WASHINGTON — Greeting me upon arrival in the doorway to his office, US Air Force Brig. Gen. Scott Pleus, dressed in an olive green flight suit, offered his hand.
From his direct eye contact, exact manner of speaking, and overall subject-matter discipline, it’s clear he’s a command pilot.
I’m here to ask him about milestones, setbacks, misconceptions, and his work as a wing commander, pilot, and now director of the integration office for America’s priciest weapons system: the F-35 Lightning II.
Before coming to the Pentagon to head the integration office, Pleus spent 24 years flying the F-16 with just north of 2,200 flight hours, followed by two years as the commander of the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke Air Force Base.
While at Luke, Pleus welcomed a unique challenge: Develop the next-generation of lethal F-35 fighter pilots. Within a few months, the first student for the 56th Fighter Wing began F-35 training — it was Pleus.
Now headquartered at the Pentagon for a little over five months, Pleus is the single voice for the US Air Force to the F-35’s Joint Program Office.
I glance at the commemorative plaques lining his office walls before he offers me a seat at a polished conference table.
“So what’s the biggest misconception about this program that you want to leave behind in 2016?” I ask.
‘It’s not a real aeroplane’
“I’ll use an analogy that I heard a few years ago,” Pleus began.
“The F-35 was an aeroplane on paper only,” he added. “The F-35 was a capability that was only on paper — it has not been proven. Yeah, maybe there are some test pilots that are flying it, but it’s too far away and it’s not a real aeroplane.”
“That is my overall biggest misconception about the aeroplane,” said Pleus.
“We have pilots that are flying it and executing missions today that simulate a combat environment, and we know that this aeroplane has capabilities that are far better than we could have ever hoped for in a fourth-generation aircraft.”
“I can tell you that it is by far the best platform I’ve ever flown in my entire life, and at that you would have to take me on my word.”
In August 2016, Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, commander of Air Combat Command, declared initial operational capability (IOC) for a squadron of F-35A’s — a significant breakthrough for the weapons program, which has been beset by design flaws, cost overruns, and technical challenges.
“Initial operating capability is a huge milestone because what you’re saying is this is not necessarily just a developmental aeroplane anymore. This is a real thing. We could on that day have sent those aeroplanes into combat the next day,” Pleus said.
Since IOC, the US Air Force has trained more than 120 pilots in 100 F-35As, accruing a combined total of 75,000 hours of flight time.
‘One our adversaries should fear’
In preparing to sit down with Pleus, I recalled comments he made at the Air Force Association’s annual conference in September. “In terms of lethality and survivability, the aircraft is absolutely head and shoulders above our legacy fleet of fighters currently fielded,” he said at the time. “This is an absolutely formidable aeroplane, and one our adversaries should fear.”
So I followed up, asking him, as one of the few people who have flown both an F-16 and an F-35, what’s it like to engage an F-35?
“You never knew I was there,” he said with a smile. “You literally would never know I’m there. I flew the F-35 against other fourth-generation platforms and we killed them and they never even saw us.”
“If you were to engage an F-35 in say, a visual dogfight capability,” he added, “the capabilities of the F-35 are absolutely eye-watering compared to a fourth-generation fighter.”
“The aeroplane has unbelievable manoeuvring characteristics that make it completely undefeatable in an air-to-air environment. So if it’s a long-range contact, you’ll never see me and you’ll die, and if it’s within visual-range contact you’ll see me and you’re gonna die and you’re gonna die very quickly,” said Pleus, who has 153 flight hours in the F-35.
To date, the US is slated to buy 2,443 F-35s at an acquisition cost of $379 billion. In December, the Joint Program Office released the finalised price for the most recent production contract for the fifth-generation jet.
After a little more than 14 months of negotiations between the Department of Defence and Lockheed Martin, the ninth Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP-9) contract for 57 F-35 jets was valued at $6.1 billion. The LRIP-9, which is essentially the ninth batch of jets, includes 34 jets for the US and 23 for five other countries.
