America’s F- 35s: flying and deploying


David C Isby updates the status of America’s growing F-35 Lightning II fleet

US Air Force F-35As: building, flying and sustaining

On the morning of December 5, seven Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning IIs took offfrom Edwards Air Force Base, California, on a simulated combat mission; the mission was the long-awaited start of initial operational testing and evaluation (IOT&E). Originally scheduled to be completed by July 2018, the Joint Operational Test Team (JOTT) will carry out IOT&E flying from Edwards and Naval Air Weapons Center China Lake, California, through the summer of 2019. With Marine Corps F-35Bs and Navy F-35Cs taking part, F-35s will fly over 30 simulated missions, including offensive counter-air, defensive counter-air, close air support (CAS) and suppression of enemy air defence scenarios.

The CAS scenarios are a follow-up to preliminary evaluation missions flown in July 2018, which have attracted press attention in comparison with the A-10 Thunderbolt II and the different ways the two aircraft carry out the CAS mission. Newly appointed Senator Martha McSally (Republican of Arizona), a former A-10 pilot, has been a strong advocate of a fly-offbetween the two aircraft and may use her new position to leverage this interest.

Successful completion of IOT&E is required for the F-35A’s transition from low-rate initial production (LRIP) to fullrate production. On December 6, the day before the first IOT&E mission at Edwards, Vice Admiral Mathias Winter, Program Executive Offcer, F-35 Lightning II, said: “The start of formal operational testing is a milestone more than 18 years in the making. By the end of 2019 there will be almost 500 aircraft delivered. Production ramp-up will continue as operational testing concludes in the summer of 2019 and the programme enters a full-rate production decision in the fall.”

Lowering costs

Lot 11, the most recent F-35 LRIP production lot has seen further reduction in unit cost. Winter said: “The Lot 11 F-35A unit price, including aircraft, engine and fee, is $89.2 million; this represents a 5.4% reduction from previous lot aircraft …As production ramps up, we are working with industry to drive further cost reductions. We are on track to reduce the cost of the F-35A to less than $80 million by 2020 — which is equal to or less than legacy aircraft, while providing a major leap in capability.”

While production costs are coming down, managing sustainment costs, critical to the success of the F-35, has become a Joint Program Offce (JPO) priority. Work is ongoing on the priority between the JPO, the Department of Defense, the armed services, Lockheed Martin and other contractors. On December 3, the JPO issued a request for proposals for contractor participation in a sustainment supply chain risk management review of the problems.

For over a year, the Air Force has served notice that unless the F-35A’s sustainment costs come down it will be unable to afford its planned fleet of 1,763 aircraft. In its October 2017 report, the Government Accountability Offce (GAO) identified the F-35’s sustainment chain as a major reason why the F-35’s serviceability was so far below the required level. Testifying to the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) on October 10, 2018, the GAO’s John Pendleton said: “The F-35 is proving so costly to operate and sustain that it actually jeopardises the programme.”

Increasing mission capable rate

The mission capable rates of four key US fighter aircraft – including all versions of the F-35 – are to be increased to 80% and their operations and maintenance costs simultaneously reduced, all within a year, then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis directed in a memorandum dated September 17.

The F-35A’s fleet-wide average mission capable rate for 2017 was 55%, the result of a multi-year decline from 68% in 2015 and 65% in 2016. These averages do not show that the mission-capable rate varies widely among F-35As Early-production aircraft based at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida suffer the lowest rates, because the aircraft often use non-standard components that are dificult to repair and replace; aircraft built in more recent LRIP lots show the highest mission capable rates.

Speaking at a briefing in Washington DC on October 10, 2018, Patrick Shanahan, then Deputy Secretary of Defense, saw improving F-35 mission capability as being a major goal of Mattis’ directive. He said: “It probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to generate a lot of activity to make something that is older more reliable, but when you think about the Joint Strike Fighter and the hundreds of aircraft we’re going to take, 80% should be the minimum; it shouldn’t be some aspirational goal.”

Parts availability has been identified as being a major cause of falling F-35A mission capable rates. In 2017, a GAO report identified the US capability to perform depot level part repairs as lagging six years behind schedule. At that time, the average part repair backlog time was 172 days. In its report, the GAO reckons the 22% of the time that F-35s were not able to fly was caused by a shortage of parts.

