Shaping a Way Ahead for the F-35 in UK Defence: The Perspective of Air Commodore Harvey Smyth


2016-05-12 By Robbin Laird

During my visit to the United Kingdom in May 2016, I had a chance to meet with Air Commodore Harvey Smyth and members of the RAF Lightning Force team.

Air Commodore Smyth was the Tornado Force commander and has been involved with the F-35 program throughout its evolution from briefing charts to operational aircraft.

In his role as the Lightning Force Commander, Air Commodore Smyth is leading a team leveraging the force being trained and prepared in the United States and standing up the initial infrastructure at RAF Marham, a base which has been the key Tornado base for more than 30 years.

The British are on the ground floor of the standup, development and evolution of the F-35 as an air combat system, and visits to Pax River, Edwards, Eglin, Beaufort and Yuma have clearly demonstrated their key presence in the program and its long-term evolution.

Illustrative of the UK role was seen during an interview at Pax River, where a UK MoD engineer discussed the team Integrated Test Force at Pax River.

Question: How does the ITF work from a UK point of view?

Gordon Stewart: “Let me speak to my case.

I am employed by QinetiQ, but I am working here on behalf of the UK Ministry of Defence.

At the ITF, there around 900 people working here with the vast majority being U.S. Around 2/3s of the work force are contractors, and a third is government, and within that mix there are a number of UK nationals.

The UK is the only level one partner in the F-35 program, which means that we are more closely involved in the test phase of the program than other partners.

And, in my case, I work as a Flying Qualities (FQ) engineer on the 30-40 person FQ team as an integrated member.

As FQ engineers, we look at things like flight control laws and how the pilot interacts with those controls and what the aircraft feels like to fly in a wide range of conditions.

Where we do identify issues as we expand into new areas of the flight envelope, we work closely with the control law designers in Fort Worth to have those issues resolved.

We deal with the software that relates to flight controls, and those systems feeding data into the flight controls from the mission systems. Things like how the aircraft is going to get information from the ship as to where it is, what direction it is going, or how fast it is going.

As Stewart added:

This is the most integrated test team I have ever worked on.

As we work the way ahead, it might be a UK person, a Lockheed person, or a US government person who provides the best solution. It is a very well integrated team at the working level.

Computer Generated Image of the Maintenance and Finish Facility which is being built at RAF Marham, Norfolk, as part of a programme of works to prepare the station for the arrival of the F-35 Lightning II fleet in 2018.
Computer Generated Image of the Maintenance and Finish Facility which is being built at RAF Marham, Norfolk, as part of a programme of works to prepare the station for the arrival of the F-35 Lightning II fleet in 2018.

It is a very different test process than in the past, although what is happening in the F-35 program is the way we are approaching the future as well. In the past, there was much more serial testing.

Twenty years ago when I first started, the contractor would do something and then throw it over the fence to the government, which would look at it, approve it and then pass it on to the operator.

Now with the pace of technology, and the role of software, we have a much more integrated process. We are shaping the evolution of the aircraft as it goes out the door as well. 

At Pax, we are testing a software version ahead or a couple ahead of what the fleet is getting at the moment. In effect, we are testing the next iteration of the aircraft.

And the Edwards and Beaufort efforts provide important pieces to the evolution as well. We have an integrated RAF and Royal Navy team at Edwards. 17 (R) squadron at Edwards is a mix of RAF and RN.

At Beaufort, we have a UK team and one of our aircraft, and we are working closely with the USMC. That is another key element of the joint integrated effort, from our point of view.

It can be easily forgotten that the USAF and the RAF have not flown the same aircraft for a very long time indeed.

The RAF and the Marines have flown Harriers and along with the Spanish and Italians formed a three-decade Harrier community.

And Smyth as a Harrier pilot underscored the importance of this shared legacy moving forward.

“As an RAF pilot with significant maritime and carrier operational experience, we are shaping a collegiate and joint way ahead with the Royal Navy which brings the RAF domain knowledge of ways to operate in the extended battlespace with the coming of the F-35B to the new Queen Elizabeth class carrier.