The US Air Force, getting the lion’s share of F-35s, bought 42 planes in LRIP-9 and paid $102.1 million a jet, which includes aircraft, engine, and fee.
By comparison, that $102.1 million is down from the previous contract by 5.5%, which equates to $5.9 million.
Australia has also committed to 72 F-35A aircrafts. These will be for three operational squadrons at RAAF Base Williamtown and RAAF Base Tindal, and a training squadron at RAAF Base Williamtown.
In the future, a fourth operational squadron will be considered for RAAF Base Amberley, for a total of 100 F-35As.
The first F-35A aircraft will arrive in Australia in 2018 and the first squadron, Number 3 Squadron, will be operational in 2021. All 72 aircraft are expected to be fully operational by 2023.
The first step on the F-35’s journey to becoming the centrepiece of fusion warfare began on October 26, 2001, when the Pentagon awarded Lockheed Martin a contract worth more than $200 billion to build the next-generation stealth strike-fighter.
The Pentagon’s request was colossal: Develop a supersonic fifth-generation aircraft with the capability to replace four existing kinds of US military aircraft but also to be used by multiple international partners.
What’s more, design three variants of the fighter in order to accommodate the unique needs of each sister-service branch: the F-35A for the Air Force, F-35B for the amphibious Marine Corps, and F-35C for the Navy.
Having already engineered stealth aircraft — F-117A Nighthawk and F-22 Raptor — Lockheed Martin was playing on their home court.
The cradle of the F-35, with its slick floors, high ceilings, brightly painted assembly areas, and machinery hum, is where I saw the Joint Strike Fighter for the first time.
Riding in a golf cart through Lockheed Martin’s mile-long production facility in Fort Worth, Texas, I watched the neatly organised bins of nuts and bolts, jet wings, and sophisticated electronics evolve into a seafoam green airframe.
Once assembled, the planes roll into a windowless complex devoted to draping the F-35 in its invisibility cloak. “This room is the most advanced painting facility in the world,” retired US Air Force pilot and F-35 simulation instructor Rick Royer told me as we entered the Aircraft Final Finishes bay.
It’s here where the jet receives its highly classified stealth technology that makes it almost invisible to enemy radar. It’s here where the US military leaps ahead of emerging threats. It’s here
where the most expensive weapons system in American history is crafted.
And whatever its shortcomings, developing a platform of this magnitude is undoubtedly impressive.
‘The only experts in the F-35 business, are those that fix, maintain, and fly the F-35’
At the aforementioned Air Force Association’s annual conference, Pleus sat on a panel alongside commander of Air Combat Command, Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, F-35A Joint Strike Fighter Program executive officer Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, and commander of the 388th Fighter Wing Col. David Lyons.
Pleus began his remarks, his delivery blunt and confident, “I’m hopeful that as we continue to grow this fleet, we all take the opportunity to form opinions on this aeroplane from experts. And the only experts in the F-35 business, are those that fix, maintain, and fly the F-35 on a day-to-day basis.”
“Whether they be at Eglin, Luke, Edwards, Nellis, or Hill, if you go and talk to them they will give you the ground truth. If you are forming your opinions by somebody that has not fixed or flown the aeroplane I would tell you you’re wrong.”
The room couldn’t have been more quiet.
Sitting at the head of a conference table in his office, Pleus had the same intensity I remember from the panel discussion at AFA.
“This aeroplane is out there.”
“We got real pilots flying it, real maintenance guys working on it, and if you ask the experts — and my definition of an expert is you either flew it, fought against it, or you fixed it — if one of those three things you are now considered an expert on the F-35,” Pleus said.
“If you haven’t done any of those things, go find one of those people and ask them what they think about the aeroplane, and they will tell you the truth.”
At first blush, the F-35 is easy to criticise, with its much chronicled cost overruns, faulty ejection seats, and helmet-display issues, among other problems.
While I won’t rehash, Pleus noted that the
F-35A’s 75,000 flying hours didn’t go off without a hitch and addressed some of the program’s more substantial setbacks in 2016.
