The industrial benefit for this country of being involved in this program is huge," says Sir Stephen Dalton, a former chief of the air staff. "Getting in there at the start as the only primary partner has been a huge economic, as well as strategic, success for the country."

As the program moves towards full-rate production, the rationale for that initial down payment is becoming clearer– not so much as it relates to the number of development jets and the integration of various UK weapons, but as an investment in the future of Britain's aerospace and defense industry. According to independent aerospace industry analyst Howard Wheeldon, the program has so far returned more than GBP6 billion (USD8.4bn) to British industry.

"The amount of revenue the UK will generate from the program in its totality will create multiples of return on that investment," says Declan Holland, BAE Systems' commercial director for its UK F-35 business. "Ultimately, the UK will take in about GBP1bn of business each year on this program." Holland goes on to note that the program could continue into the 2040s.

The impact on British industry is considerable, though reliable figures are hard to confirm. The UK Government and various industrial partners often claim there are "more than a hundred" British companies delivering content onto the jet, with "more than 500" firms involved in the wider UK supply chain.

Sensitivities around sourcing specialist components or subsystems, and the nested contractual relationships that bind sub-suppliers to their customers, mean no company, not even prime contractor Lockheed Martin, holds a complete list of every business involved. Some firms may not even be aware that they are indirectly supplying the program.

"I remember bumping into a guy from a company supplying coatings," says Dave Gordon, defense director for Rolls-Royce UK, "and as a result of the work he'd got on this platform he'd taken on four more guys. And they were all going to the same sandwich shop. That sounds like a cliché, but that's the kind of personal story that's often invisible at OEM level."


BAE Systems

The UK as a whole may produce 15% of every JSF, but 10% is made by just one company. BAE Systems is the sole source for the aft fuselage, and vertical and horizontal tails, which are manufactured at its plant in Samlesbury, Lancashire.

"The program has enabled us to invest heavily in manufacturing capability," says Declan Holland, BAE's UK F-35 commercial director. "What we have on site is custom-built and leading-edge."

In an atrium overlooking the Samlesbury shop floor, operations manager Jim Fazackerley contemplates a chart showing the looming ramp-up to full-rate production. It looks like the profile of a mountain stage of the Tour de France, with the red dot marking today's date at the foot of the steepest incline. The last time Samlesbury saw comparable military aircraft production rates was during the WWII.

Accommodating the rate rise requires meticulous planning. The current 130,000-square-foot facility was opened in 2012, but work is already underway on a 30-meter-long extension, which will double the number of workstations. The schedule is part of a strategic plan for the site drawn up a decade ago. "A lot of emphasis was put into understanding what we needed to do to become a high-rate facility," Fazackerley says.

The company had some useful experience in the civil sector, producing eight sets per week of leading- and trailing-edges for the Airbus A320. Manufacture of Typhoon aft sections means plenty of hard-metal capability, and expertise exists on site. Lessons have also been learned from the automotive industry, where fact-finding missions to the nearby Leyland truck plant were augmented by the recruitment of several auto industry staff. The result is an integrated assembly line similar to those found in car plants, which allows fast indexing from one station to the next.

"We do generate a level of concessions," Fazackerley says, referring to minor manufacturing defects such as oversized holes, which can be rectified by inserting sleeves before inspection and acceptance from Lockheed's on-site staff. "Two to three years ago we were probably generating in excess of 70 concessions per aircraft. Today it's less than 12."

Some of the progress is related to technology, some to greater institutional familiarity with the processes: but investment in, and dialog with, the workforce is vital as the plant gears up for full-rate production.

"The infrastructure, plant and equipment will all be in place to support the rates," Fazackerley says. "I think the challenges will be around getting the right people with the right skill sets into the business at the right time. There's a big emphasis here on engagement with the teams, because we need their help and support to identify the waste we can remove from the processes."

Around 1,700 people are employed exclusively on BAE's British F-35 work, including the hundred or so seconded to Lockheed in Texas. This number will rise as full-rate production nears. BAE's academy in Preston is being relocated to Samlesbury this summer, and, as part of a government scheme, the company is extending its apprenticeship offering to sub-suppliers, who will be able to enroll trainees at no cost.

EDM

A vivid illustration of the F-35's effect on British industry can be found in the Newton Heath district of Manchester. EDM, which manufactures two training devices for the program, moved here from Oldham after winning the contract in 2007, and is currently building an extension to its premises to handle increasing JSF production volumes. When it opens around the turn of the year, the company will have tripled its physical footprint since joining the program, while the workforce will rise from around 80 in 2007 to over 200 next year. Turnover before F-35 was GBP5m a year: current company forecasts put it at GBP25m in 2017.

