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Inside the F-35 Lightning II

Lockheed Martin opens up its F-35 production facility to provide an update on its fifth generation fighter program


January 28, 2020
By Dean Black
As a true fifth-generation fighter, the Lockheed Martin F-35 is a key Canadian Future Fighter contender, particularly with the country’s early 1997 participation in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program. Photo: Lockheed Martin

On July 23, 2019, Canada released the formal Request for Proposals to eligible fighter aircraft suppliers. Suppliers now have until early 2020 to submit their proposals. As we go to press, there appears to be three contenders for Canada’s Future Fighter Capability Project (FFCP): Boeing (Super Hornet); Lockheed Martin (F-35 Lightning II) and Saab (Gripen). A target date of March 31, 2020, has been set for phase three of the FFCP to conclude, before moving on to phase four (Implementation and Contract Award) in 2022. Aircraft deliveries are to begin in 2025, and the aircraft chosen is anticipated to be in operation through 2060.

What is Canada seeking? Canada’s defence policy, Strong, Secure, Engaged, (SSE) outlines, “In order to counter today’s evolving threat environment, and remain highly interoperable with its allies and key operational partners, Canada will procure a fighter capability of 88 jets to replace the aging CF-18 fleet.” Key elements of this statement seem to be: an evolving threat; highly interoperable; and an aging fleet.

The SSE policy cites advanced fighters, anti-access area denial (A2AD) surface-to-air missile systems and evolving cyber threats as constituting aspects of the “evolving environment” within which the Canadian Armed Forces is expected to operate. Specific attributes of a future fighter include being “capable, upgradeable, resilient and interoperable with our allies and partners to ensure Canada continues to meet its NORAD and NATO commitments in the future.” The mission set envisaged for Canada’s future fighter involves enforcing Canada’s sovereignty, enabling continental security, and contributing to international peace and stability.

Controlling Canada’s vast airspace is paramount, “while maintaining an ability to simultaneously contribute to international operations, conduct pilot training, and to allow for maintenance and repair.” Acquisition of a future fighter is to include “associated equipment, weapons, and sustainment set-up and services to ensure an uninterrupted Canadian Fighter capability that leverages Canadian industry capabilities and contributes to economic growth and jobs.” Throughout this important process, and beyond, “Canada will continue to engage with stakeholders on advancing industrial and technological benefits for companies in Canada, and promoting innovation, ensuring best value and supporting Canada’s defence priorities.” In summary, “Canada will seek, through negotiations, commitments from industry that align with the Value Proposition (VP) strategic objectives.” What are these Value Proposition strategic objectives?

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Value for Canada
Commenting on possible elements of the value proposition seems possible, mindful of the most basic description of a value proposition as something that helps us avoid pain while also securing some sort of gain. The strategic objectives, on the other hand, are more difficult to ascertain. Exploring these ideas is helpful, when it comes to evaluating the (present) three contenders for the FFCP.

A February 2014 article on Canada’s Defence Procurement Strategy (DPS) seems helpful. According to the DPS there are three primary elements: “The Industrial and Technological Benefits program (ITB) to improve economic returns to Canada from defence purchases; a defence exports strategy; and new institutions and processes to improve governance and streamline defence acquisitions. Prime contractors on major Crown projects need to provide the government with detailed industrial plans on how their bid will benefit Canada’s economy in terms of exports, R&D, supply chain development for small- and medium-sized Canadian companies and defence sector growth. These value propositions to Canada will be rated and weighted in bid evaluations. Since the Guide’s release, we have seen nascent value propositions being applied.”

Further review of SSE provides more clues: Gains include advanced capabilities; maintaining an advantage over potential adversaries; and keeping pace with our Allies. These are some of the gains that flow from another: Namely, “fully leveraging defence innovation and technology.” The SSE also seems to stipulate the importance of “streamlined and flexible procurement arrangements”. This latest one speaks to a major pain the Department of National Defence has been struggling with, of late; specifically, an inability to spend as much as $2 billion in capital funds, each year for the past few years. The SSE also stresses the “unpredictable and complex” nature of the security environment. In response, the RCAF is in need of solutions which “integrate Command and Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance and operational and long-term target setting and support within a Five Eyes environment.”

