Outgoing F-35 programme boss shares hard won lessons

Washington DC
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After spending 12 years fronting the Lockheed Martin F-35 programme, retiring executive vice-president Tom Burbage is now able to look back in hindsight on a few key lessons that could have spared the programme a costly redesign and a troubled relationship with international partners.

Burbage was named vice president and general manager of the F-35 programme less than three weeks after Lockheed defeated a rival Boeing proposal to claim a then $220 billion prize to develop and build thousands of F-35s for the US military and hundreds more for international parnters.

In the wake of a 2004 weight-driven redesign that delayed the programme two years and cost billions of dollars, Burbage stepped aside from managing the daily operations of the programme and became the public face of the F-35 around the world for the next eight years.

Now set to retire on 1 April, Lockheed hosted a restrospective press conference by Burbage, where he acknolwedged the programme's struggles with meeting budgeting and schedule targets. Burbage says he hopes that future engineers working on a sixth-generation fighter will heed the hard won lessons of the F-35 programme.

"This is cutting edge technology being integrated into a pretty major development programme," Burbage says. "So there are things you find along the way that you weren't able to predict in your proposal that you actually wrote 14 years ago."

Burbage says that it is hard to sustain a vision over a long period of time as new people enter into leadership positions and the world changes. He also says that perhaps he was "too optimistic" in his views, but has never said anything that he did not believe was going to happen-even if those beliefs were overtaken by events. "It was very aggressive, it was very much acquisition reform oriented when it went under contract," Burbage says. "I don't think anybody really understood, because it had never been done before, what it means to have nine countries all competing for work."

As leading arguably the first truly globalised defence programme, the F-35 team initially did not fully understand the challenges of sharing information between hundreds of suppliers spanning across multiple countries, Burbage says.

"We didn't really know how to do that upfront," he says. On previous programmes, most foreign involvement was handled through the US government through the foreign military sales system. "On this programme, upfront, we had to figure out how you go involve industry early on and how does the system work," he says.

One of the lessons that Burbage says he learnt is that all of the companies involved in a project of the size and scope of the F-35 need to be on the same information technology systems to share data seamlessly. "You want to have them all on the same set of tools when you start," he says. "Otherwise you get into some challenges just in making sure the design integrity is correct."

Discoveries happen during every aircraft developmental effort, but the F-35 encountered several unanticipated problems that Burbage says could not have been foreseen due to the jet's unique features. "Certainly there are some things looking back that we would have changed to avoid the weight issue and things like that, had we known it was lurking in the models," Burbage says. "We'd go back and make sure we had a much more robust model."

Lockheed, during the early years of the programme between 2004 and 2005, was working on the conventional take-off F-35A variant first because the company did not have the engineering resources to work on all three versions of the jet simultaneously, Burbage says. But company and government parametric engineering models began to show that the weight of the F-35B short take-off vertical landing (STOVL) version of the aircraft was getting too high.

"Somewhere along the way, we made an error in our parametric weight models," Burbage says "Turned out we were predicting the things that we knew about pretty well, the structural parts were pretty close, the small detail parts were pretty close. What wasn't predicted well by the model was stealth and internal weapons bays because the airplane that had those capabilities weren't part of the database."