 aircraft had been delivered to that time, surpassing over 170,000 cumulative flight hours, and more than 700 pilots and 6,500 maintenance personnel had been trained globally.
Australian taxpayers were treated to their first glimpse of an F-35A at the Australian International Airshow at Avalon two years ago, when two RAAF aircraft operating with the US Air Force’s international training squadron in Arizona put in a brief appearance. However, Avalon 2019 will mark the debut of the first aircraft to not only be based in Australia, but to operate under the Australian airworthiness regime and hosted on the sovereign version of the F-35s Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS). One aircraft will be present in the static display at Avalon 2019 and the second will perform in the daily flying program.
Air Vice Marshal Leigh Gordon, Head Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) said their appearance at Avalon will be an opportunity for the Australian public to understand how the fifth-generation fighter fits into the broader RAAF and ADF capability.
“Plan Jericho was conceptualised to help us establish the fifth-generation Air Force we need to maximise the capability of the (F-35A) Joint Strike Fighter, (F/A-18F) Super Hornet, (EA-18G) Growler, (E-7A) Wedgetail, (P-8A) Poseidon and (MQ-4C) Triton,” he told ADM. “I think Avalon will be an opportunity for the public to actually see those pieces of capability together and get a sense of what Plan Jericho really means.”
The arrival of the first two aircraft at Williamtown on December 10 was witnessed by invited guests including Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Leo Davies (see this month’s From the Source interview for more from Chief of Air Force), Governor General Peter Cosgrove, NSW Governor David Hurley, Minister for Defence Christopher Pyne and Minister for Defence Industry Steve Ciobo, Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson and head of the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) Rear Admiral Mat Winter (USN).
The two F-35As, flown by 3 Sqn Commanding Officer Wing Commander Darren Clare and A Flight Commander Squadron Leader Red Borrman were escorted into Williamtown by a formation of three RAAF ‘Classic’ F/A-18A/B Hornets, flown by the Commanding Officers of 75 Sqn, 77 Sqn and 2 OCU, all future operators of the F-35A. A fourth Hornet was flown by the Executive Officer of 77 Sqn and the formation overflew local landmarks in the Newcastle area before finally touching down. Their arrival was preceded by a spirited Classic Hornet handling display and after landing, the two F-35As taxied into the purpose-built high security facilities at Williamtown, coming to a final halt in front of the assembled guests.
The aircraft had flown from Amberley on the final leg of their delivery flight from Luke Air Force Base in Arizona and had been supported on the trans-Pacific sectors between Luke and Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii and between Hickam on Amberley by an RAAF Airbus KC-30A multi role tanker transport (MRTT).
ADM understands that the original plan called for the ferry flight to route from Hickam via Andersen Air Force Base on Guam, thence to Amberley, but a change to the tanker plan resulted in a direct flight between Hawaii and the east coast of Australia. According to Air Marshal Davies, the resultant leg to Amberley currently holds the record for the longest F-35 flight in history.
Speaking at the formal ceremony following the arrival of the two jets, AIRMSHL Davies told invited guests that the event marked an important day for the ADF and in particular, the RAAF.
“Welcome to the latest chapter of the F-35 story, the most significant RAAF acquisition in our 97-year history. The two aircraft that landed here today mark the latest step in an exciting journey for Air Force which has been over 16 years in the making,” he said and, quoting his predecessor, AIRMSHL Geoff Brown, he added: “The JSF replaces nothing but changes everything, it requires a new way of thinking and a new way of operating.”
In a pointed message to detractors of the F-35 program, AIRMSHL Davies said the F-35 wasn’t just a fifth-generation fighter, with speed and agility and with advanced information systems on board, but rather a catalyst for transforming the ADF into a fifth-generation fighting force.
“An integrated ADF is greater than the sum of its parts and the F-35 has been a driver for this change,” he said. “So today ladies and gentlemen, the naysayers can take a seat.”
Program overview and recent milestones
Australia became an international partner in the JSF program in June 2002, joining the System Development and Demonstration (SDD) phase, in order to gain insight into the aircraft’s development trajectory.
At the time, Defence had recently kicked off Project Air 6000 (New Air Combat Capability), intended to replace the ageing ‘Classic’ Hornet and the increasingly obsolescent F-111C, and although joining the F-35 program did not represent the selection of the aircraft, it nonetheless short-circuited any competitive process.