Being radical, I think it would make sense to put a picture of the Queen Elizabeth class carrier on our RAF recruiting poster;the RAF and the RN are jointly delivering the UK’s future Carrier Strike capability, and a all RAF Lightning pilots will spend some of their time at sea, as I did throughout my 16-year career in Joint Force Harrier – we are forging an integrated approach together, which is incredibly exciting.”

When I was at Williamtown Air Base, the RAAF showed me the makeover of the base with the coming of the F-35, but made the point that the government was remaking the base for the next 50 years of the evolution of airpower, not just preparing for the F-35.

With the RAF it is different.


“The UK Government is investing heavily in an infrastructure redevelopment programme at RAF Marham for the 2018 arrival of our Lightning Force.

Specifically, this is centred purely on the F-35 Lightning, and doesn’t necessarily focus on other domestic infrastructure on the base, such as new accomodation. In the future, no doubt, the domestic site will also need an uplift – effectively, bringing Lightning to Marham secures the base for at least another 40-50 years.

In the near term, we are focussed on shaping the F-35 infrastructure with the long-term perspective in mind, with regard to security and support of the aircraft.

Much of the infrastructure redevelopment involves building from scratch, as opposed to redeveloping existing architecture.”

Smyth added: “There’s a cost benefit to starting from scratch, specifically because of the need to security accredit the buildings for Lightning.

If you take an old building and try to accredit it, you must basically strip it back to nothing and then rebuild it again anyway so that you know intimately what is in the make-up of that building. Building from new is a much easier, and more cost-effective, approach.

Alongside the Lightning specific buildings, we are also updating the operating surfaces – this work was needed to be done anyway, regardless of the fact that Lightning was coming to Marham.

The main runway is getting redone.

The secondary runway, which is currently disused due to disrepair, is being rebuilt completely, and will include a short strip specifically for F-35B STOL operations.

The current taxiways are being redone and we are building 3 new purpose-built vertical landing pads, and an ajoining taxiway structure.”

Air Commodore Smyth emphasized that the RAF was standing up a base where the goal was to have clear operational sovereignty over their aircraft.

“We are building what we call our Freedom of Action facilities that allow us to maintain operational sovereignty of the airplane, which give us an ability to use the aircraft, and maintain the aircraft, through life, at a time and place of our choosing.

That was always the absolute foundational bedrock of UK being a tier one partner in the F35 programme – it is extremely important for UK Defence that we achieve an ability to maintain operational sovereignty over our jets.

With this in mind, we’re building our own maintenance and final finish facility so that we can do our own upgrades to the airplane, including stealth repair.”

The UK is also building a number of the facilities which have been stood up in the United States, such as a version of the Eglin Academic Training Center.

And one key expectation of the RAF and UK government’s part is that the sustainment approach for the F-35 will build upon their successful Performance Based Logistics model used for both the Tornado and Typhoon.

One evidence of that expectation is that the UK is building a facility for the services and industry to work together, hand in hand, in maintaining and modernizing the aircraft.

Air Commodore Smyth spoke at some length and passion about his experience as the Tornado Force Commander, where a 40+-year-old aircraft was able to be maintained throughout the very high tempo ops facing an aging force.

He argued that simply put: “We could not have had the operational performance of the aircraft without our exceptional contractual and joined-up working relationships with BAE Systems and Rolls Royce.”

The contracts deliver a product – an aircraft able to go to combat, and he would like to see the focus shift from payments to industry based on simple aircraft availability, to ones based on dispatch rate and mission achievement for combat aircraft.

Air Commodore Smyth also discussed the ROCET contract with Rolls Royce as an example of how to do sustainment leveraging using the right kind of industrial-service partnership.

“In the ROCET contract, a few years ago we contracted Rolls Royce to do our FOD management for us.

We were probably trashing upwards of 2 or 3 engines a year through a FOD.

We were doing everything we could from an air force point of view to be good managers of foreign object damage.

