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Challenging times ahead as complex task of long-term F-35 support and sustainment begins

alis at eglin credit usaf
Autonomic Logistics Information System at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Image via US Air Force

Australia’s first two F-35 Lightning II aircraft arrive in Australia in December, with 70 to follow, along with a commitment to long-term support that will far exceed the initial purchase price.

Australia’s first two F-35 Lightning II aircraft arrive in Australia in December, with 70 to follow, along with a commitment to long-term support that will far exceed the initial purchase price.

That will present enormous opportunities and challenges for Lockheed Martin, for Australian industry and for the RAAF.

Neale Prescott, Lockheed Martin Australia director of business development, said this was an exciting time.


“The Air Force will have the aircraft in Australia. They will start employing it. These next five years are going to be the gauge for how well we are able to utilise that and how well Lockheed Martin and Australian industry can support it,” he said in an interview with Defence Connect.

Australia is buying 72 F-35s, a fifth-generation combat aircraft far more capable and more complex than any before. As older aircraft types are retired, Australia may eventually acquire as many as 100.

Defence’s Integrated Investment Program 2016 nominates a total procurement cost of $15.3 billion for the initial 72 aircraft with additional outlays for support infrastructure.

$40bn lifetime support cost

Defence calculates lifetime support costs for complex capabilities at double to two-and-a-half times the initial acquisition, which for F-35 would be around $40 billion out to mid-century and perhaps beyond.

Prescott said the RAAF, industry and Lockheed Martin were ready for the arrival of F-35.

“We have grown things very quickly in the Hunter region to support it. The level of maturity there is developing,” he said.

“We are very much about grabbing hold of this new capability. The Air Force has put in a lot of effort there. We have an offboard information system centre. We have an international training centre. We have deployable and sovereign data management systems in place.”

Mr Prescott said all those systems were in their infancy.

“We are grabbing hold of new technology as Australia often does. The key for us now is to learn how to use it to the best possible effect as quickly as we possibly can.”

Australia’s program for sustaining the F-35s has been under development long before any aircraft actually touched down on Australian territory.

The RAAF plans to achieve Initial Operating Capability in December 2020 and Final Operating Capability in 2023.

It was always planned that the RAAF would undertake routine operational support while the defence industry would perform the deeper maintenance on Australian and other aircraft.

In 2015, the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) in the Pentagon announced that Australia would be the Regional F-35 Airframe depot for the south Pacific, with work centred on the BAE Systems Australia facility adjacent to RAAF Williamtown, NSW.

At the same time, Queensland firm TAE was selected to provide heavy maintenance for the F-35’s Pratt and Whitney F135 engine.

In November 2016, the JPO also announced a number of Australian companies had been chosen to provide depot-level maintenance for 64 F-35 components, including avionics, aircraft structures, electrical and refuelling, the auxiliary power system, hydraulics and pneumatics, landing gear and life support systems.

Last August, BAE Systems at Williamtown was chosen for the F-35 regional warehouse.

The JPO still has to assign repair work for a further block of F-35 components.

Huge opportunity for industry

Prescott said there were huge opportunities for other Australian businesses to start participating on F-35 support.

“Also there will be ongoing aspects of the production and subsequent modification of the aircraft as they introduce new capabilities,” he said.

Prescott said the F-35 was profoundly different to earlier aircraft in its integrated support system known as Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) - a software-based system designed to capture all aspects of aircraft use, warehousing of spares and certification of maintainers and operators.

“ALIS is used to do prognostic assessment, in effect to forecast when failure might occur or when things might need to be replaced,” he said.

“The whole philosophy around that is instead of having a regular schedule of downtime, you are actually forecasting it based on conditions you are using it in.”

Prescott cited a simple analogy of scheduled 5,000-kilometre oil filter changes in a car. ALIS would make that sooner in harsh conditions but much longer in benign conditions.

ALIS also looks at the worldwide F-35 fleet and draws lessons that might be relevant to Australia.

“In a sustainment sense what we are going to find is that those companies involved in support are going to need to understand how to use the information and also adapt to this just-in-time approach,” he said.

Because of its complexity, development of ALIS has experienced various delays and problems, like the F-35 program as a whole.

F-35 sniping not helpful

Prescott said the criticism of F-35 was driven to some extent by some rivalries and desire for personal fame.

“We have seen this in the past with major Australian programs. People have been critical about aircraft and submarines and subsequently the nation has been very proud of the capability,” he said.

“We really have a lot to be proud of. We need to improve the level of debate and the level of assessment of how we go about defence acquisition. It’s good that people want to point out areas that should be improved but this sniping aspect is not helpful.”