Shaping an Integrated Combat Capability: Leveraging F-35 Commonality


2014-08-28 Earlier, in our discussion with Major Summa, the executive officer of VFMA-121, the first operational U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) F-35 Squadron, the aviator emphasized the impact commonality was already having.

Working with the other service pilots provides an important window on where we want to go with the concepts of operations of the aircraft.

We have different backgrounds — Harrier, F-18s, F-16s, F-22s and F-15s — but we understand that, given the commonality of the aircraft, these different backgrounds suggest common ways ahead.

We are all able to contribute to the way ahead for a common aircraft.

But this is just the beginning of the possibilities of what F-35 fleet commonalities will able to provide, if leveraged effectively.

Major Summa in front of the Squadron building. Credit: SLD
Major Summa in front of the Squadron building. Credit: SLD

To discuss further the potential impact of F-35 commonality, we spoke with Louis Kratz, the former DoD logistics official and now vice president of logistics and sustainment with Lockheed Martin, in an interview in late July 2014.

According to Kratz, commonality enables force integration, not simply interoperability:

When the program that we recognize today as the F-35 was first conceived, there was a national and international recognition of the need for rapid coalition response capabilities.

And that drove both the air system and the sustainment system designed to enable that capability.

The joint and coalition force was not only looking for interoperability; we were looking for force integration.

To enable the operational and national security capability for force integration, a common aircraft was designed.

Because of the different variants, the aircraft today is about 30 percent common on the airframe side, but the avionics, propulsion system and air vehicle systems are all common.

And, particularly, the high-cost repairable parts for the core combat systems are common across all three variants.

Question: There are obviously different ways one can build out the maintenance system over time, but what does commonality in the core parts enable for the maintainers?

Louis Kratz:

Really, two core capabilities emerge.

First, a common parts pool can be created and leveraged by maintainers.

Second, maintainers of the global fleet, including all three variants, can share experiences and help shape the global maintenance regimes.

Question: And the potential impact on coalition operations of a common parts system and approach?

Louis Kratz:

Starting” common is not going to deliver the major national security capability we are looking for from commonality, namely force integration.

But “staying” common as the program evolves will.

This allows you to “plug and play” with your coalition partners, from the U.S. to our partners, or foreign partners working with non-U.S. coalition partners.

We have unique identification numbers for all the high value parts. We know the exact number, the exact configuration of each aircraft. And that is as designed, as built, as delivered and as maintained.

That allows us to ensure that when we deploy aircraft, we as a nation and as an allied coalition know the exact maintenance requirements, spare parts and test equipment required for each particular aircraft that’s deployed as part of that response.

And because of that, we can rely on each other for maintenance and sparing, and thereby reduce both the amount of gear we have to take with us, and the time it takes to respond.

Question: This means that when you design an initial coalition operation you have the possibility of shaping the support plan as well for that operation?

Louis Kratz:

Staying common can allow for such an approach.

Question: Let us talk a little bit about what having coalition commonality parts could allow the U.S. to do overseas as we start to build logistic sustainment centers.

How does this inherent commonality potentially translate to coalition sustainment centers?

Louis Kratz:

The Joint Program Office (JPO) has been quite clear that they’re evaluating potential maintenance and supply centers in Asia and Europe.

And we, at Lockheed Martin, are supporting their efforts, but they will make that final determination.

Historically, when a nation bought a U.S. produced aircraft, they also received maintenance set up capability, intermediate maintenance capability, tons of test equipment and anything else special for them that they needed, or they believed they needed, for the aircraft. As a result, commonality was diminished across the allied users, leading to an interoperable fleet, but not an integrated one.

For the F-35 to ensure that we maintain an integrated combat capability across multiple mission sets, the JPO will select regional centers for depot maintenance, or component repair.

That allows you to optimize the global fleet so that you have a smaller spares pool.

In turn, the regional location of those maintenance or supply centers allows you to respond quickly to your operational customers in that region.

