Two steps forward, half a step back.

JSF

14th Feb 2011


Consequences for Australia.

On January 6 US Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that the 2 variants of the Joint Strike Fighter for the Air Force and Navy were proceeding satisfactorily, but the Marine Corps Short Takeoff and Landing (STOVL) version was not. His solution was to place the latter on a 2-year probation and if sufficient technical progress is not made in that time it will be scrapped. The consequences of changes to the US programme contain some good news for Australia, even though an earlier decision to produce fewer jets overall in the next year will add to the stress level of local industry.

While some Australian companies have won work on the JSF, the programme is moving much more slowly than was anticipated when the Government signed on in October 2002 – a decision that was accompanied by encouraging predictions of work share. If any local company had subsequently been dependant solely on JSF work they would have gone out of business years ago. So the bright spot in recent events is that the development of the aircraft is now well and truly beyond the point of no return – if anyone still had their doubts – and it looks increasingly probable that the RAAF will start to take delivery in 2014.

Australia is purchasing the ‘A’ model aircraft – that is, the one that is being built for the US Air Force. It is scheduled to achieve Initial Operating Capability (IOC) for the USAF by mid-2017, which fits well with the RAAF’s intention of achieving the same status a year later. The possibility remains that the US IOC might slip by six months but, even if so, the impact on Australia will be minimal.

The RAAF has already been the beneficiary of an earlier restructure of the US programme when in January 2010 a number of changes were announced – some of them quite dramatic – such as reducing the number of aircraft being produced annually for the System Design and Development (SDD) phase, but increasing the project funding by another US $4.6 billion. This cash injection came from the US alone, who took the view that the other eight other partner countries (including Australia) had committed to the JSF in good faith and that they should not be paying extra to sort out US programmatic issues.

As a participant in the SDD phase, the RAAF has good visibility of the technical status of the project, and setting aside the issues unique to the STOVL, is satisfied with progress to date. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS) Of the myriad technical areas being monitored, the ones at the top of the list are the status of the revolutionary helmet-mounted display and in addition the complexity of some software module security applications as they relate to Australia.

A recent Australian success.

On February 2, Quickstep Holdings Ltd opened their composite facility at Bankstown Airport in Sydney – a decision based in large part on forthcoming JSF work. Quickstep – originally based in Perth – has taken over 4,200 square metres of buildings formerly owned by Boeing. Success has many fathers and the Federal Government, as well as that of New South Wales, believes they have a hand in the move – which has the potential to inject $180 million per year into the local economy and create an additional 400 jobs.

The JSF work is based on Quickstep signing a long-term agreement with Northrop Grumman for the supply of composite parts for fuselages. Northrop Grumman is a major subcontractor to Lockheed Martin and this agreement is a necessary precursor to doing business on the highly-regulated programme. Under the terms of the document – which follows earlier negotiations - Quickstep will produce an initial group of composite subassemblies that includes F-35 lower side skins, maintenance access panels and fuel tank covers.

“We have been working closely with Quickstep since 2010 to help them develop and mature their manufacturing capabilities to reach the high-precision standards required for the F-35,” said Ram Ramkumar, director of F-35 international programs for Northrop Grumman’s Aerospace Systems sector. “We look forward to their continued progress as a supplier of increasingly complex parts for all three variants of the aircraft.”

The first parts are scheduled to be delivered in May 2012, with a key test piece due in November this year. Apparently production orders will be placed annually. This arrangement will come as a relief to both Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, who are under some pressure to fulfill their industry commitments to the Australian Government.

According to Ramkumar, “Quickstep is expected to eventually produce three major groups of parts for Northrop Grumman – up to 16 different parts in all – ranging from the small, average complexity parts covered under the current agreement, to medium and large parts of increasing complexity, both in terms of their shape and the manufacturing processes required to produce them. Northrop Grumman will continue to provide technical assistance to Quickstep as it expands and improves its manufacturing capabilities to meet the F-35 requirements.”

Quickstep has outlined the different components, including lower side skins, maintenance access panels, fuel tank covers, lower skins and in-board weapons bay doors, projected to amount to some 36,000+ parts over the life of the program and which could generate annual turnover of around $50 million by 2015. The total value of the work over the life of the aircraft could be up to $700 million, though other estimates place the figure at $580 million – a difference which hardly matters given the very large numbers involved.

Led by energetic Managing Director, Philippe Odouard, Quickstep has been enthusiastically pursuing opportunities on the JSF programme for several years based on their innovative composite manufacturing process. Composites are an increasingly important part of aerospace technology largely because they combine great strength with low weight. For military use they have the further advantages of being inherently stealthier than metal and retaining their strength after considerable battle damage.