Computer Generated Image of the outside of one of the facilities which is being built at RAF Marham, Norfolk, as part of a programme of works to prepare the station for the arrival of the F-35 Lightning II fleet in 2018.
Computer Generated Image of the outside of one of the facilities which is being built at RAF Marham, Norfolk, as part of a programme of works to prepare the station for the arrival of the F-35 Lightning II fleet in 2018.

We incentivized Rolls Royce to take that on, and as the subject matter experts, they were, and are, fantastic at it.

In fact last year, we had zero engines rejected due to FOD, and that’s down to them applying proper analysis and procedures and recommendations with regards to how to drive down a FOD-engine repair rate.

All of a sudden it’s a win-win for everybody.

As a Force Commander, I get better operational capability out of my airplanes.

I also have engineers that aren’t changing engines, and are able to concentrate on other work.

Rolls Royce makes more money due to the contract incentivization, and I get much better operational performance. Why wouldn’t this be a good thing?

More importantly, we do this effort together, as a Whole Force, so regardless of being Industry or Serviceman, we are all pulling together to deliver operational excellence.”

He clearly wishes to see the F-35 program build on this historical experience and not follow the USAF historic approach to sustainment with their F-15s at Lakenheath.

“With that approach. they are well over 10 years behind us with regard to our sustainment approach and experience.

I would hope that we could leverage this experience, and apply it to the sustainment of our inbound Lightning Force.”

He discussed the shift from a global solution to one, which could be shaped around regional hubs, and thought that the emergence of a viable regional hub support approach would make the most sense.

There are clear barriers to getting there, but for Air Commodore Smyth and others in the RAF, a forward leaning PBL was a necessary ingredient to ensuring the sortie generation rates which the aircraft is capable of doing.

How did he see the strategic opportunity of working with the USAF, as the USAF brings its two squadrons of F-35As to the UK?

“It is early days, but we are discussing ways to shape synergy.

We already have an excellent working relationship with our USAFE colleagues, and both sides are being very open to exploring ideas.

But the real opportunity will lie in joint training and some semblance of joint sustainment.

How do we do training in a more joined up way, both synthetically which is of immediate interest to me, and live with our F-35s because there’s got to be synergy in our approaches in British and European air space.

This could then no doubt grow beyond a UK-USAFE relationship, as our close European neighbors establish their F-35s in their countries.

The next question then is sustainment.

What is the appetite from the USAF to want to leverage off what will already be found at RAF Marham as we shape our infrastructure?

We fully understand that the JPO is still working hard to bottom out what the eventual Global Sustainment Solution will look like.

But at Marham we have left an ability to do modular builds and to grow it bigger if there is an appetite from USAF, or from someone in Europe, to want to bring their airplanes in as well.

This applies to training as well as sustainment.

The USAF has operated F-15s at RAF Lakenheath and have used a classic USAF model of flying in parts to sustain their F-15s with C-5s, C-17s and tankers.

It would make sense to shift to a new model whereby our F-35s shared sustainment and parts, transparently between our two bases, which after all are not very far apart.”

The ATTAC Contract

From the BAE Systems website:

Tornado ATTAC

We provide the Royal Air Force with a guarantee that their Tornado aircraft’s availability, capability and effectiveness will be maintained throughout its service life. This enables the RAF to perform their duties.

What is it?

ATTAC (Availability Transformation: Tornado Aircraft Contract)

This is a contract with UK Ministry of Defence to maintain and support the RAF fleet of Tornado aircraft until their retirement in 2019.

We have a commitment to supporting and maintaining the fleet; with a responsibility of ensuring that enough aircraft are available for the squadrons to fly, making them easily deployable on operations.

We have a 250 strong team that works alongside the customer in order to deliver this service mainly from RAF Marham in Norfolk. To cut out any delays in the decision-making process there are communications links to the supply chain and project management teams at our Warton and Samlesbury sites also.

According to David Ward, Head of UK Fleet Operations, Tornado: “It is incredibly important that we perform for the RAF for the security of the nation, but it’s also important from a business point of view because around the world we have to deliver on our commitments here in the UK.”