Successes and setbacks
“The biggest setback was an instability issue on 3i software,” Pleus said thoughtfully.
“The instability was not found out until we released the software to our test community, and they found that the fusion system onboard the aeroplane with the sensors was having trouble talking to each other.”
“So one computer is trying to talk and the other computer is trying to talk at the same time and they basically shut themselves down,” Pleus explained.
The 3i software hang-up, which took about four months to solve, caused a delay that will impact the instalment of the 3F software, which delivers the plane’s full warfare capability.
Another setback, which Pleus labelled a “success,” was the polyalphaolefin insulation issue discovered during an inspection at Nellis Air Force Base.
“Polyalphaolefin is kind of a coolant that runs through a system of pipes throughout the entire aeroplane to cool off the computers and some of the hardware onboard the plane. There was a vendor that produced the wrong insulation on one of the pipes and that insulation swole up and cracked and came apart from the pipes,” Pleus said.
The problem came less than two months after the Air Force declared IOC and resulted in the temporary grounding of 15 jets.
“I think personally that that is a pretty big success story for two reasons, the first one was that we caught it very early in the process. So through very rigorous inspections that we have on the aeroplanes from a mechanical standpoint, it was noted very early.”
“The second thing — because the way the program is built we knew exactly what aeroplanes by tail number by exact location, cause it was actually two manufacturers — so we knew which manufacturer had the good pipe and which manufacturer had the bad pipe and we knew exactly where it was.”
“You say that is a success but what would you say to people who call that a significant setback?” I asked.
“My counter to that would be that there was absolutely no setback. The aeroplanes that we had that were operational and flying. We had a total of 13 of them that were United States Air Force aeroplanes and two of them were Norwegian aeroplanes and they were scattered at Hill Air Force Base, Nellis Air Force Base, and Luke Air Force Base. Those aeroplanes, once the insulation fault was discovered, while they didn’t fly for a period of time there was no operational impact from a training perspective or a combat-capability perspective.”
“There was also additional aeroplanes that Lockheed Martin had in the assembly line process that had these insulation issues associated with it and the assembly line never stopped. That would be in my mind a huge setback to the program, what they did was continued those aeroplanes and fixed them as they came out.”
“So those aeroplanes will all be delivered a few months late but still on schedule for the release of the aeroplanes. So from my standpoint, that bore no cost to the program. The United States Air Force, Department of the Navy and the Joint Programming Office did not pay a single penny for that.”
Since speaking with Pleus, the F-35’s saga continues.
On December 22, President-elect Donald Trump announced via tweet that he asked Boeing to “price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet.”
Trump’s request came a day after meeting separately with the CEOs from Lockheed Martin and Boeing to discuss bringing the “costs down” on the F-35 and the next fleet of presidential aircraft.
Boeing’s response — also announced via tweet — said it accepted the invitation to work with the Trump administration to “affordably meet US military requirements.”
Pleus noted a few upcoming events for the F-35A in 2017. The Air Force plans to debut the F-35A at Red Flag, the pinnacle of combat training, later this month and lasting until February. Following the training at Red Flag, the F-35A will participate in a theatre security package, which is a small deployment to what Pleus called an “austere-type location.”
“One of the good examples you can think of is we send F-22s to Kadena Air Force Base, and they will be there a couple of months,” he said. “They go to a base that’s not necessarily use to having F-22s on it, and they train, they practice, they do all the things that they would normally do and then they will redeploy back to their home. We do that with almost all of our fighter aircraft in the United States … and we send them to both the Pacific theatre as well as the European theatre.”
A third highlight this year will be when the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force Base reaches its full capacity of aeroplanes in the fall.
“That means that not only will they have their 24 primary assigned aircraft but they will also have the right contingent of properly trained pilots and properly trained maintenance as well as their intelligence folks. At that point, you have a full squadron that a combatant commander would be looking for for a true combat role.”
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