The F-35, Allies and Global Investments in 21st Century Airpower


2013-04-18 The F-35 as a fleet is a key foundational element for the future of US power projection.

The F-35 has been designed from the ground up to provide for interconnected ISR and strike capabilities which can be leveraged as a fleet to enable more effective use of U.S. and allied forces.[1]

It also part of an airpower revolution essential for the U.S. and its allies to provide for 21st century Pacific defense.[2]

Sensors, combined with stealth combined with speed can provide a new paradigm for shaping the Pacific force necessary for the U.S. in working in the Pacific.

The F-35 as part of the forward deployed sensor package, which is also stealthy, can guide weapons to their targets, including the anticipated high speed hypersonic cruise missiles.

The “re-norming of air power” associated with the 5th generation aircraft are simply part of the entire evolution of an approach to shaping distributed operations as a strategy which allows the United States to work very differently with allies in providing for global reach.  The allies are always forward deployed; the U.S. role becomes re-enforcement and providing scalable forces capable of reachback and situational dominance.

The reshaping of deterrent and warfighting forces is a crucial aspect associated with the F-35 as a global fleet.  But the ability to maximize global investments in the evolution of 21st century air combat capabilities is essential as well.  The F-35 is designed from the ground up to be a global system and an upgradeable one.

A Global Supply Chain

The F-35 has built into it a significant global supply chain. 

Lockheed is a 30% “prime contractor” with the other 70% of the aircraft coming from global suppliers.  And a significant proportion of those 70% are foreign suppliers as well.

There are four key ways the F-35 enables global investments and risk sharing among the F-35 partners.

The first way is simply in shaping the supply chain, which is crucial not just for building the plane but also for supplying parts for the plane.  One aspect of so-called performance based logistics systems, which simply is not well understood, is that the companies building parts and supplying parts are the same companies.

Attempts by those in the United States to roll back the PBL is really about re-nationalizing the supply chain.

This makes little sense in an era of financial scarcity and growing global threats.  This system also allows the taping of capabilities, which have been, available in specific nations and unleashing their potential to support global coalitions.

The case of Japan is suggestive whereby the participation of the Japanese in building parts for the F-35 means they are building for the global coalition not just for Japan. The Japanese government is focusing on how to participate in F-35 global supply production and modify the current ban on arms exports in the Japanese system.

Clearly, the coalition engagement aspect of the F-35 is a very good framework within which Japan can participate in global production, without exporting weapons for national or narrow nationalistic purposes. 

Global Sustainment Centers or Hubs

The second key way investments are maximized is shaping a system of global sustainment centers or hubs.  Because the planes are the same, and there is 80% commonality across all three variants, an Australian supply hub can support allies throughout the region including the United States.

The entire approach of the F-35 enables the sustainment of the fleet in radically different ways from the past.  And it is coming at a time when economic pressures create such a need; but if new approaches are not taken money will be invested in maintaining less effective forces.

The F-35 global sustainment approach allows for a more effective and dynamic force at less cost than operating a legacy fleet. At the heart of the new approach is an inherent capability to leverage logistics hubs throughout the Pacific to create a seamless ability to sustain both allied and American planes.

Presence from this perspective has a whole different meaning.  Hub sustainment means that the US can surge aircraft to the region and be supported during surge operations without having to carry its sustainment capability forward with the surged aircraft, which is the requirement currently.

The opportunity and ability to build hubs and/or training ranges in the Pacific with hubs and ranges in Canada and Australia and hubs in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Alaska, Hawaii and Guam provides an opportunity to re-shape how sustainment can be done in around the world. This will bring with it a significant boost to sortie rates and hence operational capabilities.

The Pacific F-35 Fleet can be sustained through a network of hubs and training ranges. Credit Graphic: Second Line of Defense 

As Lou Kratz, former Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of Defense, and now with Lockheed Martin has argued:

The F-35 enables all the Services to dramatically reduce the equipment that is necessary to maintain the aircraft, thereby freeing up both air and sea lift capability to bring in combat elements which then allows you to close the theater faster and enable more rapid responses to emerging threats. Additionally, because our allies are all over the world, not only do they have the support structure, they have the aircraft.  Our allies become a key part of that coalition force which is already in theatre.  So you reduce both the time, and the cost associated with the total force capability buildup.[3]

The Italians and the Japanese are making the third key contribution.  Both countries are building Final Check Out or Final Assembly Facilities and these facilities can function as maintenance facilities for allied aircraft as well.  In effect, to serve their own needs the Italians and Japanese are in effect putting in place maintenance facilities or MRO facilities which the U.S. Air Force, USN and USMC are able to use in two key regions, central to American interests.

