NEW CUMBERLAND, Pa. –
The F-35 Lightning II is soon poised to enter full operational capability in 2021, almost 25 years after initial development and testing. The long and troubled history of the F-35, a product of the Joint Strike Fighter program initiated in 1995, is most notably known in the public eye as being over budget and behind schedule.
While the F-35 has spanned across multiple administrations and developed a preconceived taste on the mental palette of the public, the Defense Logistics Agency has only recently been enlisted to provide the sustainment effort necessary for optimal warfighter support and taxpayer value.
The F-35 program, from the beginning, was outsourced to third parties outside government control. This aspect would play a part in that first public thought mindset about the F-35 project -- over budget.
With third party industry placed in charge of so many aspects it meant taxpayers were paying twice for services that government agencies already support, such as DLA Distribution and warehousing. It may not seem like much compared to the engineering and intensive development of a future generation capable and adaptable airframe, but the warehousing, inventory, and accountability of every part involved is the definition of a sustainment effort necessary to keep any U.S. government weapon system up and running.
That sustainment effort, while a natural extension of the efforts within DLA Distribution, is a foreign extension of the business model conducted by third party contractors within the F-35 program.
In January 2019, DLA Distribution was named the primary support provider for North American warehousing, and, in conjunction with U.S. Transportation Command, the global distribution provider.
“DLA Distribution has a proven joint storage and distribution network that supports operational customers, industrial sites for maintenance, and that network is already in place and integrated for warfighter support,” said Joe Faris, Business Development director.
But the process of transitioning nearly 25 years of material production to an entirely different warehousing and inventory management system was not one that could be done immediately. It would take an initial proof of principle exercise to demonstrate that DLA sites were not only best positioned and actionable enough to handle the demands of an international partner nation program, but also that DLA could integrate entirely separate warehouse management systems into the regulatory demands of government inventory accountability.
“The business of weapon system sustainment is core to us,” said Joe Saffron, Business Development specialist with DLA Distribution. Alluding to DLA’s long history as the largest logistics support agency for the Department of Defense, Saffron highlights the proven ability DLA Distribution brings to the future of F-35 sustainment.
“It’s a natural and efficient use of DOD assets for the taxpayer,” said Saffron, speaking to DLA Distribution’s experience and existing partnerships. “It’s resilient. It’s proven. It’s mature. It’s battle tested, particularly where that ‘last tactical mile’ comes into play.” Saffron, an Army retiree and combat veteran, has the presence and vocal intonation of someone who completely understands the necessity of unfailing warfighter support and mission accomplishment. The responsibility of accountable weapons system sustainment, from the smallest grommet to an F-35 engine, is answerable not only to the taxpayer at home, but our warfighters on the operational front.
Over the course of the entire movement, $3 billion in government-owned inventory will transition to DLA Distribution. Eventually, as the F-35 meets that desired goal of one air frame for all services other DLA services such as DLA Aviation and DLA Energy could be brought in to provide further warfighter support that is intrinsic to current government systems.
“Our ability to move quickly and adjust surpasses third party sources,” said Preston Kriegshauser, deputy director, DLA Distribution Hill, Utah. DLA Distribution centers are positioned strategically across the globe to provide the best and most comprehensive operational sustainment capability to our warfighters, and the DDHU team is one of those perfectly placed entities within the DLA Distribution system. Not only are they positioned right on the same territory as Hill Air Force Base, but they are also “next door” to Ogden Air Logistics Center, one of the sites handling primary component repair of the F-35.
Not only has this strategic positioning and proven workforce demonstrated success across the past century, but that physical presence offers an unbeatable advantage to the sustainment effort of the F-35. DLA warehouses sit, in some cases, directly across the road from the very centers where maintenance will be taking place.
DLA Distribution offers flexibility in the ability to quickly integrate contingency contracting into their work efforts. These contract jobs can, in the future turn into permanent jobs for the local areas of the six national sites housing F-35 material. Currently workers from sites like DDHU are having to learn third party source warehouse management software and integrate that into existing government systems.
