Air Vice-Marshal (AVM) Leigh Gordon felt a sense of pride as he watched Australia’s first F-35A aircraft touch down at RAAF Base Williamtown. As Head Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), AVM Gordon credits the success of the Australian F-35A Project to the hard work and dedication of thousands of people involved in bringing the capability to Australia.
“I am lucky to be leading the Project at the time of First Aircraft Arrival (FAA),” AVM Gordon said.
“It’s taken almost two decades of work to get us to where we are now and, in Australia, the hard work is just beginning.”
Talking at the “symbolic” FAA event at Williamtown on December 10, AVM Gordon said the arrival of the first two F-35A aircraft for permanent basing in Australia demonstrated that Air Force, supported by the Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group, had the maturity to operate a fifth-generation fighter in Australia.
“Over the past 12 months we’ve seen the Australian fleet of F-35A aircraft build up at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona,” he said.
“In addition to the jets that have arrived at No. 3 Squadron, we have eight Australian jets operating in a pool of training aircraft at the international Pilot Training Centre at Luke. This will grow to 10 in 2019.
“Before they were ferried to Australia, we were able to operate A35-009 and A35-010 in the US as Australian sovereign operations – using our own Autonomic Logistics Information System under our own airworthiness system and governance framework.
“We could effectively start verifying and validating the whole air system. This aircraft arrival is a sign of the maturity of the Australian F-35A Project – now we’re ready to start operating the jets in Australia.”
The Verification and Validation program will test the F-35A capability in Australia leading up to the anticipated declaration of Initial Operating Capability in December 2020.
“The F-35 is a complex endeavour,” AVM Gordon said.
“The Verification and Validation program is one of our key strategies to manage that complexity. It’s a program of events where we will seek confidence that we can conduct all the steps that deliver the F-35 capability in Australia.
“We need to do simple things like flying, loading weapons and training in small and large groups. By the end of the two-year program we need to be in a position where we have an operational squadron – No. 3 Squadron – that can conduct a range of roles as required by the Government and Defence, as well as a training squadron – No. 2 Operational Conversion Unit (2OCU) – that is ready to start feeding the Australian F-35A capability with a trained Air Force workforce for the next 35 years.”
The JSF Division has more work ahead of it, too.
“We now have two jets in Australia – and that should be celebrated,” AVM Gordon said.
“But there are 70 more to come before the Chief of Air Force can declare F-35A Final Operating Capability at the end of 2023.
“Members of the JSF Division will continue to focus on delivering the aircraft, transitioning functions to the Air Combat Systems Program Office and focusing on the follow-on modernisation phases of the project.”
He said members of JSF Division would also continue to support Air Force as it led the F-35A transformation in Defence.
“The F-35A represents a new way of war-fighting and a new way of operating and doing business,” he said.
“We need to shift to a fifth-generation way of thinking so Defence as a whole can get the most out of the F-35A capability.”
Key 2018 Milestones
The F-35A capability is far more than just an aircraft and a number of milestones were reached in 2018 that will enable successful operations in Australia.
AVM Gordon said one of the most visible achievements was the “fantastic facilities we’ve been bringing online this year”.
“2OCU and the Integrated Training Centre (ITC) have been completed and are impressive facilities,” he said.
“The ITC was transformed from a building site into a finished building within those 12 months and is now housing the critical equipment we need to train our personnel. The simulators are an important part of the training for our people and for exercising some of the aircraft’s more advanced features. It’s such a capable aircraft that we really have to test some of the war-fighting capabilities in the synthetic environment to gain experience, because we can’t always replicate that flying around Australia.
“We’ve also talked a lot about the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) – the IT backbone of the aircraft. We were able to have ALIS delivered to Australia and we have the approvals to connect it to the Defence Single Information Environment to allow us to start operating.”
AVM Gordon said another key achievement was the F-35A Airworthiness Board in August, soon after which the appropriate approvals were given to allow Air Force to operate the F-35A independent of the US Air Force.
“And of course, the delivery of A35-009 and A35-010 and their operation in the US on Australian systems was pleasing,” he said.
“The global F-35 Program also released the Block 3F software for the fleet and this is what was installed in our aircraft across the year – Australia was actually the first Partner Nation to be flying 3F aircraft at Luke AFB, or anywhere in the world.
“Our first F-35A aircraft, A35-001, which was delivered in 2014 with earlier-release software, has been upgraded to the 3F software we need to declare Initial Operating Capability. A35-002 is in the final stages of being upgraded.”
The Australian International Airshow at Avalon in Victoria, to be held from February 26 to March 3 next year, will feature hundreds of aeroplanes, including Australia’s first permanently based F-35A aircraft.
“It will be great to see the two aircraft at Avalon and is an opportunity for the Australian public to appreciate how the F-35A fits into the broader Air Force and Defence capability,” AVM Gordon said.
“Plan Jericho was conceptualised to help us establish the fifth-generation Air Force we need to maximise the capability of the Joint Strike Fighter, Super Hornet, Growler, Wedgetail, Poseidon and Triton – and a range of other capabilities.
“I think Avalon will be an opportunity for the public to actually see those pieces of capability together and get a sense of what Plan Jericho really means.”
The F-35 reprogramming capability is designed to produce Mission Data Files (MDFs) and is a critical capability that enables the F-35A to be a “smart” aircraft.
Australia and the UK accepted their joint reprogramming facility, located at Eglin Air Force Base (AFB) in Florida, in June 2018.
“We have a strong heritage of working closely with the UK and US, and the reprogramming laboratory is a good example of that,” AVM Gordon said.
“Australian and British service personnel have been at Eglin AFB for more than 18 months working on the reprogramming activity.
“They initially gained some experience using tools we obtained from Lockheed Martin and now our own tools have been developed and installed in a joint reprogramming laboratory we have at Eglin, where we can work with the UK to produce the MDFs we need for our particular operations and focus.
“The UK gained experience in reprogramming through their Eurofighter Typhoon capability and we’ve been able to leverage off that. Similarly, Australians have been able to inject some fresh thinking in that endeavour and we are making the complete reprogramming enterprise stronger because of our involvement.”
Thoughts On Leadership
AVM Gordon is approaching the end of his Air Force career, although he doesn’t know exactly when he will hang up his hat.
“I’ve had a pretty good time in Defence and it’s clear to me there are a bunch of smart people coming up through the ranks who need to be given opportunities for promotion and enhancement – people like me need to get out of the way for them to get on with their careers,” he said.
“I am quite excited by the talent I see, particularly by the business acumen and technical thinking people have – I’m looking forward to reading about what Defence achieves after I’ve left the organisation.”
AVM Gordon said the positive transition of Defence’s culture during his 37-year career had made him proud to serve.
“Defence is focused on a set of leadership attributes around being a contributor, a learner, inclusive, innovative, a team builder, being accountable, and being someone who’s comfortable working with risk,” he said.
“Those leadership attributes certainly ring a bell with me as something to which we must aspire. Defence’s leaders need to be inclusive in their leadership style to ensure we’re getting a broad range of good ideas and creating an environment for success.”