 The Benefits:

  •  Guaranteed availability of the aircraft – UK Tornado fleet is able to rapidly deploy on operations. Recent deployments include Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • Capability upgrades and maintenance – capability upgrades are scheduled around servicing to cut down on lost time and increase aircraft availability.
  • Prompt joint decisions – through working side-by-side with the customer and using camera links to team members at other locations.

 The Tornado aircraft has been involved in continued operations for almost 25 years, its capabilities have been extensively modified as a weapons platform and it sits strongly up there with the best. As Tornado’s planned out of service date of 2019 approaches, the team continues to develop its capability as it provides support on a day-to-day basis.

The ROCET Contract

From the Rolls Royce Website:

Rolls-Royce opens new Service Centre at RAF Marham

Friday, 11 January 2013

Rolls-Royce, the global power systems company, has opened its first Service Delivery Centre to support military engines at the Royal Air Force base at Marham in Norfolk, UK. The facility was officially opened today by the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, and Rolls-Royce Chief Executive Officer, John Rishton.

A team of around 15 specialist Rolls-Royce engineers will work alongside their RAF counterparts at the new centre to deliver tailored support services for the Tornado combat aircraft’s RB199 engines at the customer’s operating base. The Service Delivery Centre also features live video links to the Rolls-Royce Operations Centre in Bristol, which will enable real-time decision making on engine issues helping to further increase aircraft availability for missions.

Service Delivery Centres form part of a suite of innovative support solutions that Rolls-Royce is implementing across a global network of over 100 military customers. The centres are aimed at improving engine availability and reducing costs for customers.

The Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, said: “I was privileged to be at Royal Air Force Marham today to open the newly refurbished Rolls-Royce Service Delivery Centre. This state of the art facility will provide critical support to the Royal Air Force’s Tornado fleet so that it can continue to deliver the first rate operational capability for which the Force is justifiably famous.

We are grateful for the essential support that our industry partners provide; their work, in true partnership with the Royal Air Force, has and will continue to deliver world class performance on operations and in training.”

John Rishton, Rolls-Royce Chief Executive, said: “This new Service Delivery Centre is an excellent example of Rolls-Royce and the Royal Air Force working in close partnership at the heart of our customer’s operations.

It will enable us to maximise engine time on-wing and improve response times on critical operational decisions.”

Rolls-Royce supports the Tornado’s RB199 engines under the ROCET (RB199 Operational Contract for Engine Transformation) contract which has effectively halved the cost of engine support for the RAF.

The contract was renewed and expanded in April 2010 to include the transfer of the RB199 repair and overhaul to Bristol from Marham.

This support model was significantly tested by the need to surge engine output in support of the UK’s Operation Ellamy activity in Libya in the summer of 2011 and delivered all customer requirements.

Work on the Service Delivery Centre started at Marham in April 2012 and was completed in September.

According to the UK MoD:

“Royal Navy and Royal Air Force Pilots are training to fly the new state-of-the-art stealth jet the F-35B Lightning II alongside their US counterparts at Marine Air Corps Station Beaufort, South Carolina.

The highly advanced 5th generation jet will come into UK service from 2018, but will make it’s first appearance over here at the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford in July and the Farnborough Air Show too.”

Second Line of Defense has recently interviewed the Commander of the Lightning team and members of that team during a visit to the United Kingdom in May 2016, and the interview and related materials will appear laters this month.

Credit Video: UK Ministry of Defence, April 26, 2016

We have just published a book on the F-35 and 21st Century Defence: Shaping a Way Ahead.

The book is appearing initially on Amazon and will be available worldwide on Amazon stores in their digital format for reading on Kindle.

UK site

Australian Site

The book is about the arrival of the F-35 and its interactive role with other key innovations, which are reshaping the defence forces of the democracies.

As one analyst, put it: “If you did not have the F-35, you would have to invent it to be part of and to further the innovations we are pursuing to reshape defence, combat, and homeland security operations.”

The book draws on literally hundreds of visits with pilots, maintainers, testers, industrialists and visits in Asia, Europe and the Middle East discussing the F-35 and how it is viewed by key states as part of their defence transformation.