Up to 100 aircraft would be required to fully replace the F/A-18A/B and F-111C and First Pass approval eventually followed in 2006, coincident with approval to join the Production, Sustainment and Follow-on Development (PSFD) phase of the international JSF program. Once again this did not represent the formal selection of the F-35 for Air 6000, but the subsequent Second Pass approval milestone in 2009 resulted in the order for an initial tranche of 14 F-35A aircraft.
Under Stage 2 of Air 6000 Phase 2A/B, a further 58 F-35As were authorised in April 2014, to bring the cumulative total of aircraft on order to 72. Because the Australian Government had in the meantime acquired 24 Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets as a ‘bridging strategy’ following the premature retirement of the F-111C, a decision on the final tranche of 28 F-35A aircraft was deferred.
The first two aircraft were produced at Lockheed Martin’s production facility in Fort Worth, Texas (Air Force Plant 4), as part of Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP) Lot 6 and they were ceremonially rolled out on July 24, 2014, before joining the JSF International Pilot Training Centre, with the US Air Force’s 61st Fighter Squadron, at Luke AFB.
The following eight Australian aircraft (of which the two aircraft at Williamtown are the final pair) are from LRIP 10, with the first six also going to the international school at Luke. Because the aircraft at Luke are operating under the US Air Force system, they are hosted on the US version of ALIS but, following an RAAF F-35A Airworthiness Board meeting in August 2018, approvals have allowed subsequent aircraft to operate under Australia’s sovereign system. This includes aircraft nine and 10, which conducted their trans-Pacific delivery flight to Williamtown using the deployable version of the local ALIS. Operations using the full system will be thoroughly tested during the two-year verification and validation period, which began in January.
The next eight will be part of 141 aircraft produced in LRIP 11 by Lockheed Martin during 2019. The 102 F-35As produced in LRIP 11 will be the first to cost less than US$90 million (AU$127.6 million) per copy. Two more aircraft are due to arrive at Williamtown in April 2019 and eight aircraft will be on line by the end of the year, together with between 10 and 12 qualified pilots.
Beyond LRIP 11, eight aircraft will be produced in LRIP lots 12 through 14 between 2022 and 2022, with the final nine aircraft to be delivered from LRIP 15 in 2023. According to AIRMSHL Davies, between 30 and 33 aircraft will have been delivered by the end of 2020.
Recent milestones in Australia’s F-35 program have included the 1,000th flight, carried out in June 2018 and the first release of an (inert) 2,000lb (900kg) GBU-31v3 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) on the Barry M Goldwater weapons range in the US on July 20, 2018.
A Commanding Officer’s perspective
The release of the first JDAM was performed by Wing Commander Darren Clare, who is the Commanding Officer of 3 Sqn, the first operational RAAF fighter squadron to receive the F-35A.
WGCDR Clare took over the role of 3 Sqn CO in September 2017 and made his first flight in an F-35A during his training at Luke AFB the same month. Appropriately, he flew the final leg of the delivery flight from Amberley to Williamtown in the lead aircraft and recalled the achievement to ADM afterwards.
“Bringing the aircraft to Williamtown in a wonderful privilege and a significant milestone in preparing this capability for operations in the future,” he said. “This arrival event has been years in the making. It’s a huge achievement for everyone who has worked on the Air 6000 project. I may be the person flying the aircraft home to this great reception, but there have been thousands of people over many years who have all contributed to making this happen.”
However, WGCDR Clare noted that the arrival of the two jets was only the beginning of F-35 operations in Australia.
“With the jets in Australia, my priorities as Commanding Officer are to build up our squadron to the point where it can be deployed as a fighting unit and for 3 Sqn to lead Air Force’s transition to a fifth-generation force,” he explained. “Our next chapter starts now.”
The next chapter will be the verification and validation testing, which is now underway and will take the F-35 capability to IOC at the end of 2020, but in addition 3 Sqn will participate in a planned range of training, including deployments to RAAF bases around the country and the release of live weapons in both the US and Australia.
“In addition to flying the aircraft, F-35A pilots are battle managers, the aircraft presents the tactical picture in a way that allows us to make better decisions than on previous platforms and our tactics continue to evolve as we further understand the aircraft,” WGCDR Clare explained. “We are not just flying around in close formation like we were with legacy aircraft, we can get closer to threats, find, engage and jam targets as well as share information with other platforms. That networked battlespace is a key feature of the fifth-generation force.”
Verification and Validation program
The aim of the incremental verification and validation (V&V) program over the next two years is to ensure that the F-35A is compatible with Defence’s infrastructure, including everything from external electrical power available at RAAF bases around the country, to the information and communications technology (ICT) systems throughout Defence.