“DLA is not a widely known entity,” said Kriegshouser. “Storage and distribution is our business, and that extends to anybody.”
“The opportunity is huge,” said Tom Counihan, DLA Distribution Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. “It’s a unique, once in a lifetime challenging project.” DLA Distribution Oklahoma City, Oklahoma began accepting F-35 engine modules last year as their part of the proof of principle and is now currently receiving consumable parts to support the transition during their initial operating capability phase.
With the F-35 engine heavy maintenance facility co-located on Tinker Air Force base, the DDOO team is not only able to deliver modules for repair, but also ship refurbished modules off base within minutes. “DLA systems offer strengths as well as scalability that enhances third party offerings to support the warfighter” said Counihan.
DLA has a proven track record of maintaining accountability and readiness across high volumes of capacity and transactions. DDOO has been able to efficiently begin their transition by utilizing existing space to make a dedicated “depot within a depot” spanning all functions from receiving through international shipping in a single facility, according to Counihan.
While many briefings floating around DLA pertain to the current timeline of events regarding initial operating capability translating into full operational capability, Faris describes a dedicated and concentrated effort on the part of DLA that covers years before the eventual selection of DLA for global distribution and North American warehousing.
As early as 2014, DLA was attempting to assist DOD with the F-35 project by identifying where DLA could work in collaboration with industry partners to eliminate redundancy. Those efforts were able to happen in large part because DLA Distribution, through the Business Management office, had taken time to identify where military services were using and generating expenditures on warehousing outside of the DLA system.
“One major opportunity we identified when we did that environmental scan was the F-35,” said Faris.
The F-35 is one of the top priority weapon systems in development, not just for the U.S., but also for partner nations involved in the project. One of the major things DLA Distribution would have to demonstrate is how DLA could not only meet sustainment requirements, but provide greater value with less cost than what industry could provide.
“I truly believe we were selected for the ‘and North America regional warehousing’,” said Faris, referring to the PSP designation. “Because of the previous five years of seed work we did with the Joint Program Office.” A culmination of training and education on how JPO could leverage existing networks that are already organically integrated into the maintenance facilities.
The F-35 will have component repair at all three air logistics complexes and at all three Fleet Readiness Centers. DLA is positioned on these six bases and is considered by Faris to be “beach front property” in terms of providing the best possible sustainment effort in conjunction with those maintenance activities.
With DLA designated as the PSP, it meant that DOD, and ultimately the American tax payer, would be saved the cost of industry providers having to build and create from scratch a warehousing and distribution system that already exists in the form of DLA Distribution.
Not only would those warehousing and distribution systems be redundant, but they would be outside of the DOD system, and thus outside of the scope of policies and systems that maintain accountability of U.S. Government owned property.
“DLA can go places industry partners can’t,” said Faris. Not only can DLA deliver a sustainment effort in global theaters where industry cannot, but DLA Distribution does it with accountability of government property as a mandate upon operations.
DLA Distribution is required to abide by DOD policy on inventory control and accountability, and as part of the Financial Improvement and Audit Readiness. Those same policies are not explicitly required of industry partners.
DLA also stands uniquely poised to extend that global distribution to any theater required via DLA Distribution Expeditionary, the highly mobile and rapid response arm of DLA Distribution.
“We never really know where our capability will be required globally,” said Army Maj. Ed Strzalkowski, DDXX Commander. The mission for DDXX can vary dependent on the needs of the theater command, and in the case of F-35 support DDXX is fully prepared to act as a mobile extension of the fixed based DLA Distribution centers.
DDXX combines a whole of government approach that not only leverages the capabilities of military and U.S. Government resources, but also incorporates host nations, and by proxy the partner nations associated with the F-35 project, into expediting the legal requirements of a global distribution system.
The F-35 is anticipated to be the future of air superiority and an ever-evolving weapon system changing with the landscape of future warfare in real time. As that weapon system changes, the level of support and sustainment DLA is poised to provide will remain unwavering, proven and accountable, just as it always has been.