In early November, a Canadian media contingent traveled to Fort Worth, Texas, and to Phoenix, Arizona. The purpose of the visit was to learn from the F-35 Lightning II manufacturer the status of their 5th generation fighter program. The visit also provided an opportunity to speak to F-35 operators within the United States Air Force at Luke Air Force Base, home to an important flight training facility. In late August of this year, Valerie Insinna of the New York Times Magazine, wrote, “The first batch [of F-35s] cost US$241.2 million per plane. In June of this year, Lockheed and the Pentagon announced the price of the F-35A [would soon] drop to the US$80 million [level].”

During the media visit to Ft Worth, a briefing by Lockheed Martin officials confirmed Insinna’s discussion point, revealing the cost of an F-35 has indeed fallen to US$77.9 million. There are many reasons for this positive outcome, some to be expected, others to be praised even more so. In terms of the expected, Walter Kiechel III writes in his book, The Lords of Strategy, “…as early as 1925, manufacturers of aircraft had begun to observe that the amount of labour that went into making an aircraft declined predictably as the number of planes manufactured increased. Typically, the fourth plane took only 80 per cent of the labour required to make the second, the eighth only 80 per cent of what had gone into the fourth.”

More than 455 F-35 Lightning II aircraft have now been delivered to 20 bases, 13 customers and nine nations, around the world . Eight services, including the USAF, US Navy and the United States Marine Corp (USMC), have declared Initial Operational Capability (IOC), with over 230,000 flying hours amassed on the airframes thus far. The number of pilots trained now exceeds 955, while more than 8,475 maintenance personnel are now qualified on the F-35 program. It is to be noted that the USAF, the United States Marine Corps, the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Israeli Air Force all have also flown into combat with the F-35.

Expansion of the F-35 to more than 30 bases is underway, with more than 860 aircraft expected to be delivered by 2022. More importantly, the network of users and supply locations is growing quickly, which bodes well for current and future users of the aircraft, mindful of the fact the security environment can require them to operate their fleet anywhere the need arises. As utilization of the F-35 expands, around the world, so to do sources of expertise, maintenance, sustainment and supplies. This unified endeavour – nine nations and growing – from a sustainment perspective raises the possibility of improved networking at falling costs.

As more aircraft reach the line, and as more hours are put on the growing number of airframes, Lockheed Martin’s maintenance and sustainability experience is growing seemingly in leaps and bounds. This part of the manufacturer’s program is also reaping dividends. Condition-based maintenance is a user-focused capability built-in to the system, to allow the user greater control over when to take an airframe off the line before break down can be expected. Air Forces understand unscheduled maintenance is what drives manpower demands; consequently, the condition-based maintenance capability helps air forces better manage manpower much more effectively, when it comes to fighter aircraft maintenance.

Canadian contributions to the manufacture of the F-35 are numerous. More than 20 Canadian firms are providing key elements of the Lightning II, but the number of domestic firms contributing to the F-35 is much higher. For example, Magellan Aerospace supplies parts for the horizontal tail, and other parts for the armaments bay. Canadian expertise in composite parts, locking mechanisms, lighting, circuit boards, navigation aids, electronic warfare capabilities and engine health monitoring systems contributes to the F-35’s growing capabilities.

Current projections see US$80 million at most for each jet, an 80 per cent and higher mission capable rate and up to US$25,000 operating expense per flight hour, as a goal by 2025. Canada’s F-35 “Program of Record” involves 88 aircraft, 110-plus Canadian companies contributing to the manufacturing process; thousands of jobs and more than US$1.5 billion in contracts over the life of the entire F-35 program. Canada has extended the EBA or economics benefits agreement, as an important framework to consider by those crafting a value proposition for the FFCP.

