The first Australian F-35A began the 'mate' process on Lockheed Martin's Fort Worth, Texas, production line this month. (Lockheed Martin)
CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA — Australia’s F-35A program is on track despite recent delays to flight tests caused by budget sequestration in the United States, according to the country’s head of New Air Combat Capability (NACC).
However, Air Vice Marshal Kym Osley said the NACC Project Office estimates there may be up to seven months of risk remaining in the development of the war-fighting capability software, known as Block 3F (Final). While this isn’t likely to affect Australian operational capability, which is not due until the end of 2020, it could affect US Marine Corps and Air Force plans.
The first Australian F-35A, known as AU-1, began the “mate” process on the Lockheed Martin production line in Fort Worth, Texas, on Oct. 7 and is due to roll out July 1, 2014. During the process, the aircraft’s structure is formed as major components are joined.
The Australian government reaffirmed its commitment to acquiring 72 F-35A fighters to replace its older F/A-18A/B Hornet fleet in May and has a potential requirement for 28 more, depending on future decisions involving its Super Hornets. The initial program of record for 72 aircraft is valued at AUS $3.2 billion (US $3.08 billion), based on 2009 figures.
Fourteen F-35As are approved. But so far only two have been ordered, with the second aircraft set to roll out in Fort Worth on Aug. 1. The first two will be used to train Australian F-35 pilots at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., before being delivered to Australia in 2018.
Speaking on his return to Australia, Osley said progress on the international Joint Strike Fighter program was also on track for US Marine Corps initial operating capability (IOC) in 2015 and the US Air Force in late 2016.
Stealth and flight performance are meeting expectations, he said, but flight testing is running behind schedule due to the effects of sequestration.
“Flight testing is behind schedule by around three weeks, due in part because of the furloughs imposed by sequestration,” Osley said. “A lot of the flight testing is done using US defense civilians, and they are trying to catch that back up but may not get that completed by the end of the year.
“There are some delays in the acceptance of airplanes, caused by the processes they are using,” he added. “It is not a significant delay, but aircraft are sitting around for a few tens of days before they are accepted and inducted by their various owners. The JPO [Joint Program Office] is currently looking at how they might streamline those procedures.”
Osley noted that testing of the F-35A variant is 40 percent to 45 percent complete and he saw no “showstoppers.”
He said the system’s design and development phase was fully funded and that the principal executive officer, Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, had briefed international partners at the recent JSF Executive Steering Board that funding was adequate.
Osley said Bogdan had also briefed the board that the US remains committed to purchasing 2,443 F-35s.
“The F-35 buy that was in progress at the time of sequestration, [low-rate initial production] 7, took around an 8 [percent] to 10 percent hit, but the US managed to negotiate a price with Lockheed Martin whereby all aircraft were procured within the cost cap, so it was quite a remarkable outcome that they didn’t reduce their number of aircraft at all,” he said. “As far as aircraft costs go, it was good news this year that LRIP 6 came out about 4 percent below LRIP 5, which was in turn below the estimated cost, and LRIP 7 was a further 4 percent below LRIP 6. Essentially, the costs of the airplane are coming in just under the congressionally estimated cost.
“From a hardware point of view, the airplane is developing very well, so I’m not laying awake at night worrying about hardware technical risks,” he said. “There is software risk; all software presents a risk and this is the most complex software ever, but I’m very pleased that the metrics are indicating it’s all heading in a very positive direction.”
Andrew Davies, a senior analyst from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the program is “showing signs of being much more tightly managed” than in years past.
“The cost reductions evident in LRIP 6 and 7 batches is very welcome and reflects a maturity of the production processes and design stability,” he said. “Software remains the potential Achilles’ heel of the program and is probably the area of most concern. In a platform as dependent on its computer processing power as the F-35, capability is tightly tied to the performance of its software suite and delays or underperformance will impact on capability — at least in the aircraft’s early days. That said, the management of the software program seems to have been tightened up and the recent critical design review of Block 3F software should have provided management with a clearer picture on its status.”
Bogdan has briefed international partners that the advanced training software, Block 2B, is on track to support US Marine Corps IOC in July 2015, but the Marines have a fallback plan of late 2015 if required.
The next software version is Block 3I (Initial), which has the same capabilities as Block 2B (the initial war fighter) but can be used outside the continental US by other nations, and Osley said it is on track for the end of 2015.
With Australian confidence high for on-time delivery of its F-35As, Osley said he is now focusing on ensuring local infrastructure and training will be in place to stand up the first operational squadron, representing IOC, in late 2020.