Greg Ulmer, VP and General Mgr of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Program gives a detailed update on where the program is now and what the future holds during an interview with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian at the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference held at the Gaylord National Harbor.
Our Air, Space and Cyber Conference coverage is sponsored Elbit Systems of America, L3 Technologies and Leonardo DRS.
F-35 Lightning II Vice President and General Manager
AFA 2018 Air, Space, Cyber Conference
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here at the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space and Cyber Conference and Trade Show, one of the service’s most important annual gatherings over here at the Gaylord National Harbor where our coverage is sponsored by Elbit Systems of America, Leonardo DRS and L3 Technologies. And what better way to start the festivities here than interviewing Greg Ulmer who’s the General Manager for Lockheed Martin’s F-35 program, the world’s most, biggest program. The world’s most important program.
Greg, thanks very much for joining us.
Greg Ulmer: Thanks for having me, Vago. I appreciate it.
Mr. Muradian: It was a treat getting to talk to you at the Royal International Air Tattoo, you gave us a little bit of an update on the program. We did talk a little bit about cost at that point. Week before last we talked to Ellen Lord and she mentioned that the cost of the program and its availability rate still remain unacceptable, and that was the word that she used.
Talk to us a little bit about what you guys are specifically doing. I know you guys have been working this issue hard, but it’s been a couple of months and she’s made that statement now publicly. I know that Deputy Secretary Shanahan, it’s a top priority. I know it’s a priority obviously for Vice Admiral Winner as well. Bring us up to speed on some of the other things, the other bags of tricks that you guys are dipping into to manage to get this important customer, the Acquisition and Sustainment Under Secretary, to go from unacceptable to happy with the program.
Mr. Ulmer: We’re focused on all three elements of the program. Think production, development and sustainment.
On the production side, we’re continuing to invest on the production program relative to getting costs out of the program. As we negotiate through and get LRIP-11 finalized, you’re going to see the trajectory of the cost reduction and production on track to meet that $80 million airplane by 2020. And then we’re going to continue beyond that.
So the next three years of contracting, 12-14, you’re going to see further reduction along that trajectory. So those investments are reinvigorating the production supply chain and all those elements associated with getting costs out from a production perspective.
On the development side, we’re transitioning with the government to an agile acquisition process. So rather than the standard 5001, 5002 approach, we’re going to take an agile. So think rapid capability insertion into the development, get that into the production side, get that into the sustainment side. Those kinds of elements in terms of follow-on development on the program.
And then sustainment. Very, very focused on getting cost out of the sustainment, really cost per tail per year. We’re seeing in the last four years greater than 10 percent reduction in terms of sustaining our tails, cost per tail per year. We’re going to continue to focus on that.
Really a trajectory between, I’d say, 30 and 40 percent reduction over the next 10-15 years, getting costs out of the airplane.
Mr. Muradian: And before, we talked days before, you were not willing to say soon, but we were in the window before the LRIP-11 was signed. Anything different in there? Anything special in there that you can discuss that you couldn’t discuss earlier?
Mr. Ulmer: No, we’re just dotting the I’s, crossing the T’s. It’s a very, very large contract, the biggest for Lockheed Martin on the F-35 to date, so we’re just making sure we’re working with the government to get that closed appropriately and get it done.
Mr. Muradian: One of the priorities here at this show is getting the Air Force re-geared to great power competition. We’re now doing the interview before the Secretary’s talk, but she is to announce a new squadron end strength, something above 312, and a whole bunch of other moves that she and the Chief are going to talk about to reposition the Air Force, all the way from how better the Air Force prepares its joint officers to the size of the force, given that the service does have a rather big modernization challenge ongoing.
Talk to us a little bit about what you guys can do with rates if the Air Force does have more money. You know, how much surge capacity is there? How much more rapid expansion of the line over what you guys are doing right now. I mean there are strains across the aviation industry in part driven by the commercial guys’ insatiable demands for something like 120 airplanes a month that they’re building now. Talk to us a little bit about how much surge capacity you have in the event that the Air Force wants to change any of its timelines on the program.
Mr. Ulmer: If you look at the program of record, we’re going to peak in lot 15. Think 2023. And at that peak, we’ll be total enterprise about 185 airplanes, approximately. Then the program of record actually peaks down, and we’re going to have that capacity we put in place for that, for those adds.