Sustainment is designed right into the airframe, but, as with some of F-35’s remarkable operational capabilities, these sustainment attributes are one of those things you cannot really see. The F-35 also holds unique design characteristics not seen on previous fighter aircraft. For example, the canopy is unusual in that it is hinged at the front, not the rear. Doing so provided a lighter moment-arm, meaning the motor can be smaller, and this means the motor lasts longer. Since the canopy opens toward the front, it does not have to be removed when removal of the ejection seat is needed. These and other non-traditional designs have cut significant sustainment hours traditionally much higher on the F-35s predecessors. For example, removing a rear-opening canopy, so as to remove the ejection seat, typically takes more than three hours on other aircraft. Another example of a unique time-saving design involves the use of pneumatics.

Traditional aircraft have used explosive shells to aid in dropping armaments and fuel tanks, etc. However, since the F-35 uses pneumatics (air pressure) all the maintenance-personnel-hours required to clean up (brush parts) explosive shell remnants on aircraft parts are a thing of the past. Additionally, the vast majority of Line-replacement units (LRUs) – as many as 95 per cent – are 1st-tier removable. No longer is there any need to remove 1st- and 2nd- tier LRU boxes to get at the 3rd- tier boxes in behind all the others. This save an enormous amount of time. Furthermore, 86 per cent of the boxes are hidden behind Low Observability (LO) panels that do not require restoration, afterwards. When it comes to LO restoration, on the F-35, those trained for this critical work have declared the aircraft is much less demanding when it comes to the LO restoration needs experienced with the F-117, B-2 and the F-22. Lockheed Martin leaders readily quip that the LO shop at Eglin Air Force Base has the best volleyball team on the base.

During the visit to Luke AFB, our media representatives saw first-hand the F-35/USAF sustainment tool known as Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) being put to good use. The ALIS is at the heart of the F-35s promising reduced maintenance demands. The ALIS is referred to as a “sustainment tool” which is engineered alongside the F-35 offering efficiencies and greater cost effectiveness. High fidelity information about the F-35 fleet is tracked within ALIS to help reduce operations and maintenance costs and increase aircraft availability. “ALIS turns data from many sources into actionable information, enabling pilots, maintainers and military leaders to make proactive decisions to keep jets flying.”

A review of fuel tank checks is a case-in-point. On the F-15 and the F-16 up to six maintenance personnel were required to conduct routine checks on the fuel tanks and valves. With the F-35 only one technician is needed. The engine need not run, as the technician can perform all of the checks using one laptop and one button. With strict reference to aircraft maintenance labour tasks, maintenance technician numbers may be reduced from ten to three personnel per aircraft. Such a reduction makes no consideration of operating conditions and mission-objectives, lest anyone think to reduce personnel numbers without carefully considering other factors unique to your own air force.

Maintenance developments
In addition to learning more about the F-35 in operations, our media visit participants learned about some very innovative maintenance developments: B.O.L.T.; and L.I.T.T. The BOLT program combines maintenance-specific Air Force specialty codes, essentially job descriptions, into two career tracks. Maintainers in the air vehicle track are crew chiefs, fuels and low observable technicians. Airmen in the mission systems track focus on avionics, weapons and egress. This training allows a single Airman to perform multiple inspections and do the associated work required in areas where they are qualified. They don’t have to wait for qualified Airmen from other specialties to complete inspections or any required fixes on the aircraft.

“The BOLT Airmen who are here with us offer widespread benefit. They will allow us to deploy the same aircraft with a smaller number of Airmen than we would at home station,” said Col. Michael Miles, 388th Maintenance Group commander. “This is a new way to train our Airmen to be more operationally focused and that ties directly to the primary mission sets of the F-35A.” The goal of the BOLT program is less down time, more productivity and a smaller maintenance footprint required for each jet. Reducing the size of the maintenance force allows commanders more combat flexibility for quickly deploying a small number of aircraft to a remote airfield with fewer Airmen.