"Our business is split 50/50 military/civil," says EDM's sales and business development director Mick Bonney, "but this contract has really given us a huge comfort zone. We're looking out now to 2018, at least. When I joined EDM (in 2006) we were a contracting business. Every six months we were looking at where the next job was coming from. The longer-term order book gives some nice stability, which has allowed us to recruit and invest."

EDM's contract is direct with Lockheed Martin in Orlando. The company supplied its first training device – a Weapon Load Trainer – to Lockheed in 2011. It was installed at Eglin Air Force Base the same year. The company has so far delivered five further systems, most recently to Hill AFB in 2015, and currently has Ejection Seat Maintenance Trainers under construction that will be supplied to Australia, Japan and RAF Marham in the UK. "The factory's full," Bonney says.

EDM has its own supply chain of between 30-40 other companies, many of which have sub-suppliers of their own. While none of those only supply into EDM's F-35 work, Bonney estimates there are "five or six companies" which have gone from "doing a little bit for us but who now must be 50% F-35. They've had to ramp-up and invest in new machines."

Bonney is hoping EDM will eventually be able to bid for support and sustainment work to extend the company's involvement beyond building the training devices. "We've got to push hard for that," he says. "We'd love to try to be involved in the UK support side, but we've not had those discussions Lockheed. They have their own support model – it's the complete package, a brilliant idea – but clearly we're keen."

The F-35 work has already helped grow the rest of the business, too.

"I don't have any doubt about that," Bonney says. "Folk know who we are and what we're doing. We'd never worked with Boeing, but we've got a contract now to produce their Helicopter Aircrew Training System for Australia. It's a fairly simple device, but it's an important helicopter trainer. We're working with Thales, CAE, BAE, Lockheed, and now Boeing, all the big guys. Which is all good news."

GKN

GKN supplies content to the F-35 program from sites in Europe and the U.S., but its British plants in Luton, Cowes and Filton are all involved with critical subsystems on the jets. Luton supplies an ice-protection system for the engine, while metallic structures are produced at Filton, and composite structures at Cowes.

GKN's dedicated UK workforce is small. Some 50 people are directly employed on the program, though the head-count will double for full-rate production. But the products demand accuracy, which has helped determine the company's investment decisions and influenced its growth strategy.

"The composite and metallic parts we make are complicated, and there is a drive for zero defects every time," says John Pritchard, CEO of GKN's aerospace aerostructures Europe business. "This means the production process must be at the leading edge of design and manufacturing technology."

As a result, the company made what Pritchard describes as "a multi-million pound investment" in the Cowes composites facility, while the other sites were expanded, new equipment installed and new training initiatives inaugurated. Specialist staff development has taken place, but so too has investment in other human resources, while the knock-on effects have been felt in neighboring businesses outside the aerospace industrial base.

"Apprenticeships have been established," says Pritchard. "Jobs have also been created covering support functions such as transportation, logistics, machine installation and maintenance. One of our sites has no easy access to retail amenities, so we now have a mobile food provider serving the site each day."

Leonardo

The factory on the outskirts of Edinburgh currently run by Leonardo has had several different names above the door since it was established during the WWII to make gun sights for Spitfires. Laser technology has been produced here since the 1960s, and in the late '90s the plant won the contract to provide the laser for the JSF program's EOTS (electro-optical targeting system).

That win revitalized the business following defeats in earlier competitions. Today the firm also supplies targeting lasers to the AH-64, and the Sniper and Litening targeting pods. Its post-JSF wins seeing the Edinburgh team replace previous incumbents. According to site management, the business is now the world's biggest supplier of targeting lasers, a deeply specialist niche which other firms have struggled to master.

"I'm a believer that the market has the wrong appreciation of the value of a laser," says Alastair Morrison, SVP for radar and advanced targeting (R&AT). "You can actually see that with the number of people who've tried, and got a bloody nose, and decided that it's not a good idea."

Despite the specialized nature of the work, the site still depends heavily on an extended supply chain. This enables Leonardo to keep on-site costs down, but requires the company to invest in managing its suppliers, and sometimes investing in their capability.

"We have specialized procurement and manufacturing engineers who go out to the supply base," says Dr. Mark Smith, R&AT business's chief technology officer. "In case a specialist supplier goes bust or loses capability, we actively look to have more than one supplier, and sometimes it's cheaper for us to invest in that supply chain, and fund suppliers to do the very cutting-edge work."

The F-35 work, though not the majority of the site's laser business, continues to play a vital role.

"The scale and longevity of the program affords us the confidence to invest in all aspects of the product," says Morrison, adding that the work "ensure(s) we can develop and produce state-of-the-art lasers that continue to meet customer and end-user needs at affordable prices."