A major component of this will be the Australian ALIS system, which is required to support every RAAF F-35 flight, from maintenance management, fault diagnosis, mission and logistics management to air and ground crew training throughout the operating units.
“The F-35 is a complex endeavour (and) the V&V program is one of our key strategies to manage that complexity. It is a program of events where we will seek confidence that we can conduct all the steps that deliver the F-35 capability,” Head Joint Strike Fighter, AVM Leigh Gordon told ADM.
“We need to do simple things like flying, loading weapons and training in small and large groups. By the end of the two-year program we need to be in a position where we have an operational squadron (3 Sqn) that can conduct a range of roles required by the Government and Defence, as well as a training squadron (2 OCU) that is ready to start feeding the Australian F-35A capability with a trained workforce for the next 25 years.”
Infrastructure required to support the F-35A, including the one billion-dollar secure training and operations complex constructed at Williamtown will also be a major focus of the two-year test period. Similar facilities are under construction at RAAF Base Tindal, the second of the RAAF’s two main F-35 operating bases.
Group Captain John Haly, Director of the RAAF’s Air Combat Transition Office said that V&V testing under local conditions will include everything required to ensure the aircraft and infrastructure is ready for IOC.
“This applies not only to the aircraft itself and our personnel, but all those other enabling capabilities such as ALIS, intelligence support, training, security, facilities and logistics – all the less visible components that together make a capability,” he told ADM. “We’ll shake down the capability and demonstrate to ourselves that all those things are in place and we’ll do what is required, so that we can tell the Chief of Air Force we have in it and the Chief can make the same statement to Government and declare IOC.”
ALIS through the looking glass
Commonly referred to as the ‘IT backbone’ of F-35 capability, the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) has been the subject of de-risking activities in Australia for some time now, but the sovereign version of the system recently notched up a major milestone in its development, with approvals to connect it to the Defence Single Information Environment. This milestone was necessary in order to place the ninth and tenth aircraft on the Australian version of ALIS prior to their delivery to Australia.
A critical step in this de-risking process was the establishment of the Off-Board Information Systems Centre (OBISC) at Williamtown in July 2017, which will allow a sovereign ALIS test and upgrade capability.
Speaking with ADM before the arrival of the initial aircraft, F-35 program manager for Lockheed Martin Australia Andy Doyle, said the company had been working closely with both Defence and the US JPO to develop the OBISC.
“The extensive recapitalisation of the (Williamtown) base to support the incoming F-35 capability has seen Lockheed Martin working very closely with the Australian Department of Defence and the Joint Program Office out of the US,” he said. “A lot of the activity we’ve been engaged in is the delivery of specialist equipment. The initial capability established at Williamtown was the information systems centre (OBISC) for ALIS, which was established more than 12 months ago now.”
The centre opened in July 2017 and shortly afterwards, Head Joint Strike Fighter AVM Leigh Gordon described the initiative as a “very intelligent” risk-reduction activity.
“It allows us to take ALIS and practice using the system and start trials with hooking it up to the Defence Information Environment,” he told ADM. “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 investment in the OBISC has already been justified by the transfer of the first two jets onto the sovereign iteration of ALIS and their subsequent successful ferry flight to Australia using the deployable version of the system. Such is its early success, ADM understands other F-35 partner nations are considering the establishment of similar facilities to support their own F-35 operations.
Eight Australian F-35As are currently operating as part of the International Training Centre at Luke AFB and another two aircraft will join the fleet in 2019, as the jets built under LRIP 11 come off the production line.
The Australian jets are pooled with those of the US Air Force and other partner nations, which means that a pilot from any nation can fly any aircraft. Australian pilots will continue to be trained at Luke for the time being but training will be transitioned back to Australia and conducted from the impressive and newly constructed Integrated Training Centre (ITC), within 2 OCU at Williamtown, in the near future.
The ITC will be the hub of training operations at 2 OCU and includes simulator bays, classified areas, classrooms and a flight line and hangar which is able to accommodate seven aircraft. The facility shares the common high security precinct with 3 Sqn and (later) 77 Sqn. Speaking to ADM ahead of the initial delivery, GPCAPT John Haly said that the RAAF is seeking to adapt the US Air Force’s training curriculum to meet the requirements of the local training paradigm as the training is transitioned back to Australia.
“As we get to the execution phase, we’ll adapt it as we need to. We are looking for opportunities to accelerate transition of pilots from the Hornet to the F-35, including running additional transition courses in Australia if that option is available to us.”
