FARNBOROUGH: Face the Facts with Steve O'Bryan

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As Lockheed Martin vice-president business development, customer engagement for the F-35, Steve O'Bryan's job is to ensure the company holds the attention of its international partners, despite delays and strained procurement budgets.

It's too early in the flight-test programme to bring an F-35 to Farnborough this time. How is the campaign going, and can we expect to see an aircraft here in 2012?

Flight-testing is going well, and we continue to be on plan in 2010, with 155 sorties flown by 15 July. We have had six months in a row of exceeding our goals, and continue to be slightly ahead in terms of total sorties.

Those jets are flying now and flying very well, with twice the software load of an operational [Lockheed Martin] F-22, with 5.9 million lines of code. The US government, the services or the international partners will determine when the F-35 will come over to one of the air shows. But I share your desire.

 lockheed martin f-35a pair jsf, lockheed martin
© Lockheed Martin

How are your current contract negotiations with the US Department of Defense going, and what is the status of the F136 alternate engine programme?

The US government has a budget that's currently fully funded by the first two committees of Congress for $11.7 billion, which includes 42 aircraft [in low-rate initial production Lot 5]. We're optimistic that will continue through the rest of the committees.

We've completed the Nunn-McCurdy recertification, and the US government and all the services are firmly behind the F-35, as they transition to a fifth-generation fleet. The engine is government furnished equipment, so we're indifferent on which one it is. But what we don't want to see is the prospect of that engine harming the programme, either by diverting resources or aircraft.

Lockheed Martin last week received a firm commitment from Canada to buy the F-35. How big a boost is this for the programme?

Canada has selected the F-35 as their next generation fighter, with 65 jets, after having considered other options. After that number they'll consider other buys. What it really signifies is that every partner who has full insight to the programme is confident of the success of the F-35. Those countries that have full insight into the health and well-being of the programme commit to it.

 
© Lockheed Martin

What about your other international partners in the system development and demonstration phase?

The UK has purchased its first three operational test and evaluation airplanes, and the Netherlands has funded its first two jets, which are currently being built in Fort Worth, Texas.

Right now there are a number of very interested parties. Italy's parliament has approved 131 jets, and we're in final negotiations on a final assembly and check-out facility to be built in Italy. Turkey is committed, and they are publicly talking about increasing their buy from 100 aircraft to 120. Australia has bought its first tranche, of 14 aircraft, from around 100 F-35s, and Norway has committed to the programme. Denmark is now the lone partner that will conduct a competition, that will be run either in 2011 or 2012.

Since we have industrial work currently going on in that country, as well as pilots who are fully versed in the capabilities of the F-35, we remain optimistic of our chances.

With the recent change of government in the Netherlands, how do you view that nation's continued involvement?

They remain a partner in good standing on the programme. Both operational test and evaluation aircraft are continuing down the assembly line, and have been funded by the Netherlands.

The rest I would defer to the government of the Netherlands, but what I would say is that the ministry of defence, as well as the Dutch air force, remain very committed to the F-35 programme and the capabilities that it will bring. And the next government is going to take up the issue.

Where are your best near-term opportunities to add to the existing list of buyer nations?

We're optimistic on a letter of agreement signature with Israel this summer, but the configuration is a government-to-government question.

Singapore has begun its detailed look at the F-35 programme as a security co-operation participant partner, and they are just now seeing the full capabilities of the F-35. South Korea and Japan will be doing competitions from the end of this year or early next year, and we like our chances there.

We have the tooling and the slots available to build Foreign Military Sales aircraft for 2014 and 2015 deliveries. We've also got Spain under contract right now to evaluate the integration of the F-35B on to its aircraft carrier.

Have Lockheed and the DoD reconciled their differences on what the F-35 will cost to build and sustain?

Where we disagree is in estimates, and the philosophy with which those estimates were put together. I try to look at the actuals.

The LRIP 3 contract was signed 20% below the US government estimate, and the LRIP 4 contract will sign more than 20% below the estimate as a fixed-price contract on all three variants. That is two years earlier than the acquisition plan. That shows a high degree of confidence in the Lockheed Martin estimates. Between SDD and LRIP 3 we have 50 aircraft in different stages of production, so we have a good idea of how many hours it takes to build the aircraft, and the supplier costs, and we're working with the US government and our suppliers to drive those costs down. We've already rolled out 19 SDD jets using the rolling assembly line, enabling us to prove out not only the tooling but the processes. That's very different to legacy aircraft.

As a prime contractor, how can Lockheed go about making the F-35 more affordable?

We have a programme of record of over 3,100 aircraft, and likely orders greater than 4,500. We're able to design a production and supply chain system that takes advantage of those economies of scale. We provide affordability targets to our suppliers, and they are continuing to meet those goals. We continue to sign these suppliers up for firm, fixed-price contracts, so we know the cost of the F-35. About 75% of the total cost of the F-35 is in the supply base.That's how we're able to produce a fifth-generation fighter for the same cost as a legacy fourth-generation type.

How important to the F-35 programme is the contribution made by UK companies?

The UK is going to produce more than just the 138 aircraft that they currently have on the programme of record. BAE Systems is building aft fuselages at Samlesbury for a likely 4,500-plus aircraft. The same goes for GE Aviation, Goodrich, Martin-Baker and the great number of suppliers that are out there in the UK participating on the F-35. And their production run is going to last for over 30 years, plus the sustainment element, so you have an industrial base that's going to be healthy, viable and producing returns over the long term.

The UK's Strategic Defence and Security Review is looking at long-term equipment priorities. How will the F-35 benefit the UK's military capability?

One of the F-35's great attributes is in Combat-ISTAR [intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance]. Every F-35 is basically a flying battlefield manager, with an incredible number of sensors and datalinks to distribute that information.

It has the range to go places further than any legacy aircraft, with almost twice the amount of internal fuel as the aircraft it will replace. Add that with very low observable stealth technology and it can go places that other aircraft cannot. It also has a built-in design and sustainment system made for high sortie generation rates. That allows for a flexibility across the spectrum of operations where we think the F-35 will be very useful, no matter what you're using it for.

When will the first operational aircraft be handed over to the services?

The first operational aircraft are in final assembly and will be delivered to Eglin AFB after first flight late this year. We're going to be rolling the first operational jets off the line within the next 30 days. At Patuxent River we now have four F-35Bs doing envelope expansion, including one equipped with all its mission systems. The first short take-off and vertical landing aircraft are due for delivery in 2011. The first international operational jets will be in 2014 for delivery to Australia, Italy and the Netherlands.

Overall, how do you gauge the health of the F-35 programme?

The programme is in excellent shape. We're ramping up production from one a month to one a day within the next five years. There is a great deal more to go on affordability and flight test, but we are focused and heads down to make that happen. International interest from the partners has solidified, and FMS interest is growing.