Also, if you look at what we’ve done in the last two FY’s, we’ve added anywhere between 10 and 20 aircraft within that. We’ve been able to absorb that. More than likely we’re going to see the same in FY19, FY20 as we go forward, and we have that capacity to do that. And that really takes us to that peak in the program where we have that capacity to add those U.S. government in particular aircraft to the program of record. Within the capacity we have.
Mr. Muradian: But that’s actually given that you do have a couple of years of margin on that.
One of the other big questions is the adaptability of the aircraft. There have been discussions about, obviously, a lot of foreign espionage efforts that have been directed to the program. There are some people who say well, that presents certain unsurmountable challenges, for example, insofar as radar cross-section and other sorts of things. Given that you’re at the early stages of a plane that’s going to be in service for decades, talk to us a little bit about the program to insert new technology in it, and in the event that key pieces of the airplane are compromised, how you guys can re-gear to make sure that you gain that competitive edge that you guys have right now.
Mr. Ulmer: Well innovation is, I think, part of Lockheed Martin relative to looking at follow-on modernization, follow-on development, how do we continuously innovate in the program. And so that’s in our DNA. As we approach the development in the future of the F-35 we’re continuously looking at innovation. That includes cyber threats, that includes maturing capability, all those things are in our purview as we focus on how we’re going to develop the F-35 going forward.
We were just talking about continuous development, innovation into the platform as we go forward, so we’re just continuously looking at, from a technology refresh, how do we do that agilely, how do we do that affordably, how do we do that quickly to include the cyber threat aspects, those different aspects that we need to concern ourselves with in terms of operating this platform in the future.
Mr. Muradian: But do you already have a whole series of insertions as you, you know, are gearing up for Chinese and Russian threats? That’s the first part of it. You know, do you already have a to-do list from the customer that says hey, we really like these, here are things we’re worried about, we want you to focus on some of these other things. And in the event that something, for example, like RCS, the radar cross-section, is compromised, how much flexibility do you have in addressing that challenge? What some people say, as well, look, that’s the mold line, that’s the contour of the aircraft. There are others who say look, I mean there’s a lot of stuff that you can still do within that. I understand a lot of that remains classified, but talk to both of those aspects about how much wiggle room you guys have to ensure that the aircraft is, once it goes in service it’s going to be in service for a long time, and that’s a question that some folks are asking.
Mr. Ulmer: About all I can say is we’re innovating, right? We’re constantly looking at that. I can’t talk to the classified natures of how we’re going to go innovate or how we stay in front of the threats going forward on the F-35.
Mr. Muradian: Thank you very much. I was going to try to push you a little bit more on that, but I suspect that I’m not going to get any farther.
You also were aboard Abraham Lincoln where Op Eval of the airplane is going on. Everybody on the plane, on the ship from Woody Horan, the ream admiral who is in charge of Navy F-35 integration, to commanding officer Putnam Brown, said hey look, this is just like any other naval aircraft. We are using it, treating it like it, and so far it’s performing well, you know, being treated like a naval aircraft. I know some in the Navy had questions about putting a stealth jet on an aircraft carrier and the problems that it would present.
But one of the things that we weren’t told was a couple of days before we arrived on the ship there was an aerial refueling incident where an F-35C was taking gas from an F-18. Part of the drogue was damaged. It was ingested into the F-35 engine. Talk to us a little bit about that incident. You know, what happened? I know that it’s still under investigation. Reporters found out about it a little bit afterwards, so some folks were a little bit twisted, you know, that we went aboard the ship, saw everything was great, and nobody discussed it. But it actually, some people tell us, has been a remarkably good news story in that the jet got back to the boat.
Talk to us about what happened, what were some of the learning experiences, and how the airplane performed ultimately.
Mr. Ulmer: I wasn’t there, I don’t know the specifics of the incident. But I understood that there was a failure of the drogue and it was ingested in the engine.
There was no indication to the crew member, the flying crew member, that there was an issue. They completed their mission, returned to the boat. I think it’s really a testament to the resiliency of the platform as a system. So think propulsion system, the airframe system, just I think a high mark on the program in terms of the resiliency of the system and getting back to the boat.
Mr. Muradian: And, okay, fine. I was going to be like wow, man, it just chewed up, because what, do we know — let’s restart.
Do we know what was specifically ingested? Because folks are saying it was parts of the drogue.
Mr. Ulmer: I do not know.
Mr. Muradian: Okay. And do we have any idea about when the investigation or any of that will be completed?
Mr. Ulmer: I don’t know.
Mr. Muradian: We’ll direct that to the Navy.