ADM understands that the IOC milestone at the end of 2020 will be the point at which full operational F-35 pilot training will begin at the Integrated Training Centre. The first two (of six) Full Mission Simulators (FMS) had already been installed in the ITC and were due to be commissioned by the end of 2018.
Lockheed Martin Australia’s Andy Doyle said that the company is working to integrate Australian small to medium enterprises (SMEs) into the training services team it has at Williamtown. One such company is Milskil, selected in March 2018 to deliver a range of F-35 training services.
“Milskil has a well-established record in fast jet training for the RAAF in Australia. It has been doing that for a couple of years and is now subcontracted to Lockheed Martin,” Doyle told ADM. “During the course of 2018 we have been conducting on the job training and train the trainer induction for Milskil staff to fulfil their roles as we go into the period post-first aircraft arrival.”
Doyle added that initial training of Milskil personnel will be conducted in the US, essentially undergoing the same training as Lockheed Martin instructor pilots.
“We’ll have the capabilities to provide ongoing training to the contractor instructor workforce,” Doyle added. “The intent over the medium term is that we will grow the local capability with training staff and knowledge transfer from expatriate staff, but then withdraw the expatriate staff so what we will have is an Australian-based contractor workforce.”
Training of maintenance personnel has already begun at Williamtown, with some small-group test courses being undertaken in conjunction with Lockheed Martin. By the end of November 2018 14 students were undergoing training within the ITC and full courses will begin in Australia in 2019.
Training equipment already delivered to Williamtown includes an Ejection System Maintenance Trainer and Weapons Load Trainer, manufactured by EDM Ltd.
The eight aircraft delivered in LRIP 10, including both jets currently at Williamtown, were delivered with the latest version 3F (Final) software, which is the configuration required by the RAAF for IOC. Australia was also the first F-35 partner nation to be flying aircraft anywhere in the world with the 3F version fitted, according to Defence. Australia’s first two aircraft were delivered with an earlier iteration of software and one of these has already been upgraded with 3F and the other was in the final stages of upgrade in the US at the end of 2018.
Australia has also invested in a software programming laboratory known as the Australia, Canada, UK Research Laboratory (ACURL), shared with the UK and located at Eglin AFB in Florida. Should Canada select the F-35 in the future, it too will join with Australia and the UK. Similar facilities either exist or are under construction at Eglin for the US Air Force, US Navy and US Marine Corps (USRL) and Norway and Italy (NIRL). A further laboratory is being constructed at Naval Air Station Pt Mugu in California, to support Foreign Military Sales (FMS) customers such as Israel, Japan and the Republic of Korea.
The ACURL was commissioned in June 2018 and after a period gathering experience using tools supplied by Lockheed Martin, the facility will be able to produce Mission Data Files (MDF) for Australia’s F-35As.
Also in 2018, SRC Australia won a Defence contract to produce data sets for operational missions for the F-35 and to deliver the Ghosthawk mission support system used to produce trusted mission data sets and supply mission data to the ACURL.
Benefit to industry
One of the advertised benefits of being an F-35 partner nation is the opportunity for local industry to win work which, it is hoped, will read across the entire production life of the aircraft, providing the individual companies are able to remain competitive.
Speaking at the arrival ceremony, Minister for Defence Steve Ciobo told invited guests that the F-35 had created significant opportunities for Australia’s defence industry. “Australian industry is manufacturing parts that will be fitted to every F-35 in production globally, and more than 50 Australian companies have directly shared in $1.2 billion in production contracts to date,” he said.
“Up to 1,500 contractors have worked on the construction of facilities to accommodate the F-35A at RAAF Base Williamtown, representing approximately one billion dollars of investment in the Hunter region alone.”
According to Lockheed Martin, the F-35 program is responsible for the creation of 2,400 jobs and BAE Systems Australia chief executive Gabby Costigan predicted further opportunities in the sustainment space.
“We expect that our F-35 sustainment activities at Williamtown will see about 400 jobs created over the next 10 years and a requirement for this level of employment over the 30-plus years of the contract,” she said. “Sustainment activities will also create opportunities for our Australian partners and supply chain.”
BAE Systems Australia announced it had been assigned the role of the F-35 Regional Warehouse for Asia-Pacific by the US Government in August 2017 and back in 2015 it had been assigned the role of Southern Pacific Regional Depot Airframe Maintenance, Repair, Overhaul and Upgrade provider for the F-35 from early 2018.
