CANBERRA, Australia — The head of the F-35 International Joint Program Office told Australian officials that a block buy across low rate initial production lots 12, 13 and 14 is still possible despite the US services not being able to fully participate.
US Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan was in Canberra to testify at a Senate inquiry into Australia’s purchase of 72 F-35A aircraft to replace its F/A-18A/B Hornet fleet. Prior to the Senate hearing and on the eve of the release of Australia’s defense white paper on Wednesday, he briefed Australian reporters on the Joint Strike Fighter program.
The US has told the program office that it cannot participate in a block buy of jets until at least LRIP 13.
“There is a way that you can start a block buy for the partners and the FMS [Foreign Military Sales] customers in [LRIP] Lot 12, and have the US services join in Lot 13,” he said.
“You won’t get quite as much savings but in fact, most of the savings in that scenario falls to the US services, because they didn’t come in early. So for the partners it’s still a good value proposition and we are still pursuing it.”
Bogdan said the estimated cost to the partners and FMS customers would be between 5 and 10 percent cheaper than aircraft in LRIP 11, despite the delay in US participation and more than US $2 billion in savings across the 14 customers.
“That is a lot of money to save, if you’re going to buy airplanes anyway,” he added.
Bogdan said that with production costs coming down, by 2019 an F-35A will cost between $80 million and $85 million, in 2019 dollars.
The next major milestone is US Air Force initial operational capability (IOC), which is due on Aug. 1. Bogdan identified stability problems being experienced by the current software version, 3i, and the development of the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) as the two major threats.
The 3i software is essentially the same as version 2B, which was incorporated into US Marines’ jets for their IOC last year, but is hosted on different processors. Flight testing has revealed problems with the fusion of data from the F-35's sensors, which causes the system to reset on average once every four flight hours.
“That’s not good enough. Our expectation is that an event like this would happen maybe once in every eight hours, which is about the standard for legacy airplanes,” Bogdan said.
“We are back in the software labs at Fort Worth right now, putting the fixes in place [and] we will flight test those fixes with those airplanes in the April/May time frame. If those fixes work, which I think they should, we’ll be ready to roll those fixes back into the software that the Air Force needs by Aug. 1.
“If those fixes don’t work and we have more work to do, that’s where the risk comes in for meeting US Air Force IOC.”
With regard to ALIS, Bogdan said that the latest software iteration should be installed in time to meet Air Force IOC, with the aim of being able to turn jets around in two hours. The system, although much-improved, is currently taking around two and a half hours.
“ALIS is a tough system to develop properly and we have had all sorts of problems with it over the years. It is getting better but it is nowhere where we need it to be,” he said.
“ALIS in the July time frame is going to be difficult. I’d probably put one or two months of risk on delivering the ALIS capabilities that we need.”
Further out, Bogdan said the development of the definitive 3F software version carried about four months of risk at the present time.
“Right now 3F is in flight test and, because of the problems we’re finding with Block 3 software, I would tell you that my estimate for the completion of Block 3F is probably running the risk of about four months later than I’d like it to be,” he said.
Australia has two aircraft at Luke Air Force base, used in the training of pilots, and its next batch of aircraft, eight jets, will be built in LRIP 10; six will go to Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, and two will arrive in Australia at the end of 2018 for local operational test and evaluation.
IOC is set to occur at the end of 2020, represented by one operational fighter squadron and the standing up of a local training system. Air Vice Marshal Chris Deeble, head of Australia’s Joint Strike Fighter program, said that most of the risk with the platform should have been worked through by that time, but there were some local challenges.
“The challenge that we see is actually the integration of that capability into Australia,” Deeble said.
“So, ensuring we have ALIS integrated into our defense information environment and ensuring that we have a training system that’s capable of conducting maintenance training from the end of 2018 [and] pilot training from the end of 2020. Those issues represent risk to us.”