An F-35B jump-jet variant takes off from the amphibious assault ship Wasp during trial in August. Lockheed is focusing on having software ready to go for the Marine Corps variant's initial operating capability in 2015. (Lockheed Martin)
WASHINGTON — In 2013, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter added international partners, trained a record number of pilots, hit a number of milestones, and perhaps most importantly, saw vastly improved relations between the Pentagon and its corporate partners.
There were hiccups along the way — most notably at the start of the year, when two different issues grounded first the F-35B and then the entire fleet over safety concerns — but as the calendar turned, the program looked to be in its strongest position since Lockheed Martin won the contract.
Lorraine Martin, the head of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 program, described 2013 as “transformative,” with a focus on maturing the program, not only the aircraft but capabilities and partnerships.
“You can really feel the momentum building on every single dimension of the program,” she said during a Dec. 13 trip paid for by the company.
But through the first three weeks of the year, the program has already seen two negative news stories — although neither can be blamed on the jet’s prime contractor.
On Sunday, news broke that Honeywell, part of the supply chain for the jet, is under investigation over the inclusion of parts produced in China in the F-35. A Honeywell spokesman said the company will cooperate fully with inspectors.
“There was never any risk of technology transfer or other security breach associated with these manufacturing compliance issues,” Joe DellaVedova, spokesman for the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO), said in a statement regarding the issue.
This followed news that a 59-year old former resident of Connecticut had been arrested for attempting to ship proprietary information on the F-35 and its engines to Iran.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s top acquisition official is keeping a close eye on software development.
“We’re not done. We’ve still got plenty to do,” Frank Kendall, Pentagon undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, told Defense News in a Dec. 13 interview. “But we’re way, way ahead of where we were a couple of years ago.
“I think the airframe itself is making reasonable progress through its test program,” Kendall said. “I’m concerned about the software, the operational software. I’m concerned about reliability, which is going to be an important driver for future cost and sustainment. And I’m concerned about the ALIS [Autonomic Logistics Information System], that is another software system, basically that will provide the logistics support to the systems. And making sure that all of those pieces are moving forward together, not just the airframe, but the other things as well.”
Kendall also indicated he wants to make sure Lockheed and its partners maintain a “balanced approach” to developing software builds for the future.
The F-35 is powered by millions of lines of code, and software issues have plagued the plane in the past. Each of the three US services will reach initial operating capability (IOC) with different software packages.
The F-35B will go operational for the US Marines in December 2015 with the Block 2B software, while the the Air Force plans on achieving IOC on the F-35A in December 2016 with Block 3I, which is essentially the same software on more powerful hardware. The Navy intends to go operational with the F-35C in February 2019, on the Block 3F software.
Flight tests of the 3I software will begin in first quarter 2014 and continue into 2015, Lockheed confirmed.
The high-tech ALIS is at the core of operations, maintenance and supply-chain management for the F-35, providing a constant stream of data from the plane to supporting staff. According to Lockheed figures, ALIS has supported more than 6,600 sorties.
Right now, Lockheed is focused on making sure ALIS is up and running in time for the Marine Corps IOC in late 2015, according to Mary Ann Horter, vice president for F-35 sustainment at Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Training.
In particular, Lockheed is working on a “deployable ALIS,” which will have a smaller physical footprint needed to go into the field with the Marines.
“Deployable ALIS will meet all the services’ requirements from a deployability standpoint,” Horter said. “There are other kinds of capabilities that each of the services, for their own mini [concepts of operation], are interested in, and that’s part of the long term development maturation plan. I would expect ALIS to continue to update as the aircraft software does to meet the user’s needs.”
“We still have to look from an affordability standpoint, what are the right capabilities for the entire weapons system,” Horter said. “So we work that through the JPO to make those sorts of decisions and trades from a cost-effective, as well as capabilities, standpoint.”
Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the head of the JPO, traveled to Lockheed’s facilities in Orlando Nov. 12-13 for a briefing on ALIS development.
DellaVedova said that while software remains the “number one technical challenge” on the program, the Pentagon believes ALIS is on track.
“While minor delays have occurred during the development, the JPO remains confident ALIS will be completed on schedule for the Marine Corps IOC,” DellaVedova said.
Both Martin and Kendall are on the same page about ramping up production.
“Quantity matters. Quantity absolutely matters right now on this program,” Martin said. “The [production] learning curve is still important, and it’s still enabling us to get work content off the line that’s not as efficient as it could be, but you start to learn that stuff. The silly stuff you learn fast and, as you go forward, you start to really refine how you produce the aircraft. Then the big driver to bring cost out is quantity.
“We’re at the point where we need both of them, and soon, quantity will be the biggest driver for us,” Martin continued. “If you buy more, they will be cheaper. There just is no doubt.
“We have been flat for four years, around 30 [to] 36 aircraft. If it doesn’t increase, it will dampen out our ability to get costs out.”
Whether there is an increase in the number of planes ordered for low-rate initial production lot 8 will depend on the US budget situation. That lot is being negotiated with the Pentagon, and Martin said her company submitted pricing options for “variable quantities” of planes to give the Defense Department flexibility based on the budget situation.
“Consistent with what budgets are going to be, we’re going to try to ramp up production,” Kendall said. “I’ve got a budget, I think, to ramp up production. Our allies help us a lot there. There are a lot of foreign sales coming in in the next round. They’ll give us an increase and give us some efficiencies that we’ll all benefit from. What we were able to do on the DoD side is going to depend on budget priorities primarily.”