The F-35 Program Boss's To-Do List

Unitd States Air Force

Later this year the Marine Corps will declare the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter ready for war.

The plane will not have all the bells and whistles originally anticipated, but it will still be more advanced than the old Harriers and Hornets in the Marine Corps inventory. And for the issues that aren’t fixed, they will use work-arounds, Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the F-35 program manger, said Tuesday.

The blunt-speaking Bogdan said the cost of the expensive program is coming down as the result of the Pentagon negotiating better deals with Lockheed Martin, the lead contractor on the project.

Since Bogdan took over the program in 2012, the Pentagon has continuously lowered the price of each aircraft. The cost of Air Force F-35s has dropped from $117 million to $112 million to $108 million on the past three buys.

The Marine Corps’ price for their jet has dropped from $145 million to $137 million to $134 million over the past three buys, while the Navy version has dropped from $134 million to $130 million to $129 million.

“I anticipate that [the next two buys] will follow the same trend,” he said.

Many problems that have dogged the project over the past decade have been fixed or are in the process of being fixed, Bogdan says.

“We’re behind those problems,” he said. “Not all of them are fielded solutions. Not all of them are fully tested, but they don’t even make my top 20 list when it comes to technical stuff anymore.”

But that doesn’t mean the program is out of the woods. Here’s what’s still on Bogdan’s watch list:

Software

The F-35 has more than 8 million lines of code and is the most software intensive fighter jet ever built. Software “always has been the No. 1 technical issue on this program … and probably always will be,” Bogdan says. The software that runs the mechanical flight controls on the airplane is performing “very, very well,” Bogdan said. The mission software, which fuses data from the plane’s many electronic sensors, is a different story. “Fusion is by far the most complicated and worrisome, on my part, element of this program,” Bogdan said. One issue: A fusion algorithm sometimes misinterprets a threat, such as a surface-to-air missile site, as multiple targets when four jets are flying together. The Marines will initially deploy the plane with work-arounds to this and other issues.

ALIS

Think of it like the housekeeper from the Brady Bunch: It’s integral in keeping things running smoothly. ALIS stands for the Autonomic Logistics Information System, a computer system that manages maintenance on the entire F-35 fleet. The software that runs ALIS is not advancing as quickly as the aircraft itself. Since the computer system “isn’t as mature as it needs to be,” maintenance workers need to perform work-arounds.

Reliability & Maintainability

The F-35 will get more firepower and capabilities incrementally. The program office uses growth curves to project how the aircraft will mature over time. Before this year, there was no plan to get on those curves, Bogdan said. The first two batches of aircraft off the production line were far inferior to the current jets. The Air Force and Navy versions are now close to where they should be on the growth curve, according to Bogdan. The Marine Corps: “not so much,” he said. “But once we get on the growth curve here in the next year or so, staying on that growth curve is what’s important.”

Aircraft Structure

The structure of the Marine Corps F-35 is much different than the Air Force and Navy version. That’s because there is a massive fan positioned behind the cockpit that allows the jet to land vertically, like a helicopter. During testing, machines stress the aircraft to determine structural limits. “You try to break the airplane and figure out where it’s going to break first,” Bogdan said. The Air Force and Marine versions have not had any major issues throughout testing.

In 2005, it was discovered that the Marine version was 3,000 pounds overweight. To reduce weight, parts of the aircraft were redesigned and different materials were used. “We [reduced weight] a whole lot of ways,” Bogdan said. “Some of that, unfortunately, is coming back to bite us now.” A titanium bulkhead, a central piece to the aircraft structure that essentially holds the plane together, was replaced with a thinner aluminum version. “What we thought was a good engineering judgment back then -- turns out that we’ve got some issues now,” Bogdan said.

Tires

There are a number lesser issues that “we know we will be able to fix [and are] not technically challenging, they just require some time to do them,” Bogdan said. Among them, the Dunlop tires on the Marine Corps version. The tires are particularly difficult on this aircraft because they have to have enough give so they bounce on a vertical landing, but also enough durability to maintain their form during a 170 mile-per-hour takeoff from a runway. Testers are evaluating a tire now that is performing better than its three predecessors, Bogdan said. “This is more of a manufacturing problem than anything else,” he said. “We know exactly what the tire needs to look like. Being able to manufacture a tire to those [specifications] is really hard.”

Engine

Engine problems have arisen throughout the F-35 program, most recently last year when a design flaw grounded the entire fleet for several weeks. The problem has been identified and an interim fix is in place, program officials say. A final fix will be completed by the end of the summer, Bogdan said, adding, “Still on the watch list … but I don’t lose sleep over that too much.”

Marine Corps Deployment

To meet the Marine Corps deployment schedule later this year, a number of objectives must be met.

Among them, 10 aircraft must be in combat configuration, meaning they could go to war. Two aircraft have received modification and a third will be done “soon,” Bogdan said.

Pilots need to undergo training on simulator software that is up to date with the software in the aircraft themselves. “Today we have software in those [simulators] that needs to be upgraded over the next month and a half to the latest version of the software that they’re going to use in enough time so that their pilots can train,” Bogdan said.

Also on the list are mission data files, little computers that plug into the airplane and depict threats in a region. The Marine Corps needs these mission data files for two specific areas of the world where they expect to fly. 

Last on the to-do list for the Marine Corps deployment is the hardware for the plane’s complicated logistics system. The physical computer system itself needed to be scaled down and the software also needed modification to work on a smaller mainframe. The system is slated to deploy about 30 days late, Bogdan said.

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