Combining advanced stealth with fighter speed and agility, the F-35 Lightning II is designed to be the most-flexible, technologically sophisticated multi-role fighter ever built. The fighter will pass a critical milestone this year with the U.S. Air Force assessing if it has achieved Initial Operating Capability – indicating readiness for operations in a contested environment. Hot off the heels of the U.S. Marine Corps declaring IOC in 2015, the F-35 Lightning II program is carrying incredible momentum.
As the IOC milestone for the U.S. Air Force draws near, BAE Systems’ Electronic Systems sector, a major partner to prime contractor Lockheed Martin, is readying its manufacturing floor to increase production of the fighter’s electronic warfare (EW) system, active inceptor and vehicle management computer.
The company’s electronic warfare system is critical to providing situational awareness to F-35 pilots, according to Deb Norton, ES’ F-35 program director.
“The system allows a pilot to identify and respond to threats he or she could encounter in the field,” said Norton. “It provides a 360-degree view of the battlespace, enabling the pilot to evade, engage or deny hostile threats at tremendous ranges.”
Producing an EW system fit to protect the world’s most-advanced fighter takes time. This year marks the end of the program’s 15-year System Design and Development (SDD) phase. When this phase concludes, ES must turn its attention to its transition from low-rate initial production (LRIP) to full-rate production.
A major check-point to achieving full-rate production will be the U.S. government’s Milestone C evaluation. Part of the assessment will focus on ES’ readiness to triple factory output by 2019.
Deb Norton, Electronic Systems F-35 Program Director
Preparation will include a manufacturing expansion, hiring personnel to support the F-35 program and implementing a zero-defects and continuous improvement culture so that the factories can achieve operational excellence. ES’ facility in Nashua, New Hampshire, will experience the most impact from the sector’s production increase, said Kim Cadorette, ES director of Operations.
“Due to the ramp in F-35 production and other ES program wins, we are in a period of growth at our New Hampshire facilities,” said Cadorette. “The company has leased space locally to make room for a manufacturing expansion, and we will be hiring 300 to 500 full-time manufacturing employees over the next five years.”
Included in the manufacturing expansion will be 80,000 square-feet of state-of-the-art radio frequency (RF) manufacturing space – enabled by a $100 million renovation investment.
Despite the renovation’s large price tag, ES is conscious of the need to balance its manufacturing costs with customer affordability initiatives.
“The goal is to get each aircraft’s cost to roughly $80 million and that requires manufacturing investment,” said Norton. “If we can meet the $80 million target, the F-35 will cost the same amount as an F-16, but with much more capability. We are committed to partnering with Lockheed Martin to achieve affordability.”
Despite attempts to reduce costs, it is likely the F-35 program will continue to come under fire with today’s constricted defense budgets. As the largest defense program in history, it is also the most-expensive with a price tag estimated at $1.5 trillion.
During a visit to ES in 2015, U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Randolph Mahr, deputy program executive officer on the F-35, recognized that the program is expensive, but emphasized the warfighter’s need for the platform’s capability.
“On July 31, 2015, the U.S. Marine Corps said they are ready,” said Mahr. “They conducted their Operational Readiness Inspection of the aircraft in four days. It was a big step in having the F-35 become the most-prolific aircraft over the next 50 years. This program costs more than we thought, but the system works, and it’s doing what it needs to do.”
The U.S. Marine Corps declaring IOC paves the way for the U.S. Air Force and Navy to do the same in 2016 and 2019, respectfully. As F-35s continue to take flight, ES’ equipment remains fundamental to mission success.
“I really appreciate what you do here for electronic warfare,” said Mahr. “I am here today because of companies like yours that had systems that worked. When you are in the aircraft, all you know is to focus on your mission. The systems you provide allow our men and women to go into harm’s way and accomplish that. What you are doing every day is saving lives.”
By Nicole Gable, Communications, Nashua, New Hampshire