Farnborough Air Show

F-35 Program Partners Focus On Upgrades and Sustainment

 - July 17, 2018, 8:46 AM
This week represents the first time a UK Royal Air Force F-35 has graced the skies over the Farnborough Airshow. Lockheed Martin is targeting an $80 million unit cost by 2020.

With 309 jets now delivered and the production rate increasing as planned, the focus on the F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter program is shifting from acquisition to sustainment and upgrades. In two media briefings this week at the Farnborough Airshow, program officials from Lockheed Martin (LM) and industry partners described progress.

According to Greg Ulmer, LM’s F-35 vice-president and general manager, the Blueprint 1 affordability initiatives that have already been implemented will achieve $4 billion in savings over the program’s lifecycle. A Blueprint 2 scheme now being defined could save an additional $2 billion. He said LM has now signed performance-based logistics (PBL) contracts with some of its subcontractors that are helping to ensure that various line replacement units (LRUs) are available in a timely fashion when customers request them.

As for upgrades, the Block 4 nomenclature has apparently been dropped in favor of "continuous capability development and delivery" (C2D2), reflecting a spiral approach. For instance, this applies to the controversial Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), where quicker and smaller updates are now the plan.  

Ulmer highlighted the recent award to Raytheon of a contract to replace Northrop Grumman as the supplier of the Distributed Aperture System (DAS) on future F-35 production aircraft. Raytheon’s product is twice as capable and five times more reliable, while saving 10 to 15 pounds (4.5 kg to 6.8 kg) of weight, he said. Also coming soon is LM’s own automatic ground collision avoidance system (auto-GCAS). This was developed for the F-16, and its integration into the F-35 is proving easier than anticipated.

The target unit recurring flyaway cost (URFC) for the F-35A remains $80 million by 2020. Major airframe subcontractors BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman both described initiatives that are helping achieve this. For instance, they are implementing robotic drilling of the countersunk holes for fasteners. BAE Systems has also upgraded the autoclaves that cure carbon fiber composite skins.

Pratt and Whitney said that it aims to reduce sustainment costs for the F135 engine by 50 percent within a decade, to the same level as the much less powerful F100 that equips the F-16. “The F135 is already the most reliable engine that we have ever produced, with a mission capable rate of 97 percent,” said Matthew Bromberg, president of P&W's military engines.

When asked by AIN whether the F-35 industry partners could ever commit to the type of availability contract that has been implemented for some other military aircraft, Ulmer said “there is definitely a discussion going on.” But, he said, it is first necessary to capture prognostics and other "big data" about the aircraft in service.

Bromberg also cautioned that it was still too early to commit, but agreed that “we’re on our way” to offering such deals to F-35 operators. According to Ulmer, the current availability rate for newer F-35s entering service averages 60 percent.