The Italian facility is already built while the Japanese facility is currently planned. In an interview with two Lockheed managers involved in standing up the facility in Italy, they emphasized the following:

The plant was sized for 24 (aircraft) a year, including the Dutch aircraft.  So, planning is underway for that.  However, there is no official agreement in place yet between the Dutch and the Italians.

Question: And obviously such a facility could perform a key role for MCO in Europe and the region?

Answer: It clearly could.  They are making a very strong play to be MRO go-to for that region.  Given their investment, what they’re doing with the capability standup, it’s our position that that’s a logical choice.

However, that work has to be contracted, awarded and competed. But they are making a very, very strong case for that work to be put there in the future.[4]

In discussions with senior USAF officials, it is clear that they understand the impact of having Italian and Japanese maintenance facilities in place and Japanese and Italian capital invested in providing for MRO services in the future.

The Weapons Revolution

A third key way to understand how global investment is leveraged in shaping 21st century combat capabilities via the F-35 program is the evolution of weapons for the 21st century.  One problem facing the F-22 and the F-35 is that the weapons onboard are third and fourth generation weapons.  The reach and range of these aircraft is far beyond current weapons.  Why fire an AMRRAM of 70 miles in range when your F-35 can see more than 200 miles ahead of you in 360 degree combat space?

An entire weapons revolution is enabled by the F-35 in which key developments such as off-boarding of weapons are enabled.  What this means is that weapons can be fired by other platforms, whether air, sea or land based, while the aircraft is determining target sets.[5]

Even though the US has been the core architect for the aircraft, the implementation of the fleet will not be solely and perhaps primarily American.  The diversity of global weapon suppliers – European, Israeli, and Asian – will seek to integrate their products onto the F-35.

There are two examples already in play of how allies can work with the F-35 to weaponize the aircraft to the benefit of the entire fleet.

The first example is the inclusion of a Norwegian missile on the F-35.  Indeed, for Norway, a key element of the F-35 decision by Norway was the acceptance of the integration of a new Kongsberg missile onto the F-35 itself.

Through the development of the Naval Strike Missile (NSM), the Norwegian Armed Forces has established KONGSBERG and other Norwegian industry in the top tier as a supplier of long-range, precision strike missiles that will meet military requirements in a 20 to 30-year perspective.

Historically, a Norwegian selection of an aircraft and a decision to integrate a missile on that aircraft would be largely for Norway or whoever else chose that aircraft and the series variant of that aircraft.  This would not likely be a large natural market.

With the F-35 the situation is totally different.  The F-35A to be purchased by Norway has the same software as every other global F-35, and so integration on the Norwegian F-35 provides an instant global marketplace for Kongsberg.  And the international team marketing the aircraft – is de facto – working for Kongsberg as well.

It is very likely, for example, that Asian partners in the F-35 will find this capability to be extremely interesting and important.  And so Kongsberg’s global reach is embedded in the global reach of the F-35 itself.

The second example is the development of the Meteor missile by the European consortium MBDA Systems. The new Meteor missile developed by MBDA is a representative of a new generation of air combat missiles for a wide gamut of new air systems.  It can be fitted on the F-35, the Eurofighter, Rafale, Gripen and other 21st century aircraft.

There are a number of aspects of the Meteor program, which are inherent to a 21st century weapons enterprise.    At the heart of the Meteor program is an integrated development team led by the prime contractor, MBDA.  The missile was developed to meet the operational requirements of 6 partner nations and for 3 very different combat aircraft, the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Rafale and the Gripen.  It is also compatible with the F-35 weapon bay.

