The US Defense Department has chosen the European nations to which it will assign heavy airframe and engine maintenance for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.

By 2018 heavy airframe maintenance, overhaul, repair and upgrade (MORU) will be provided by Italy. The UK will pick up any additional work needed following a review that will take place about five years into the programme, says Lt. Gen Christopher Bogdan, head of the Pentagon’s F-35 joint programme office (JPO).

Turkey will take the lead on maintenance of the Pratt and Whitney F135 engine and establish the necessary infrastructure to perform tear-down, rebuild and test by 2018. Within two years of that deadline, Norway and the Netherlands are to have established the same capability.

“First was heavy airframe and heavy engine maintenance because infrastructure-wise and technology-wise, they take the longest to stand up,” Bogdan says.

Light and medium maintenance refers to work that has no impact on the structure of the aircraft, Bogdan says. Heavy maintenance entails repairing large structural components like bulkheads, spars and wings, which require more advanced facilities and technical acumen.

Beginning in 2015, component repair work and warehousing will be assigned to partner nations. The JPO also intends to base repair and maintenance of support equipment regionally but has not made decision on who will be responsible.

The UK will only take on airframe maintenance duties if demand outpaces Italy’s ability to handle it. However, the JPO knew off the bat engine maintenance would have to be split between several countries.

“The investment to build an engine test and maintenance facility was more than one partner could afford on their own,” Bogdan says. “When you tear down an engine at the heavy level and rebuild it, you have to then test it. No one partner was willing to invest in more than one test cell in their nation.”

The JPO figured the European region would need at least three F135 test facilities, which run in the tens of millions of dollars.

F-35 line - Lockheed Martin

Geography played a larger role in choosing Italy as airframe maintainer than in choosing who would do engine work, Bogdan said.

“When you’re looking at heavy airframe maintenance, the fact that you have to move aircraft thousands of miles over oceans and continents played a factor in both regions,” he says. “It plays less of a factor when you look at engines because they can be broken down into modules and transported much easier.”

The JPO divided the globe into three regions where heavy depot level maintenance will take place, so that partner nations in the joint F-35 venture would not need to ferry their aircraft thousands of miles for upkeep.

Infrastructure for North American F-35s is already being put in place and will directly supervised by the US Air Force and Lockheed. The nations in the Asia-Pacific region that will receive assignments to perform F-35 maintenance will be announced next week, Bogdan says.

Partner nations were polled to see which desired to perform the work, which would require the nation to cover the entire initial investment to build facilities and buy the necessary equipment. The JPO has promised that nations investing in an F-35 industrial base would be guaranteed a certain amount of annual work based on the size of their fleets. Proposals by various nations were weighed and US government personnel visited each country that submitted a bid.

“Many of the partners put RFIs in for both engine and airframe in Europe,” Bogdan says. The JPO then evaluated whether “that partner build and grow the capability we need in the time for when we need it.”

Eligible proposals also had to demonstrate managerial and technical capability commensurate with the F-35 programme, Bogdan says. Italy already has spent $1 billion of its own money to build a final assembly and checkout facility (FACO) where the jets will eventually be built.

“That’s a cost that the rest of the enterprise does not have to bear now,” Bogdan says. “Italy is fully committed to this programme. They are a stable and very important partner for a very long time – you’ve earned the right to be assigned this capability.”