Building the force structure

Despite the problems, the number of F-35As delivered to the US Air Force has been steadily increasing. On December 10, the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, welcomed its 50th F-35A. It was also the first F-35A delivered to the 421st Fighter Squadron. This will be the 388th’s third F-35A squadron at Hill; the wing will reach its full strength of 78 F-35As by the end of 2019. On November 19, 2018, the 388th demonstrated its operational readiness by launching 35 F-35As within 11 minutes, as might be required at forward bases in the event of attacks by ballistic or cruise missiles.

Three squadrons of F-35As will be based at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, a decision made by the Air Force following the widespread damage caused to the base by October’s Hurricane Michael and the enforced displacement of 55 F-22 Raptors assigned to the resident 325th Fighter Wing.

Congressional reconstruction funding granted for the rebuilding of Tyndall with hangars and structures specifically designed from the outset for F-35As could make the base ready as early as FY2023, without affecting current Air Force F-35A equipment plans.

Commenting on the Tyndall decision on December 13, General David Goldfein, Chief of Staffof the US Air Force, said: “Bringing this new mission [the F-35 multi-role mission] to Tyndall [helps] ensure that the Air Force is ready to dominate in any conflict.”

F-35A Lightning IIs assigned to the 388th Fighter Wing over the Utah Test and Training Range on November 19, 2018, during a combat power exercise aimed at verifying the wing’s ability to quickly employ a large force of jets against air and ground targets.
SSgt Andrew Lee/US Air Force

US Marine Corps F-35Bs: combat and new capabilities

The US Marine Corps is introducing its F-35Bs at the same time as it is refocusing its airpower, shifting from participation in coalition efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and instead being ready to function as part of an expeditionary force, operating primarily with US Navy assets, potentially against highly lethal weapons used by a peer competitor.

Speaking at a briefing in Washington DC on November 9, Major General David Coffman, Director of Expeditionary Warfare, US Marine Corps, said: “The F-35 is showing the way toward this. You’ve got to be able to exploit what’s on them or exploit what’s on other things — platforms, payload, sensors — all integrated in the wider network.”

Embarked deployment

US Marine Corps F-35Bs have continued their shipboard deployment to the Central Command area of responsibility, which included the F-35’s and the F-35B’s first combat use, over Afghanistan on September 27. Marine Lieutenant General Steven Rudder, Deputy Commandant for Aviation, told a Senate Armed Service Committee this deployment is intended to demonstrate “a concept of having a forward force that has a capability to maintain contact and actually be able to use its new capabilities against a higher peer competitor”.

In December 2018, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 (VMFA-211) ‘Wake Island Avengers’ was operating F-35Bs from the amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD-2) in the Arabian Sea, conducting exercises with the aircraft carrier USS Stennis (CVN 74) and its air wing, included aerial refuelling F-35Bs from F/A-18 Super Hornets.

To increase Marine Corps digital interoperability, an urgent operational needs statement has been issued to enhance F-35B capabilities. During VMFA-211’s cruise, for the first time, an F-35B made a datalink connection with the USS Essex’s ship selfdefence system, making the F-35B part of an expeditionary warfare network. The ship’s self-defence system is a Raytheon product and the type of datalink used was Link 16.

In addition to developing and refining new tactics, lessons from the current deployment will be used when 20 F-35Bs are embarked on board an America-class amphibious assault ship, planned for FY2020.

Working with the Air Force, the Marines are putting in place tactics to optimise the F-35’s strengths. Rudder told the SASC: “A legacy aircraft …would fly with a wingman that you can either see or is not that far away. F-35, you might be 10 or 15 miles apart [between aircraft] or maybe, 50 or 60 or 70 miles apart between a flight of four.”

General Kelly said: “F-35s in exercises at Eielson [Air Force Base, Alaska] get a situational awareness network feed as soon as they take off, so they know what fight they are taking offto. As soon as their nose gear door shuts, an F-35 is contributing to the network …We need to talk to allies and partners on the network, because this is a networked fight.”

