Cautious Optimism: The first F-35 joint strike fighter for Australia will roll off the assembly line this summer. (Lockheed Martin)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA AND FORT WORTH, TEXAS — Australia’s program to replace its F/A-18A/B Hornet fleet with F-35A joint strike fighters will achieve a significant milestone in July when the first aircraft rolls off the assembly line, followed by the second four weeks later.
On Dec. 13, that first aircraft transitioned from the Electronic Mate and Assembly System to the final assembly line at Fort Worth. It marked the first time the aircraft had stood on its own wheels.
The weight on wheels milestone came as confidence grows in Australia that, from a technical standpoint at least, the New Air Combat Capability (NACC) program will deliver under the latest timeline.
Retiring at the end of 2013, the outgoing head of the NACC program, Air Vice Marshal Kym Osley, said that from a hardware point of view, he saw the F-35A developing well. The Australian assessment, however, is that there is still about seven months of risk in the final software development, known as Block 3F (Final).
“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 heading in a positive direction. We now have a number of different reviews and independent analysis that indicates that the software is being developed in a very robust way and is making good progress,” he said.
“There is always the risk it is late or the capability deferred, and we’re very keen to keep a good eye on software and make sure we don’t see capability deferred and we don’t see any regression in the quality of software that we’re seeing being developed at this point.”
Osley said Australia is looking to declare initial operating capability (IOC), representing one operational squadron and a training unit, in Australia by the end of 2020. The military must retire the older Hornet fleet entirely by the end of 2022 if it wishes to avoid the cost and risk of a major structural refurbishment program. However, he said the minimum software requirement for IOC was the earlier 3I version, which the US Air Force plans for its IOC in 2016.
“Block 3F, which is the full war-fighter capability, is a few months behind schedule at the moment. A lot of effort has been put into 2B and 3I, but they have just completed the critical design review, and we assess it has about seven months’ worth of risk. That means that if no improvements are made and everything that could potentially go wrong does go wrong, then we think it will be around seven months late,” Osley said. “That is not an issue for Australia, because that would still have the software being delivered at the end of 2017 or early 2018, when we only really need it by 2020.”
Steve O’Bryan, Lockheed Martin’s vice president for F-35 business development and customer engagement, told reporters in December that the international F-35 program had been achieving its milestones since the program was re-baselined in 2010, describing it as “a much more normal development program.”
“We freely admit that we were overly optimistic at that time, but what you are seeing is a program that’s going through its normal development,” he said.
O’Bryan said Lockheed Martin is focusing on reducing airplane cost and improving reliability, but with around 700 F-35s planned in service by the time Australia declares IOC in 2020, he does not see this as a major risk to the NACC program.
“We need to keep going down the cost curve, but there’s a higher degree of confidence, because we know how much it costs to build an airplane; we’ve built 100 of them. We also need to continue to improve the reliability of the airplane. Things are tracking well, but we’re not declaring victory yet, we still have stuff to do.”
Osley said his focus had turned to the building of infrastructure in Australia to support the F-35A. “The real challenge for me is building all the facilities I need and integrating that airplane into our logistics system in Australia.”
“It’s establishing an autonomic logistics information system and connecting that system to the US and to other partner nations around the world.”
Also under consideration is the establishment of a regional maintenance facility in Australia, which would also service US F-35s.
“With sustainment, we really want to try and get ourselves in the position where Australian industry can offer regional opportunities as well as performing local sustainment. It’s a matter of us actually having the infrastructure to be able to carry out that regional sustainment and there’s still a lot of work to do there. It is a massive program in its own right,” said Air Commodore Cath Roberts, director general for NACC.
Australia has only two F-35As on order. A further 12 aircraft have been committed to, but if the Hornet is to be retired on schedule, three squadrons and a training unit are required by the end of 2022. This will take total procurement to 72 aircraft, with a further decision on a final batch of 28 to replace Australia’s newer F/A-18F Super Hornets to be taken sometime next decade.
The Royal Australian Air Force will submit its recommended buy profile for government consideration early this year, with a decision expected around April. Options include a single tranche of 72 aircraft or a phased approach requiring a series of government approvals.
“The hardest part of the F-35A is not the development program, it is getting a competent workforce to be able to operate an F-35A. The critical aspect is actually the pilot and maintenance training,” said Air Marshal Geoff Brown, Australia’s chief of Air Force.
“If we go for one tranche, we will better be able to plan out the retirement of the ‘classic’ F/A-18A/B and the transition of those personnel.”