Talk to us a little bit, there were reports last week about IOT&E, that that process was going to be delayed. You know, some speculation about whether the aircraft is ready or not. Talk to us from your perspective on where we are on IOT&E. Is it being delayed? If it’s being delayed, why it’s being delayed.
Mr. Ulmer: So all three variants, the 3F software which is the software for IOT&E is released. The ALIS elements are released. We’re ready to go to IOT&E.
As part of IOT&E, they have an instrumentation package where they collect data as they conduct IOT&E. And we were asked to make some changes to our software such that that instrumentation system that can collect more data in support of IOT&E, and that’s what we were responding to. The government’s request to add that instrumentation capability, to record that information as IOT&E was conducted. So that’s really where we’re working through right now.
But in terms of the airplane being ready to go, it’s been ready for quite some time. 3F capability is out there as well as all the different elements to support IOT&E going forward.
Mr. Muradian: Let me just touch back, you talked about a number of things and volume is the single most important thing for you to get the rate down. But from an availability standpoint, what are some of the other things that you guys are looking at in availability? You know, availability, one of the things was 3F was going to improve availability. That issue does come up every now and then. What are some of the other things in a more nuanced way you guys are doing to increase those availability rates for the jet?
Mr. Ulmer: When you look at availability, reliability, maintainability enhancements on the airplane, in terms of general issue effectiveness. So are the parts on the shelf? We’re focused on those kinds of things. Getting the depot stood up. Getting all the lay-in material stood up. So really making sure the supply enterprise around the F-35 enterprise is sufficient to support operations.
You mentioned getting the OFP and the different elements of the airplane together. So our PHM, our Preventative Health Maintenance System, just refining those algorithms associated with that. Making sure we’re reducing, and we have very effectively, greater than 60 percent reduction in false alarms, in terms of pulling LRUs, Line Replaceable Units, off the aircraft. So very effective in that regard.
So as we go forward, you’re going to see the reliability, maintainability, mission capability, AVA, all those are on the upswing. You’re going to see that continue as we go forward.
Mr. Muradian: Do you, I know this is going to sound like a horrible softball because everybody’s pretty touch on the program, but there are those who a couple of years ago were saying hey, I think we’re going to have a jet that’s actually going to prove, once we get through this phase, that it’s going to be more supportable. Are you seeing any evidence that actually you guys are going to end up ahead of some of these target goals that you guys have?
Mr. Ulmer: So if you look at AVA today, in particular, Lot 6 and up, we are already ahead of those goals. So the planned goals, the program set a long time ago at the inception of the program, from an AVA perspective, we’re ahead of those numbers relative to the more recently delivered LRIPs on the production aircraft, so they’re performing very well in the fleet today.
Mr. Muradian: And one last question. I know you have a Titanic punch list of all of the things that you’ve got to do because all of this stuff is falling on your shoulders certainly as the guy who’s spearheading this gigantic team that Lockheed Martin has assembled to deliver on this program.
What do you think are your top three, what are the top three things that you worry about on a daily basis? You know, when you go into the office and you look at all the feedback that’s coming in from the jets that are out there, now there are operationally deployed jets as well, which we’re gaining information on as well. What are the top three things every day that go through your mind as you hit the deck?
Mr. Ulmer: Well we started with your very first question was about affordability. So affordability is key, across all three elements — development, production and sustainment. We need to make sure that this airplane, this air system remains affordable, right?
And the you also referred to technology insertion, technology refresh. That’s also very much a part of my priority. We have to keep the F-35 relevant relative to the threats we see in the future. So we’re very focused on that.
And then finally, I would say supply chain. We’ve alluded to that in the discussion as well. We just need to make sure that the supply chain is there, sufficient to support production, development and sustainment on the program.
So those are really the three things I’m very focused on right now.
Mr. Muradian: And green glow. I have to ask you about green glow. One last question. That came up when we were on the ship. At the lowest setting, there’s a green glow when you have the helmet on. Obviously, the helmet is a key part of it, and there’s been some concern about that interfering in night operations. Talk to us a little bit about what the solution to that fundamental problem is because it has been a challenge that’s come up a couple of times.
Mr. Ulmer: So we’re going to an OLED technology. We’re seeing very strong results as a factor of that and we’re on track to go to the boat here in the winter, and then in support an April test on that OLED technology. So I think that’s going to play through very nicely. We’re going to see that issue resolved shortly.
Mr. Muradian: Greg Ulmer, the General Manager of the Lockheed Martin F-35 program. Sir, thanks very much and best of luck at AFA.
Mr. Ulmer: Thank you, sir. Appreciate it.