F-35 Former Head Talks JSF Next Steps at AIAA

Lockheed Martin’s Jeff Babione speaks about the F-35 at AIAA Aviation Forum. (Avionics International)

As the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program moves from low-rate initial production into full-rate production, manufacturer Lockheed Martin’s focus shifts from initial development to sustainment and continuous capability development and delivery (C2D2) necessary to keep it relevant for decades to come. To that end, the company has around 60 software and hardware upgrades currently planned for the multi-role fighter over the next 10 years.

Speaking at AIAA Aviation Forum Tuesday, Lockheed Martin Advanced Development Programs – colloquially, Skunk Works – head Jeff Babione, who until recently led the F-35 program, discussed the JSF’s controversial two-decade history and its path going forward.

One of the most immediate upgrades coming to the F-35 is an automatic ground collision avoidance system (auto-GCAS), technology which didn’t exist yet when the F-35 was being built but has since been implemented on the F-16 and saved the lives of seven pilots by taking control to avoid a collision when the pilot was unable to do so.

In replacing Northrop Grumman’s AN/AAQ-37 distributed aperture system with one by Raytheon, Babione said the F-35 will gain around five times the resolution in its 360-degree sensor package at a lower cost.

Further out, Lockheed Martin is looking at an increased integration of AI and machine learning. The F-35’s hallmark is its powerful sensor suite, and one of the challenges is parsing, sharing and making use of the data it gathers. Babione suggested that one possibility could be a future in which the only reality the pilot sees “out of the cockpit is one that is completely augmented,” constantly showing AI-recommended decisions.

Those changes will be part of the ongoing push for lower costs. To this point, depending on the variant, unit cost has decreased from close to $200 million to about $94, but Lockheed Martin promises an attractively priced $80 million fighter by 2020. At that point, production is slated to have ramped up to 150 units annually, compared to this year’s scheduled 91.

By then, the U.K. Royal Air Force/Navy, Italian Air Force and U.S. Navy should have joined the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps and the Israeli Air Force in initial operational capability, Babione said, and production is slated to have ramped up to 150 units annually. That’s important, because for the program’s eight partners and three countries with foreign military sales agreements – which he said could expand, as there are “three or four more” in negotiations – the F-35’s three variants fill a lot of roles, replacing everything from an F-16 Fighting Falcon to a Harrier Jump Jet to an F/A-18 Hornet or F-4 Phantom around the world.

An Italian F-35. F-35s are built in the U.S., Italy and Japan. (Lockheed Martin)

The $325 billion JSF program’s footprint is so large that it would be the world’s 50th wealthiest country by GDP – comparable to Greece or the Czech Republic. That global supply chain that lets Lockheed Martin work on driving down the price is the mark of a modern large-scale program. But the other side of building a fighter in the modern world, Babione says, is that there’s a massive amount of oversight and unit price isn’t the be-all, end-all anymore: Customers are thinking more than ever about sustainment cost.

“In an unprecedented way, Congress is looking at the cost to own the F-35 over its entire life-cycle,” Babione said. “Every building its built, every job that’s added to the US Government, for 56 years. You think we thought about the total cost to own the F-16 when it started almost 50 years ago? Or the C-5 and the U-2 60 years ago? No. But that’s the new metric. So, what are we doing as an industry to ensure we reduce the cost to own?”

That may indeed be the next question the enormous JSF program has to answer.

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