In October 2018, the Marines Corps announced it had demonstrated, during live-fire testing at the Yuma Proving Ground, that an F-35B, using its onboard synthetic aperture to detect a terrestrial target, could automatically create and send Variable Message Format K-series messages to the Raytheon Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System. The messages were used by an M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System that scored a direct hit on the shipping container being used as a target. The test showed an F-35 can prosecute a target without having to take direct kinetic action, action that would reveal its location.

VMFA-211’s current deployment has put its F-35Bs at the end of a logistics chain stretching halfway across the world. One sustainment issue being addressed during the deployment is to determine what F-35B (and, later, F-35Cs) intermediate-level maintenance and support capabilities need to be embarked and which can remain ashore. Eventually, parts requiring repair will be flown offthe ship by the Navy’s forthcoming CMV-22 Osprey carrier onboard delivery tiltrotors.

Current F-35B intermediate-level maintenance capability aboard an amphibious assault ship includes the gun pod, engine component and low observable material repair. More limited repair procedures are possible for hydraulic components and airframe structures.

Lessons from the Marine Corps’ F-35B deployment will be used to help fix ongoing operational issues with the F-35’s Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), currently deployed with all US and international users in its upgraded Block 3.0 configuration. This latest configuration of ALIS is designed to be integrated with the aircraft’s Block 3F software currently used by operational F-35s, and to reduce the number of false fault indications that troubled earlier versions of the system. Heather Wilson, Secretary of the Air Force, was one of many to voice frustration about ALIS, telling the SASC on October 10, 2018, “It cannot scale. It has huge problems. It drives the maintainers nuts.”

Fixes to ALIS are being handled by the F-35 JPO and Lockheed Martin, which is planning for the release of two upgraded versions of the ALIS software before the end of 2019. The upgrades are being made with inputs from the Naval Research Laboratory and from software specialists at the Air Force’s Boston-based Kessel Run Experimental Lab; KREL is managed by the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Battle Management Directorate at Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts.

The Kessel Run team comprises programmers from Lockheed Martin and the Air Force, and Air Force maintainers. The team is determining where problems reside within ALIS and is trying to develop and issue rapidly software tools designed to improve ALIS. Heather Wilson announced the KREL Mad Hatter programme in October 2018. One can only assume that the name Mad Hatter was chosen to link Boston, the Boston tea party and the curiosity felt by Alice at the Mad Hatter’s tea party.

F-35B Lightning II’s assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 (VMFA-211) ‘Wake Island Avengers’, and the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, during a combat mission over Afghanistan on September 27, 2018.
SSgt Corey Hook/US Air Force

A prototype predictive maintenance software system for the F-35 has been developed by California-based C3 for the Department of Defense’s Defense Innovation Unit Experimental; it may be operational as early as mid-2019.

Frustration with ALIS remains widespread, however. Vice Admiral Paul Grosklogs, Commander, Naval Air System Command, told an SASC on March 6, 2018: “One of our challenges right now, quite honestly, is us — the government — gaining insight into the software and the coding within ALIS. Right now, much of that is held as proprietary and we have limited rights and access to the data coming out of ALIS. That is one of the challenges that Admiral Winter is tackling.”

US Navy F-35Cs: on course to IOC

There are no international users envisioned for the F-35C. The US Navy and US Marine Corps will fly it, primarily from aircraft carriers and expeditionary bases ashore. It will be the last of the three F-35 variants to become operational, reflecting a test programme that reflects the complexities of carrier operations, including wing folding and the ability to carry stores on the outboard pylons of the F-35C’s outer wing, whose design, intended for carrier operations, differs from that used by the F-35A and F-35B. The F-35C closed out the System Development and Demonstration (SDD) phase, making the last test flight on April 11, 2018. This final F-35C SDD flight was followed by an operational test at sea period using F-35Cs configured with Block 3F software.

The first 54 F-35Cs will be upgraded at Navy depot-level maintenance facilities under the Structural Life-Limited Parts (SLLP) upgrade programme. Started in 2016, the SLLP is due to be completed by 2020, and is required so the first 54 F-35C aircraft can achieve their designed service life of 8,000 flight hours. The SLLP will include replacing parts used in early-production F-35Cs with the same parts currently used on newproduction F-35Cs, thereby increasing commonality, as well as service life.

