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Outgoing Lockheed F-35 Chief Reflects on Program

Mar. 29, 2013 - 09:45AM   |  
By AARON MEHTA   |   Comments
Tom Burbage, Lockheed Martin executive vice president and general manager of F-35 Program Integration, is stepping down at the end of the month.
Tom Burbage, Lockheed Martin executive vice president and general manager of F-35 Program Integration, is stepping down at the end of the month. (Army Times Publishing Co.)
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WASHINGTON — With his retirement from Lockheed Martin looming at the end of the month, Tom Burbage, one of the leading figures of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program over the last decade, took some time to reflect on the fifth-generation fighter.

“The fundamental airplane is going to be there,” Burbage told a group of reporters Tuesday. “It’s going to be late, it’s going to be more expensive than we thought to do the development, but it’s still going to be there, which I think that’s the ultimate metric.”

“I don’t know what the timeline will be,” he continued. “I’m hoping that it will be on a reasonable timeline. I think we have a new leadership that’s gonna drive the program where it needs to be. It’s a new day going forward. I think it will happen. I think all three airplanes will be flying in the services, and it’s just a question of time, now.

“Running the F-35 enterprise by most measures is actually more complicated than running some of the business enterprises that are companies,” Burbage said, highlighting both the rapid growth of the program — roughly 180 employees in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2001 became about 4,000 in 2002 — and the fact that multiple companies and countries would be coming together to work jointly on the fighter.

“It wouldn’t fit into a Lockheed culture, it wouldn’t fit into a Northrop culture. We had to build a more inclusive culture because we were going to be bringing on a lot of other companies and countries.”

Burbage leaves as Lockheed’s executive vice president and general manager of program integration for the F-35, but he spent most of his time with the program interacting with the eight partner nations that support the program. He feels confident he is leaving the program’s international aspects at a high note.

“The program’s in a different point and time now” than when it started, Burbage said. “The partners are much more mature in both their industry participation and in their plans.”

Burbage reiterated that he did not expect another final assembly and check out (FACO) facility to be built aside from the facility in Italy and the proposed FACO in Japan, which he said would be operated by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

While he acknowledged the decision to develop the F-35 as a joint program with a number of partners led to complications, Burbage stood by the decision as the right one for the jet — but offered some advice on how to do things differently.

“If you’re thinking about doing a large sixth gen, or a large military project that involves multiple companies and maybe multiple countries, take a hard look at F-35 because there were some hard lessons that were learned there,” Burbage said.

“Whoever is on the primary team, you want to have them all on the same set of tools when you start,” he said. Numbers of systems, designed for a variety of companies trying to talk to each other in different languages, won’t work. A future project needs to make sure they are all using the same systems from the very start.

“It took us a while to get to that on the program,” he said.

He also said a joint program needs to fully understand what restrictions there are from an International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) perspective.

“Historically, we always built the airplane and sold it through FMS channels,” Burbage said. “On this program, up front, we had to figure out how do you involve industry early on and how does the system work.

“It’s hard to sustain a vision of a new order of things over a long period of time,” Burbage said, and noted that the program has been heavily impacted due to geopolitical events outside its control.

“Who would have predicted a Eurozone crisis for all the international partners in Europe? Who would have predicted the shift to the Middle East and the pivot to the Pacific?”

The focus on Asia has “actually had a pretty big effect” on the JSF program as a whole, leading to two new partners in Japan and, potentially, South Korea.

“Those countries, by the way, are bigger quantity buyers than almost every one of the European buyers, so as they do come online they can help on this production,” Burbage noted.

When asked how far behind schedule the program was, Burbage said it depended on what metric is used. If judged by initial operating capability (IOC), the program is five years behind where it was originally scheduled, with IOC on the Marine’s jump-jet F-35B model scheduled for 2015. If judged by the delivery of low-rate initial production lots, Burbage said, the program is about a year or two behind initial schedules.

However, he insisted that judging the program by the seven-year delay to full-rate production is a mistake because of the massive restructuring in the program that took place in 2010.

“I would argue the program post-2010 is not the program pre-2010, modified slightly. It’s really a new program,” Burbage said, and noted that since then milestones have “generally” been met. “The program is so big that a small bump in the road is a big bump in the road,” he said.

“It’s a tough program. It’s technically a very challenging program. This airplane is going to have the capabilities that can transform the joint coalition operational model, and it’s going to be effective for a long time.”

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