Frequently, a multi-national program is more of a problem than a solution.  In this case, the challenge of building for multiple aircraft and partners at the same time, has given the MBDA team a leg up on the 21st century.  To design and build the missile, a comprehensive model was developed; this incorporated the various aspects of a successful missile, ranging from aircraft characteristics, to radar system performances, and the various operational scenarios/operational styles of the different aircraft and air forces.

This has meant that MBDA has forged a very robust model for development, which is then at the heart of the production of the missile itself.  The missile is software upgradeable so that changes over time will be written into the code in the model and directly incorporated into production runs.

Software upgradeability is a game changer for 21st century systems not well understood or highlighted by analysts.  In the past, new products would be developed to replace older ones in a progressive but linear dynamic.  But now, one builds a core product with software upgradeability built in, and as operational experience is gained, the code is rewritten to shape new capabilities over time.  Eventually, one runs out of processor power and BUS performance and needs to consider a new product, but with software upgradeability, the time when one needs to do this is moved significantly forward in time.

It also allows more rapid response to evolving threats.  As threats evolve, re-programming the missiles can shape new capabilities, in this case the Meteor missile.  The current production missile is believed to be using well below the maximum processing power and bus capacity of the missile.  Significant upgradeability is built in from the beginning.

Although software upgradeability is not new with regard to weapon systems, the F-35 as a software upgradeability is. Combining the launch of a software upgradeable aircraft with a missile designed from the ground up with upgradeability built in will allow the aircraft and the weapon to evolve together over time to deal with evolving threats and challenges.

The MBDA approach to shaping upgrades for software also reflects a key concept which is important as well; one keeps software upgradeability within the prime contractor working with global coalition members, rather than having an individual service or nation responsible for software upgrades.  The advantage of multi-nationality whether it be the F-35 program itself, or the weapons providers participating in the program is the opportunity for industry to play a global role, and just narrowly focused on a single service or nation.  This will require a cultural change for a number of US services as well with the dawning of the F-35 age.

And underlying the model and the code is a multinational team.  And this team is the core capability, which can drive weapons development over time.  MBDA has functioned as the prime and has worked with three aircraft manufacturers and radar manufacturers already and is working with additional players as the missile prepares to go onto the F-35.

What has been a challenge – working with 6 air forces – is an opportunity as well.  Each of the partners had different takes on the target set they wished the missile to serve.  This has meant that the range of targets and engagement envelopes were very wide ranging, from low-level cruise missiles and high flyers, to UAVS, to helos, etc.  The end result is a software upgradeable missile with a very wide-ranging initial capability to deal with a diversity of targets

Another key aspect of the missile is it is designed from the beginning to be employed on and  off-board.  It can be fired by one aircraft and delivered to target by that aircraft or the inflight data link can be used via another asset – air or ground based – to guide it to target.

The missile ought to be integrated into the Block 4 of F-35.  When so done, the missile can provide a sweet spot of 4th and 5th generation weapons integration with its core networking capability.

Because of the nature of software integration on the F-35, the Meteor missile, which will be integrated onto the F-35 due to European requirements, means that it is available to all the other global partners of the F-35 as well. The partner aspect is crucial in leveraging global investments of America and its partners in a resource-constrained age.

In short, the F-35 is not simply a tactical replacement aircraft. 

As a fleet it provides for a set of “flying combat systems” which allow for unprecedented allied and American integration across all three variants of the aircraft.  It also allows for efficient investment in the evolution of future capabilities available to the fleet as well as providing for significant global sustainment for a globally deployed fleet.  It is a revolution in the making if it is given a chance

[1] Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake, “The F-35 and the Future of Power Projection,” Joint Forces Quarterly (July 2012).

[2] Robbin Laird, Ed Timperlake, and Richard Weitz, Rebuilding American Military Power in the Pacific: A 21st Century Strategy (Praeger Publishers, forthcoming).

[3] Robbin Laird, “The Strategic Impact of the Global Sustainment Approach of the F-35,” Second Line of Defense, October 22, 2012,

[4] “The Italian FACO System: A Key Asset in the Global F-35 Support System,” Second Line of Defense, December 5, 2012

[5] Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake, “Building 21st Century Weapons for 21st Century Operations: Key Attributes of the New Weapons Enterprise,” Second Line of Defense, March 15, 2013,