Structural changes include a new nose-gear strut designed to reduce vibration during catapult launches, and retrofits to the first 32 F-35Cs to enable them to carry AIM-9X Sidewinder II heat-seeking missiles on their wingtip rails.

Achieving IOC and deployment

On December 12, 2018, the Navy announced that Strike Fighter Squadron 147 (VFA-147) ‘Argonauts’, which will become the first operational F-35C squadron, had completed its carrier qualifications on the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70).

The squadron was certified safe for flight when it was at least one third of its full strength size and with ALIS installed and operating in the squadron’s billets at Naval Air Station Lemoore, California.

VFA-147 is currently flying operational missions, leading to an initial operational capability (IOC) declaration in February 2019; IOC was originally scheduled for 2014. When VFA-147 is declared IOC, the squadron will have at least ten F-35Cs configured with Block 3F software. The squadron will then start its work up for integration into a carrier strike group, enabling its first deployment, on board the USS Carl Vinson, which is currently scheduled for 2021.

Interestingly, VFA-147’s first carrier deployment will be enabled by service entry of the CMV-22 carrier onboard delivery tiltrotor, the lift capability required to deliver F-35C engine modules to the carrier. The expected 2021 carrier deployment will be followed be an F-35C shore deployment to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Japan.

An F-35C Lightning II assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 147 (VFA- 147) ‘Argonauts’ stationed at Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, the US Navy’s first operational F-35C squadron.
Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon Renfroe/US Navy

When asked by the SASC on March 6, why creating and deploying the first operational F-35C squadron takes so long, Rear Admiral Scott Conn, Director of Air Operations, Offce of the Chief of Naval Operations, said: “You have to transition a squadron, which takes up to a year, nine months for a pilot and almost a year to train the sailors. As you’re growing a new type model series, you have to do that at a deliberate pace. First you build infrastructure and a fleet replacement squadron, the squadron that trains the aviators and sometimes some of the maintainers. Once the transition is complete, they are ready to start the optimised fleet response plan in terms of being able to prepare for deployment.”

Sustainment force structure

The Navy must build on its experience with the F-35B to manage the F-35C’s transoceanic sustainment chain. To solve the problem, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Ellen Lord explained at a briefing in Washington DC on November 28, 2018: “We need to look at our contracting vehicles and design contract incentives around expected performance. We expect good quality, looking at the integrated supply chain: the entire chain, not just Lockheed Martin. It is a complicated supply chain, because it is a global effort. We need to make sure the right parts show up at the right time and are fit for the aircraft and their function.”

As the F-35C enters fleet service, the Navy will close down its first F-35C unit, Strike Fighter Squadron 101 (VFA-101) ‘Gunfighters’, the Navy’s element of the joint and multinational training school under the 33rd Fighter Wing based at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.

Some F-35Cs assigned to VFA-101 will move to Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, to join VFA-125, the Navy’s first F-35C fleet replacement squadron tasked to transition F/A-18 Super Hornet squadrons to the new fighter. Other former VFA-101 aircraft will join Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 9’s detachment, part of the JOTT based at Edwards Air Force Base, California; VX-9 ‘Vampires’ is based at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, California.

On October 1, the Navy established the Joint Strike Fighter Wing at Lemoore. The Navy has yet to confirm whether the establishment of an F-35C fleet replacement squadron and a wing headquarters will be established on the east coast to support future Atlantic Fleet F-35C squadrons.

In 2017, only 15% of F-35Cs were assessed as fully mission capable (not to be confused with the mission-capable rate which is a different metric), which means Mattis’ 80% full mission-capable requirement will be a stretch for the Navy to meet. Testifying to a SASC on December 12, 2018, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer said: “It’s a stretch goal, but it is a stretch goal we will take.”

Use of commercial best practices in depotlevel maintenance is already decreasing backlogs. Testifying at the same hearing, Rear Admiral William Moran, Vice Chief of Naval Operations cited that increased numbers of Navy F-35Cs, as the type matures, would contribute to reaching mission availability goals. He said: “The law of small numbers means that a couple go down in a given day, depending on when you report it, could drive the percentage really low or really high, so I think we need more runtime on the F-35C.”