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On Point: Correcting the record on JSF with Neale Prescott

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It is the largest defence project in history and has been billed as the future of air combat capability for Australia, the US, UK and other global allies. However, the F-35 has also been met with delays and questions about capability and cost, but for Neale Prescott, there is no doubt that F-35 will deliver the goods. 

It is the largest defence project in history and has been billed as the future of air combat capability for Australia, the US, UK and other global allies. However, the F-35 has also been met with delays and questions about capability and cost, but for Neale Prescott, there is no doubt that F-35 will deliver the goods. 

Recorded in our mobile studio in Orlando, host Phil Tarrant is joined by Neale Prescott, director of business development for Lockheed Martin Australia, to discuss the Australian arrival of the F-35 in December.  

Located in Canberra, Prescott is focused on the over-the-horizon-radar and wide-area surveillance systems. His recent responsibilities included Australia’s MH-60R anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare helicopter. Prescott joined Lockheed Martin in 1998 and has been involved in new business acquisition within Australia, the UK and Korea. 


A 1994 graduate from the US Air Force Institute of Technology, he has a Master of Science degree in electrical engineering with majors in electro-optic systems and digital signal processing. He served in the Royal Australian Air Force in operational squadrons, depot maintenance and in the force development as the sponsor of operational requirements for electronic warfare systems. 

This included engineering and management responsibilities associated with fixed and rotary wing aircraft. His service career included peacekeeping in the Australian Contingent to the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai desert.

In the latest edition of 'On Point', Prescott will correct the record on the F-35 and discuss the software system ALIS and how it will manage costs associated with the technology, how data will be shared with international partners and why that will be beneficial for the Australian Defence Force. Prescott will also talk about the prospects that the F-35 arrival will present to SMEs and how they can best be prepared for these opportunities. 

Phil Tarrant: G'day everyone. It's Phil Tarrant here, recording from our mobile studio in Orlando, where we've spent another couple of days looking at the capabilities of the F-35 with Lockheed Martin. You might have seen some of the reports we've been putting together around the F-35, and the fact that it's coming to Australia. It's coming in December. When exactly, we're not too sure yet, but we'll be looking forward to seeing these jets arrive. 

The last couple of days, been in the States looking at these F-35 capabilities from the production line through to how they're preparing for sustainment. Much of the sustainment is based around the capabilities of ALIS and how that's going to help ensure greater serviceability of aircraft and making sure it's a lot more efficient to keep them in the air and on the line.

My view of this is, I find it all a bit tiresome and tedious, this ongoing debate around the F-35. You know, we've been through the development, and now production into actually OK, operationally, how we're going to keep this in the air, the sustainment of it. What's your views towards that? Is Lockheed Martin ready? Is the RAAF ready for the arrival of this jet?

I have with me, Neale Prescott, who is a director of business development at Lockheed Martin Australia, Rotary and Mission Systems. Neale, how you going?

Neale Prescott: Great thanks, Phil, yeah. I think they are. I think that there's been a huge amount of work, particularly by the air force and Lockheed Martin in Australia. We've grown things very quickly in the Hunter Region to support it. I'd say that the level of maturity there, that's developing, and for the Australian F-35 support, we're very much about grabbing hold of this new capability. The air force has put in a lot of effort there. We've got an off-board information system centre. We've got an international training centre. We've got deployable and sovereign data management systems in place.

Phil Tarrant: A bit off tangent, but why do you think most people who are critics of the F-35 program become critics of the F-35 program? Is it ... To be fair, some of it's been voices in the media and, whether or not they're just trying to make a bigger name for themselves by criticising the program, or there is some genuine concerns around it, this culture of criticism, rather than a culture of pragmatism or being proactive, what do you think is driving that?

Neale Prescott: Unfortunately, I think, it's driven to some extent by some rivalry and perhaps some desire for personal fame. We've seen this in the past with major Australian programs. People have been critical about aircraft and submarine, and yet, subsequently, the nation's been very proud of the capability, so it's a frustrating thing. 

I think, also, there's this tendency to ignore that a development is underway, and there are always problems that you experience. I think they tend to try and ignore the fact you design things; you're on the very cutting edge of this. This is the most complex technology in the world, and you won't always get it right the first time.

So, on the one hand, Australia wants the very best, and you've got to go through some challenges to get it. But the detractors are frustrating because they'll pick on trivial things, and probably more disappointing, often these are issues where they're not well informed, and they don't take the time to do that. Our hope is we've shown the extent of the production, the extent of the maturity of the technologies, that you've got a real chance to understand some of the facts around the program.

Phil Tarrant: I think the defence industry has a real responsibility when it comes to the F-35, and by defence industry, I'm also going to pull in some of the journalists within it. This is a major acquisition that all Australians are paying for, all taxpayers, and I feel as though the leadership required around it is that ... You said trivial things, and a lot of these things are dominated, and they get picked up in the media, and one of them would be something I read once upon a time around how American pilots are leaving the air force because they don't want to fly the F-35.