The 22 Building F-35 Facility at Cameri. The facility is designed as a FACO and a s multinational support center for deployed F-35s.Credit: Italian Ministry of Defense
The 22 buildings F-35 Facility at Cameri. The facility is designed as a FACO and a s multinational support center for deployed F-35s.Credit: Italian Ministry of Defense

Question: So this would then allow integrated combat power built around the F-35 to deploy or to operate anywhere in the world? And I think from this point of view, it is important to understand this is not just about the U.S. showing up to do an operation, but coalition partners working more effectively if they see a need to do so, with ourselves then in reserve or backup role.

Louis Kratz:

If we stay common, that is true, and will give us a capability we collectively have never had before.

Question: When we are talking about sustainability for the F-35 fleet built on commonality, we are not just talking about maintenance of existing configurations; we are also talking about the approach to upgrades as well?

Louis Kratz:

We are.

When we talk about upgrades in the CNI or any of the integrated avionics, those upgrades will largely by software driven.

The system was designed from the beginning to allow you to have that capability with growth, number one.

And then number two, the ability to upgrade against a certain threat environment through software that can be pushed to the jets, and to the associated training systems and maintenance systems simultaneously.

We have never had that capability before.

Frank Kendall greeted by Italian Air Force COS Preziosa. Credit:
Frank Kendall greeted by Italian Air Force COS Preziosa at the Cameri Facility: Credit: Italian MOD

And what that allows one to do for a nation, or a coalition, you’re going into a particular operation, and for whatever reason, we’ve uncovered that the adversary has a new threat associated with that.

We can push the update to the jet, and the maintenance team simultaneously, quite frankly, from anywhere in the world. And that system then becomes immediately operationally relevant without a massive mod or upgrade program.

Compare that with the current situation with regard to what we do today with fielded aircraft.

With fielded aircraft, we take an integrated aircraft, and hardware/software suite, and we break it up into parts, both the hardware and the software; we farm that out to various maintenance units, and supply places.

And it is not very long before there are changes introduced both hardware and software that then mitigates the commonality, which, in turn, makes it impossible to send a single upgrade for an integrated fleet.

And then that results in more time, more money to do the upgrade to begin with, and then second, non-responsive to the threat environment, particularly if you’re in an expeditionary mode.

Question: Clearly though another advantage of a global fleet is that specific allies can develop a capability to deal with a specific new threat and there solution set then available as desired by the other members of the F-35 global enterprise?

Louis Kratz:

If certain nations need certain capabilities on their aircraft, we have the flexibility to address that, and we have the flexibility to know that they can develop that capability without diminishing the core commonality that we need in order to pull together rainbow operations.

Question: One challenge the USMC has faced in becoming transformed by the Osprey into the only tiltrotor assault force in the world was the challenge of overcoming the perception of the Osprey as a replacement for the CH-46; but really was a whole new capability.

Clearly, the USMC F-35 community feels that there is a similar challenge with the F-35; it does not replace the Harrier and the F-18. In fact, when we asked a USMC pilot about the VFMA-121 squadron with regard to the mix of Harrier and F-18 pilots in the squadron, he forcefully responded:We only have F-35 pilots in this squadron.

Clearly, the challenge of understanding that the F-35 is NOT a replacement aircraft is a challenge as well for the approach that you are describing.

Louis Kratz:

It is a central challenge.

If we as a coalition attempt to support this aircraft the way we have all the others, then this aircraft will end up like all the others, that is to say non-common, non-integrated.

This will happen if we break it up into parts, both hardware and software.

If we do work to maintain the commonality, the impact on coalition operations will be dramatic and allow a unique capability to emerge.

Let’s talk about a hypothetical example.

A coalition operation has been set in motion, and the common jet is showing up to execute the mission.

In prior efforts, everybody brought their jets, everybody brought their maintainers, everybody brought their supply kits, and they brought their test equipment.

With the F-35, not only will you have sustainment commonality, but also maintainers who can pool their experience.

With a shared maintenance concept, the maintenance actions, enabling IT system and the maintenance training can be drawn upon to deploy potentially a rainbow wing.