Stirling Dynamics

This control-system specialist was founded in the Bristol suburb of Clifton in 1987 and has been supplying active inceptors for the F-35 simulator program almost for the whole of the firm's history. "(JSF) is not the be-all-and-end-all of what we do," says Gareth Vaughan, Stirling's aerospace and marine systems business manager, "but it's a significant part of keeping us going at the size we want to be, and growing as well."

Stirling were involved in early work that led to the development of active inceptors, though the contract for the F-35's flying sticks went to BAE Systems. The company has delivered over 250 units to the simulation end of the program and has "a very significant number still to go," according to Vaughan.

Even as niche a component as controls for the simulators has a considerable economic impact.

"We employ about a hundred people," Vaughan says, "but we buy materials and components from far and wide. We have a network of specialists we work with: they tend to be businesses that are a bit smaller than us. I can't really go into where we source everything from - but there's companies we would have bought ones and twos from who we're now purchasing 40 or 50 supplied items a year from, so they're benefitting from our involvement in the F-35."

The F-35 also provides a significant marketing hook, and the global nature of the program has helped Stirling expand its business.

"We've been to F-35 supplier conferences in the U.S., and the U.S. market is the biggest in the world in terms of simulator controls, and simulation in general," says Vaughan. "Just within the Lockheed Martin supply chain there are other companies we can do business with. There's opportunity in there to partner or work together, direct to end users, or as a supplier into some of the next-level-up companies."

Rolls-Royce

Although regularly cited as one of the UK's biggest players in the JSF program, much of Rolls-Royce's manufacturing work on the F-35B's lift system is actually done in the United States. But company staff argue it's not just the volume of the work that is important to Britain, but its cutting-edge nature.

"While the assembly has moved over to the States, we still own around half of the design in the UK, and it's the complicated half," says Dickon Skinner, program executive for LiftSystem UK. "We own the compression system, the hollow blisks, the composite vanes that run down the center of the lift fan. We also own the actuation system, which is what does the really flash stuff on the 3BSM (three-bearing swivel module).”

Skinner says some 38% by value of the LiftSystem is still manufactured in the UK, a little over half of that in-house at Rolls, the remainder by the company's British suppliers. That includes the actuators on the 3BSM which are supplied by Moog Aircraft Group in Wolverhampton, one of 17 major sub-suppliers Rolls has under contract for the program. "Those 17 suppliers and the Rolls-Royce effort contributes to just under a thousand jobs in the UK," Skinner says.

The LiftSystem work leverages what Dave Gordon, UK director for defense at Rolls-Royce, calls the company's "rich STOVL heritage, of which we remain extremely proud." But while certain capabilities remained from the Pegasus/Harrier days – Gordon singles out experience with fluid dynamics and understanding of compressor applications – Rolls had to invest in new technologies and processes for the F-35's exacting power and weight requirements.

The hollow blisk blades are made by joining two sheets of titanium then inflating them, and are fixed to the hub using linear friction welding, vibrating the blade against the hub at high speed to create a plasma weld. Test equipment is bespoke and expensive. "We measure several thousand features for the 3BSM casing for every aircraft," Skinner says, "and that requires some real precision-machining capabilities."

The program also called on RR to work closely with Pratt & Whitney on integrating the system with the F135 engine. "We've got some experience on the civil side of working together," Gordon says, "but from a military point of view, working with a competitor on a partnered program was new territory. It's something we've had to work extremely hard on, but I have to say it works pretty well."

Benefits to the company go beyond the readily quantifiable.

"I can say from personal experience that I was able to attract the best people to the program just because it's exciting to work on," Gordon says. "There's no other application like this anywhere in the world, nor will there be for generations to come. It ticks all the boxes: it's sexy, it's interesting, it's technologically demanding. All of that stuff only helps when we try to keep our advantage in this game."

 

Minimal Risk for UK Suppliers

A welcome side-effect of the UK government's 2015 Strategic Defense and Security Review was its re-commitment to Britain's original intention to buy 138 F-35s. This effectively removes the risk smaller, non-sole-source suppliers in Britain were running that a reduced UK buy – and a resultant reallocation of some of the UK's share of the work – could have resulted in their contracts being cancelled.

Some questions still remain. The possibility of some of the UK's buy being switched from the F-35B to the conventional take-off and landing A model would have obvious implications for Rolls-Royce and the rest of their LiftSystem sub-supply chain. Yet even if the commitment to 138 jets is reviewed further down the line, the UK supply chain may already be too difficult – and too expensive to a program doing everything it can to reduce unit costs – to reconfigure.

"The program is set up to capacitize to the big rate that's coming," says BAE's Declan Holland. speaking primarily about his own company, but also of the many businesses in the UK that supply BAE. "That capacitization has been a very well planned piece of work, for both the factories here and for our suppliers. So that's all now as near as damned in place. So the fact of the matter is, if there was a change, it would be difficult to do anything that would reduce our work share at this stage of the program."