More recently, TAE Aerospace (formerly TAE Australia) announced in February 2018 it had been selected as the regional maintenance, repair, overhaul and upgrade provider for the F-35s Pratt & Whitney F135 engine. To cater for the additional work, which is expected to begin in the first quarter of 2019, the company recently purchased a larger facility at Bundamba near Ipswich in South-East Queensland, close to its existing complex at RAAF Amberley.
“Industrial based participation from Australia, not only in component repair but also in airframe, propulsion and warehousing (is) a cornerstone of the Pacific region’s ability for the F-35 to operate and win,” VADM Mat Winter (USN), head of the JPO told guests at the arrival ceremony on December 10. “Twenty-four months from now we’ll be standing here (to celebrate) IOC and I can guarantee you that’s going to go by in a heartbeat.”
To IOC and beyond
The IOC milestone to be declared at the end of 2020 will represent the ability of 3 Sqn to deploy as a combat force.
“We’ll be operating the aircraft through 2019 and building up to having eight aircraft at Williamtown by the end of next year, together with between 10 and 12 pilots,” Chief of Air Force AIRMSHL Davies said. “We’ll also be conducting maintenance training and on the job training for our maintenance personnel and we’ll also look to start training ourselves, so we’ll be building up towards IOC in a couple of years’ time.”
Between IOC and Final Operational Capability (FOC) due at the end of 2023, the training system at Williamtown will be matured and, as further aircraft are delivered off the Lockheed Martin production line, the second operational fighter squadron at Williamtown (77 Sqn) will transition to the aircraft. Once this has been achieved and after the capital works program at Tindal is complete, the third squadron (75) will begin their transition to the fifth-generation fighter. By the end of 2023, all being well, the final F/A-18A/B Hornets will have left RAAF service, after almost 40 years of continuous service.
The next major software upgrade, Block 4, is also expected to be released early next decade and rolled out to the international fleet. A critical feature of this software will be its ability to host a maritime strike weapon, which is an important requirement for Australia. The Royal Norwegian Air Force is integrating the Kongsberg Joint Strike Missile (JSM) into its F-35As with the arrival of the Block 4 upgrade. In 2017, BAE Systems Australia partnered with Kongsberg to develop a Passive RF (PRF) sensor for the JSM and although Defence is yet to make a decision, ADM understands the weapon is a reference capability for future acquisition.
Further into the future, the Government of the day will need to make a decision around whether to upgrade the Super Hornet, or replace the capability with a similar number of F-35s, which would be acquired under a third tranche of Air 6000 and take the total number of F-35As to 100 as mentioned earlier in this story.
At the delivery ceremony, ADM asked Defence Minister Christopher Pyne if any decision had been made.
“No, we haven’t made a decision about the last tranche of Joint Strike Fighters, if there is going to be one,” he said in response.
“We are currently acquiring 72 and we’re very happy with the arrival of the first two.”
The final word
The F-35 has always had its fair share (some would argue more than its fair share) of critics and it was these people AIRMSHL Davies was addressing when he said the “Naysayers can take a seat” at the delivery ceremony.
Certainly, the international JSF program has had its share of technical difficulties and will likely to encounter more as the aircraft matures in service. It is also undeniably much later than initially promised, and here it’s worth noting that the ‘bridging capability’ represented by the Super Hornet had been in service in Australia for the best part of a decade before the first F-35s touched down at Williamtown.
From a capability standpoint however Group Captain John Haly, Director of the Air Combat Transition Office and a former Hornet and Super Hornet pilot, told ADM that the feedback from pilots who have flown the aircraft is overwhelmingly positive.
“The world has moved on with regard to fighter technology. What we need in a fifth-generation aircraft is adaptive technology which fits into the larger fabric of the fighting force,” he said. “It’s no longer about individual platforms, but about what they can do together.”
Using the analogy of mobile phone technology, which used to place the emphasis on being as thin and as light as practical but now on multi-functional capability at the expense of size and weight, GPCAPT Haly is “highly confident” that the F-35A is the best air combat solution for Australia, given the timeframe in which it is being acquired.
“From a fighter pilot’s perspective, the proof in the pudding for me is what aircraft I would want my children to be flying if they chose to follow in my footsteps,” he added. “I have confidence in the capability that is coming with the aircraft and, in particular, when its capability is combined with the rest of the ADF’s force structure.”
And the final, final word, must go to a visibly pleased Chief of Air Force at the arrival ceremony.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” he asked, waving his arm towards the parked aircraft, “How do you make a Chief happy?”
This article first appeared in the February 2019 edition of ADM.