However, even though composites have been coming down in price since being introduced in the 1980s they are still expensive to make when compared with older machined metal components. This is partly because a composite item – which is made up of layer upon layer of glue and carbon fibre matting – has to be baked in an autoclave for many hours so that it is cured and all of the layers bond together with equal strength. An autoclave is basically a large oven from which most of the air can be removed. The essence of the Quickstep process is to substitute a bath of hot liquid into which the raw composite piece can be immersed, leading to savings in time as well as potentially increased quality and reduced cost.

Mr Odouard said:

“The signing of this LTA signals a genuine quantum shift in Quickstep’s development. The international defence industry has perhaps one of the highest barriers to entry of any industry in the world, but, for companies that are successful, the contracts are generally large scale and long term. Quickstep has now earned its place as a supplier for JSF, and we hope many additional aerospace and defence contracts will soon follow.”

An issue the company faces is to smoothly handle the move from Perth to Sydney, which is scheduled to take place progressively during the next 12 months – a critical period. These sorts of transitions are not easy, particularly if key staff are lost during the process, but if necessary the company might be able to recruit some ex-Boeing employees. Also Bankstown Airport is rapidly developing into a hi-tech Aerospace cluster and Quickstep joins Sagem, Turbomecca and Hawker de Havilland – amongst others – on the site and might benefit from synergies with those companies.

The role of Government.

The NSW State Government said that it has provided a number of financial incentives to the company as part of a $75 million initiative to assist defence-related industries. The Premier, Kristina Keneally, said that the support for Quickstep was consistent with a strategy to secure 30% of Australia’s in-country defence expenditure by 2019.

Federal Defence Procurement Minister Jason Clare has been equally supportive and pointed out that Quickstep had also received support through the Government’s Export Finance Insurance Corporation. The Minister also noted that he had recently signed a related Global Supply Chain Deed with Lockheed Martin:

“Under the agreement Lockheed Martin will put in place a team of people dedicated to finding opportunities for Australian companies on top of the JSF project.
“They’re in charge of some big and important projects around the world and this gives Australian companies access to the work that flows out of that.

“It’s a chance for Australian companies to take their expertise to the world.”


International developments : the J-20

January was a busy month for fifth generation fighter activity, with the Chinese J-20 making its long-anticipated flight while Secretary Gates was visiting Beijing. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS) Some commentators boldly predict that this single 20-minute event marks the end of US air dominance. According to this line of thought, the JSF has now been leapfrogged and the only thing able to save us is the out of production F-22.

A few things can be observed about the J-20, namely that it is large-ish for a fighter and that its external shape bears some similarities to aircraft types such as the Viggen, the MiG 1.44, and even the F-22. However, there are many things that are not known, including the basic issue of whether this is a prototype – that is, a flying test bed – or whether it is the first of a production series of a fifth-generation aircraft.

The term fifth-generation has become shorthand for any aircraft with very low observable characteristics. These depend not only on the shape of the aircraft, but also the materials it is made from, the quality of its construction, the effectiveness of its coatings, the nature of its electronic emissions and the type of weapons it can carry and – of great importance – its ability to provide the pilot with full situational awareness.

While these characteristics are not yet all fully mature on the JSF, they are getting closer – hence the US decision to freeze F-22 numbers at 187. In many respects the JSF has incorporated the lessons learned from earlier programmes, including the F-22, and it is well on the way to being produced in extremely large numbers. It is also worth considering that the time between first flight of a prototype and introduction into service can be around 15 years. The first Eurofighter prototype was rolled out in 1985 and started entering service around 20 years later.

To suggest that a single J-20 flight can have such enormous consequences seems a bit thin – certainly at this early stage in its development. Sometimes defence technology can indeed make sudden and spectacular leaps – the Dreadnought, jet aircraft, the atomic bomb, stealth bombers – but the vast majority of progress is incremental. At this stage there is nothing to suggest that the J-20 possesses a generational edge such as a Romulan cloaking device.

Consider some of the main features of the JSF: a powerful active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar; high capacity data links; a helmet-mounted display that allows the pilot to “see” through the aircraft by the use of external cameras and imagery-stitching software; low-maintenance coatings; a number of aircraft self-diagnostic systems linked back to its base; extremely precise manufacturing; the extensive use of lightweight materials, especially composites and titanium; and a high level of data fusion. The cockpit screens in each aircraft can be configured in such a way as to run up to eight separate displays showing anything and everything from a basic radar picture through to the precise temperature of a missile seeker head in the internal weapons bay.

Achieving all of the foregoing has been neither easy nor cheap.

The United States has been at war or on a semi-war footing for the past 20 years and the JSF benefits from a huge amount of operational knowledge as well as massive – if sometimes wasteful – R&D spending. The potential of the aircraft is recognized by the SDD partner countries and it comes as no surprise that Israel – a country which knows something about surviving in a hostile environment – is now also buying it.

The RAAF and the Government are sure they have made the right choice.

 

APDR at a glance