Secondly, we also learned about a 2018 Luke Air Force Base initiative to increase F-35A Lightning II maintenance efficiency through the creation of a team of unified maintenance specialties called Lightning Integrated Technicians, which has expanded. Maintainers from independent career fields, including crew chiefs, avionics, weapons and low-observable technicians, who operate separately in traditional maintenance, were integrated into a single coordinated team using cross utilization training and shared work procedures. Senior enlisted members initially created a 1,225-task Career Field Education Training Plan, consisting of all core tasks derived from the four included career fields.

Leadership has consolidated these tasks to a 258-task CFETP and a total job listing of approximately 900 core maintenance procedures that the LIT members should be able to perform. In the past, sections performed career-specific tasks with minimal coordination with other sections, however, LIT team members work consistently on the same jet, making it easier for them to track and plan all maintenance performed. “One of the biggest challenges pilots face is continuity of operations. Whether it’s a stable turn pattern, predictably reliable aircraft, or upcoming training phases – our success depends on the trust that our maintainers deliver safe and operational aircraft,” said Lt. Col. Peter Lee, 62nd Fighter Squadron commander.

“The LIT concept has helped our maintainers see the continuity of the jet they’re assigned to not just as a dedicated crew chief, but as a team responsible for that jet.”

In terms of flying the F-35, the aircraft’s break from the traditional fighter capabilities was evident in the discourse offered by pilots who have amassed hundreds of flying hours. To understand the significant differences between the 5th generation F-35, and its 4th (and older) generation counterparts, we were encouraged to consider the impact of low observability technology, on tactics, and the benefits of all the various intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) sensors and other equipment all built right into the airframe.

The F-35 Lightning II employs “nose-to-tail” low observability (LO) processes and technology. Embedding antennas into the skin, for example, is the kind of design feature that makes it quite a challenge for even other 5th generation fighters to detect the F-35. Additionally, the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar early types of which introduced with some 4th generation aircraft, is a significant capability of the F-35. This capability is comparable to Airborne Early Warning and Control (AWACs) capabilities offered by other aircraft, previously, but in the F-35 the AESA radar does not present a “radar return” to the pilot, as did previous generation (2nd and 3rd) generation fighters. Instead, “…on the F-35 targets are presented to the pilot, who then places the cursor over top of the presented target(s) and the display reveals how many of and which sensors are contributing to that presentation, not just from that particular pilot’s aircraft but from all the other networked assets to which the pilot’s aircraft is linked.”

From a defense perspective, the ability to deploy a low-observable, networked sensor output-capable, 5th generation fighter like the F-35 is itself a significant deterrence. It messes with the enemy commander’s efforts to develop strategy and tactics, because the situation is much less clear to that commander than would otherwise be the case. It forces the enemy to honour the likelihood you are there, even though you are undetectable. It forces the enemy commander to accept you probably already know what they are planning, thinking and capable of, all the while you have done so without showing yourself, and without revealing who might be with you.

These are the elements of an evolving operational effectiveness that may be drawn from use of the F-35. In the mid-1980s, deployments to NATO’s north flank with the Allied Command Europe Mobile Force (Land) (AMF(L)) involved commanders who believed the best deterrence came not from hiding assets under camouflage nets, or deep in the forests of northern Norway. No; instead, commanders demanded deterrence come from flying all our flags, dismantling camouflage nets and parking all our assets out in the open, for the enemy to see. Today, the security environment is significantly different, far more complex. The essential requirement to work through strategist John Boyd’s Observe-Orient-Decide-Act loop faster than the enemy can, in the field, benefits from remaining undetected, for as long as possible. Stealth, from nose-to-tail low-observability, is the key. | W


Lieutenant-Colonel (Ret’d) Dean Black is Executive Director of RCAF Association and Publisher of Revue Airforce Magazine.