And only one nation may be asked to bring the support equipment and the maintainers, as opposed to all nations.

And the operating partners will have the confidence that their jets can be maintained by another nation’s flight line with the same confidence that they would have as on their own flight line.

The configuration control of the jet, test equipment, the spare parts and the maintenance training can be drawn upon for such an outcome.

This is a 21st century approach to an aircraft not designed to replace legacy aircraft limited to interoperability; but to build upon commonality to enable combat integration.

United Kingdom Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Frankie Buchler, became the first international student-pilot to fly a sortie in the F-35B Lightning II March 19 at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. (U.S. Air Force photo/Maj. Karen Roganov)
United Kingdom Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Frankie Buchler, became the first international student-pilot to fly a sortie in the F-35B Lightning II March 19, 2013 at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. (U.S. Air Force photo/Maj. Karen Roganov)

The approach discussed by Kratz is being tested out in various war games to examine how a rainbow wing concept could be shaped and implemented.

According to Joe Randall of Lockheed Martin:

The U.S. Air Force is holding a series of war games that include coalition partners to examine how to shape the maintenance approach to leverage commonality.

In the scenario being tested, the U.S. deploys jets to a regional crisis and examines ways in which combat integration is facilitated by allied capabilities inherent in a common F-35 fleet.

It is clear that there is a disruptive cultural change associated with this, not unlike the Osprey experience.

Randall underscored that a number of experienced maintainers are involved in the war games, and there comes an a-ha moment when the J in JSF comes to the forefront.

We’re working with NCOs, E7s, E8s and mid-level officers who have years, and years, and years of experience of maintaining legacy aircraft.

And the cultural paradigms are a little bit difficult to break down, but eventually, there is a light that goes on.

And there is that ah-ha moment.

And people understand that we ought to be exploiting and leveraging the commonality inherent in the F-35.

For our initial book on the impact of F-35 maintenance on a shift in culture see the following:

For a look at the Italian and Australian approaches see the following Special Reports:

Recently, we published a piece on the initial experiences from the first squadron to maintain the F-35 organically:

When visiting Yuma Marine Corps Air Station in July 2014, we were able to discuss the next evolution of the maintenance regime, namely a squadron maintained by its own organic assets.

VMFA-121 is the first F-35 squadron and the first with organic maintenance.

Staff Sgt. with VMFA-121. Credit: SLD
Staff Sgt. Jason Lunion, F-35B maintainer, with VMFA-121. Credit: SLD

A squadron with organic maintenance simply means that the Marines are manning the maintenance squadron with inputs from technical representatives, but because it is the first operational squadron obviously the Marines need to prepare for overseas deployment and to prepare to support the aircraft in forward positions.

Notably, the squadron has already deployed for movement to the United Kingdom for the Royal Tattoo and Farnbourgh Air Shows but was stopped at Pax River while DOD made its decisions on the go ahead with F-35 fleet engines, a process that concluded favorably but too late to permit the squadron jets to fly across the Atlantic.

They had to fly back across the United States to Yuma on the day we were visiting the squadron.

And the flight to England was viewed as part of the overall progress to the IOC of the aircraft next Summer.

As part of that progress, the maintainers from the squadron accompanied the jets and were prepared to support the plane fully in operation.

In the work up for RIAT/Farnborough, VMFA-121 conducted the first ever engine change away from home station at Pax River.

Installation went quicker/smoother than was predicted, and helped VMFA-121 move closer towards having a combat/expeditionary IOC deployment capability in 2015.

We had a chance to discuss the progress with a powertrain maintainer on the F-35 working at VMFA-121.

Staff Sargent Jason Lunion has been a maintainer since 1999 and his first squadron CO (for VMFA-223) was Lt. General Davis who is now the Deputy Commandant of Aviation.

He most immediately comes from working on engines with the Harrier but has wide range of experience, as one would expect for members of the first squadron with organic maintenance for the USMC in supporting the F-35.

The F-35 is the first low observable aircraft to be operated by the maritime services, and requires some changes in how the maintainers support the aircraft, and notably at sea.