F-35 inbound: SMEs preparing for Australia’s next-gen fighters

Australia's third Lockheed Martin F-35A AU-03 (Image supplied)

As the Royal Australian Air Force prepares for the arrival of its next-generation air combat capability, the F-35, the Defence Connect Podcast spoke with Milskil CEO and managing director John Lonergan to discuss the company’s role as an SME in preparing pilots and aircrews to fly and maintain the aircraft, which will be the face of the RAAF for the next 40 years. 

Lockheed Martin's F-35A Joint Strike Fighter has been described as a game changer for the RAAF and allied air forces who operate the fifth generation aircraft. An aircraft defined by the incredibly complex digital combat system, the JSF will provide a quantum leap in the capability offered to commanders placing unique requirements on the pilots and aircrews who operate and sustain the aircraft.

During his discussion with the Defence Connect Podcast, John Lonergan, chief executive and managing director of Milskil, identifies the important role SMEs play in supporting F-35, and the corporate, operational and cultural differences that set Milskil apart from competitors, helping them to deliver the next generation training capability Defence and Lockheed require. 

With the arrival of Australia's first two JSF aircraft later this year, the atmosphere is fever pitch at RAAF Williamtown, which will serve as the primary training and maintenance facility for Australia's F-35 pilots and aircrew. Gearing up for this 'landmark year', as described recently by Lockheed Martin's general manager for training and logistics systems Amy Gowder, Milskil has been working with local and international partners to prepare for the arrival of F-35 later this year and initial operating capability (IOC) in 2019. 

Milskil has established and maintained a robust relationship with prime F-35 contractor Lockheed Martin, of which Lonergan said: “First of all you need to know what you stand for, and what your product is and what your value proposition is to the customer, ultimately the end user being Defence. But also the other point I made, and I would reinforce this, is to develop and affect meaningful relationships with Defence primes, who by virtue generally have a shepherding over the top of a lot of the work opportunities and making sure that they understand what you do and that you can give them confidence, not only do you have a good product, you know how to manage the delivery of it.”

As part of the F-35 Lightning II JSF Integrated Training Centre (ITC) at RAAF Williamtown, Milskil provides key training solutions, including: 

  • The Aircraft Systems Maintenance Trainers (ASMTs) currently being installed will allow students to immerse themselves in all core maintenance tasks on the F-35. This training technology enables more robust, immersive maintenance training to occur without tying up aircraft to do it.

The role of SMEs in supporting such large-scale, high impact defence projects is clear, particularly from the prime's perspective, however Lonergan maintains that such relationships are symbiotic and Milskil's model, key to which is establishing trust between partners, is an example of how to successfully deliver for primes.

“To be attractive (as an SME) you need to be doing something either a prime can’t do or they can’t do as well as what you do, so that might be a matter of scale, or it could be a matter of something so niche and difficult to manage across a broad business, that it is much easier to get someone who understands the environment," Lonergan said.

"Fighter training is a classic example of that. To do that well takes a lot of effort and takes a lot of knowledge, its just not something that you decide to do and hire some people to move into.

"So, I think its important that you’re offering them a value proposition that’s going to make it easier for them to deliver what they want to deliver and also mitigate risk in terms of them being assured that whatever they’ve been tasked with by Defence, bringing you on board will actually get that delivered and that is going to reduce the risk of the program from their perspective."

Business culture is another area identified by Lonergan as essential for ensuring success when partnering with major primes. In particular, it is the 'operational' and 'warfighter' focus of Milskil that has enabled it to establish itself as an invaluable corporate and operational partner with Lockheed. As the tempo of training increases with more aircraft deliveries, Milskil has successfully recruited 18 new positions as Lockheed roll out and expand the training here in Australia. 

These 18 positions are highly specialised air crews, made up of instructors, maintenance, logistics and some enabling functions, drawing candidates from both the Hunter and across the nation, with some coming from as far away as Darwin to support the F-35 project. 

As part of supporting Milskil in delivering the training, the Lockheed Martin global mobile training team (GMTT) is likely to arrive in Australia in August to provide specialised training to the RAAF and Milskil, enabling success for the RAAF in their ITC stand-up. The GMTT provides worldwide on-demand site stand-up and sustainment support training for F-35 training centres and operational sites.

This relationship has developed organically over the life of the program and provides SMEs with the opportunity to embrace the opportunities of the rapidly developing aerospace hub at Williamtown. F-35 in particular has served as an incubator for developing Australian industry, which has been very successful in the allocation of Asia-Pacific regional repair capabilities for the F-35, many of which will be located in the Williamtown area, including an airframe repair and upgrade depot, component repair capability and regional warehouse.

Lonergan expanded on this: “Williamtown is turning into a major hub for Defence, ourselves we invested and moved into a new corporate headquarters and also an operations hub in the Williamtown Aerospace Centre, there is more and more companies moving in there so there is certainly, and they’re not all the big companies, a lot of the SMEs are now finding their place in and amongst the major primes in that facility, so Williamtown itself from a defence industry perspective is turning into a hub.”

The development of this facility has shown how specific systems and capabilities can serve to form centres of excellence, particularly as it invites industry, both SME and prime to collaborate and develop a robust incubator type environment which supports the competitive advantages emerging in the respective areas. 

Diversity across business capability is one final area identified as key to ensuring success. As a fifth generation platform, incorporating stealth, sensor integration, situational awareness and broader force integration, the F-35 serves as a valuable stepping stone for SMEs like Milskil to integrate as part of Defence's transition to a data-focused force.

“We are interested in any of the opportunities that may come up on P-8A (Poseidon), opportunities across Air Warfare Centre, we’ve just started work there and opportunities across the Live-Virtual-Constructive (LVC) space, so these are the emerging, next large businesses for Defence, so that is what we are positioning ourselves for,” Lonergan said. 

As Australia's defence community surges toward the certification and delivery of the nation's F-35s, SMEs like Milskil stand ready and able to support industry partners like Lockheed and Defence as they deliver the nation's future air combat capability.   

Milskil is an Australian-owned company that delivers unique, operationally-focused training solutions for Defence, government and commercial clients. Milskil currently provides training services on the F-18A Classic Hornet, F-18F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler at RAAF Williamtown, Amberley and Tindal.

The full Defence Connect Podcast with John Lonergan will be available shortly. 

F-35 inbound: SMEs preparing for Australia’s next-gen fighters
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