How do you think Aussie businesses are prepared to support Lockheed Martin and the RAAF to build out this, I guess, our domestic or sovereign supply chain? How big is that going to get? Is there many opportunities there for Australian businesses to still participate in this program now that we have the jets, or they're coming?

Neale Prescott: That's one of the fantastic aspects to this program. We've gone through development; we're now into major production. We have mentioned some of the companies that have been involved to date: The Marands, the Quicksteps, and then, there are companies such as Varley and Milskil that I can think of immediately that are part of this sustainment. Both of those two companies, Varley and Milskil, are involved in the training system and also the deployable data management system. 

Australia's industries, I think, have been tremendous. We've got many examples of where they've transitioned out of the automotive industry into aerospace, and not just aerospace, but into the most strenuous of the military technologies, and that's a lot of credit to them. A lot of credit also, I think, to the government to encourage that. So the future's very positive for the Australian industry, and there are really legitimate numbers of opportunities there.

Phil Tarrant: If I was an Australian business looking to potentially be involved in the sustainment of the F-35, get myself involved in that supply chain, I would imagine that would be a relationship with Lockheed Martin. How do I create an attraction business to make sure that Lockheed Martin would want to do business with me?

Neale Prescott: The key tenets around the program are that of performance and cost management, and being a reliable supplier. There's obviously ourselves, but also companies like BAE Systems that have got a responsibility for the regional warehousing and some of the support in Williamtown. TAE in Queensland are supporting the propulsion systems. So the opportunity for Australian businesses would be; come, be really specific about where you're strongest, be really clear about that. 

Phil Tarrant: As I've navigated the F-35 across the production side and supply chain side, one of the critical points I keep coming up is cost control and efficiencies. I know Lockheed Martin, and we did a report on it the other day on defenceconnect.com.au, is looking to bring the costs of the jet and the new lots coming forward down to like $80 million, and that's a substantial saving from the first jets that rolled off the production line. 

I imagine that same mantra has got to hold true in the sustainment side, so how they can improve the sustainment costs of the jets. Maybe, if you can tell our listeners a little bit about how the jet is being constructed, or put together, or the backbone of it, or the nerve centre of it is ALIS, is really going to help amplify the cost-savings around sustainment.

Neale Prescott: Yeah. ALIS is the autonomic logistics information system. It is a software-based system that is designed to capture all aspects of the aircraft use. The warehousing of spares, the actual personnel, both maintenance and operators and their certifications and training requirements. In the sense of managing costs, ALIS is used to do prognostic assessment. 

In effect, to forecast when failures might occur or when things need to be replaced. The whole philosophy around that is, instead of having a regular schedule of downtime, you're actually forecasting it based on the actual conditions you're using. A very crude analogy; if normally you would have had a five-kilometre spacing between oil filter changes, what ALIS does is actually looks at the utilisation, examines the results of the oil assessment, and it will adjust it according. So, harsh conditions, it might happen sooner. Benign conditions that might be two or three times.

ALIS is a key part of that because now we can actually quantify how many personnel hours are allocated to this maintenance. Could we do that better? What is the cost over time of components which are coming out of the supply chain? That would give us a series of metrics that we can, for once, probably the first time ever, in the Australian Defence Force, actually quantifiable information to inform our management decisions for the system.

That approach is used throughout. The benefit there is also extended because ALIS is able to look at the worldwide fleet of information and say, "OK, across... " Now we've got over 350 aircraft already operational. It can look at that entire fleet, and there might be lessons that are relevant to Australia. So, in a sustainment sense, what we're going to find is, those companies involved in support are going to need to understand how to use the information and also adapt to this sort of just in time approach to, "Do we need to change elements of the airplane? How do we forecast that? How do we get the components to the right places?"

Phil Tarrant: In terms of the large data, big data, and this is really big data in action, it's the collection of multitude nodes of information, pooling it, synthesising it, and actually understanding how you're going to use it. And, in this case, on the sustainment side, it's telling you when parts might be worn, or when there might be fatigue, or fractures to the airframe, all these type of stuff. I need a part ordered, let's say that you need a ... Widget X needs to be replaced. Moving forward with the F-35, each squadron's not going to have a set of spares, that's going to come from a central pool. Is that how it's going to work?

Neale Prescott: That's right. Yes, and in some cases, you might find that Australia deliberately says, "No, that's fine. I'm confident that I can get the supply I need. I'm just going to use the global spares component." Or, it might say, "Look, we're operating in a different location around the world. We know where we can actually get that." So, again, there's economies associated with that. That means you're not having to warehouse, you're not having to transport, and you're not having to procure every aircraft with a bag of spares. You can actually say, "In my fleet, this is what I need out of it."

That means that there's much less time that you're involved in managing a huge, huge pipeline of spares. Also, the availability of the aircraft remains up. You're not taking the aircraft because you've done this artificial scheduling of activities. So, financially and operationally, there's a huge benefit there.

The full podcast with Neale Prescott, director of business development for Lockheed Martin Australia is available here