USS Essex (LHD 2) Sustains First Combat Operational F-35B

By Lt. j.g. Mathew J. Miller, Hazmat/Disbursing Officer, USS Essex (LHD 2)

USS Essex (LHD 2) and 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit worked together in support of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA)-211’s deployment of the United States’ first-ever combat operational Joint Strike Fighters (JSF). Successfully sustaining the F-35B throughout operations Freedom Sentinel and Inherent Resolve, VMFA-211 sustained a sortie completion rate of 92 percent.

USS Essex (LHD 2) Sailors launch an F-35B


In support of JSF shipboard operations, Essex’s supply department was challenged with the unique opportunity to enable existing logistics pipelines, in concert with industry partner logistics support processes and business practices.

The first notable observance of JSF unique support requirements was the significant dependence and number of contractors that boarded Essex. Due to the lack of organically trained and proficient maintainers, an increased demand for contractor support was necessary throughout the deployment.

In total, Essex deployed with nine contractors specializing in various aspects of JSF sustainment, a near-term necessity, as this program’s manpower requirement matures over time. Levels of contractor support are expected to evolve and adapt for future LHD, LHA, and CVN deployments as maintainer training, experience and proficiency improve over time.

MV-22s, MH-60s, and CH-53s have the benefit of well-versed maintainers with training and experience passed down through years of sustainment. These legacy aircraft have interchangeable support equipment, which leads to a decreased need for cross training.

The F-35B requires a slightly larger and platform peculiar footprint of support equipment, posing unique challenges for maintenance, manpower, and operational requirements. Although the maintainers have been training with JSF equipment for the last five years, partner companies deployed contractors to ensure the processes for the integrated lift fan propulsion system and the rest of the aircraft flowed smoothly.

F-35B takes off from USS Essex (LHD 2) flight deck


The bulk of shipboard contract manpower support stems from the required management of the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) — three Essex and three VMFA-211 network and database managers. ALIS, in many ways, represents a future model of aircraft maintenance. It has become a one-stop-shop for database management, transmitting aircraft health and maintenance action information, replacing the legacy systems of Naval Aviation Logistics Command Management Information System and Optimized Organizational Maintenance Activity. With the F-35 eventually phasing out most fighter attack aircraft, there will be few operational units that do not use ALIS to manage the maintenance of their aircraft. Consequently, the demand for ALIS database management, contractor support and cost could be significant.

ALIS impacts normal business practices in two ways. The first is the use of spares packages ensuring that every JSF manufactured is maintained. F-35 partners (U.S., U.K., Italy, Canada, Australia, Netherlands, Denmark, and Turkey) pay a share into the global spares pool (GSP), of which most are pre-positioned at bases supporting F-35 squadrons. The GSP warehoused parts are known as the base spares pool. DoD has also purchased additional spares that are service owned and no longer categorized as part of the GSP. Naval vessels own afloat spares packages (ASPs).

Spares packages follow force activity designators for priority, first pulling from the afloat asset, similar to pulling from the aviation consolidated allowance list. If the ASP does not have the part, the program will look to source from GSP and that requirement will compete with all other partners for sourcing. GSP parts are collectively owned by the partners, while contractors manage the sourcing and transportation to transfer locations (TLs). The Navy is responsible for the first and last tactical mile to and from the ship after a part reaches the TL.

The second impact is prognostic health management (PHM) analysis. PHM diagnoses and tracks aircraft information, real time, in order to predict future maintenance and parts requirements. In doing so, PHM informs contractors to send parts preemptively to the squadron. Helping bridge the gap among the supply department, contractors, and ALIS is the field service representative (FSR).

In order to decrease wait times, the FSR is crucial in communicating all demands with the contractor F-35 operations center, Commander Naval Air Forces, contractor fleet readiness representatives and the item analyst management team. Each order placed receives an estimated delivery date and tracking number within 24 hours. The freight forwarder ensures the part makes it to the TL within three days.

Parts arrived consistently while in the U.S. 5th Fleet Area of Operation. Once a part arrived to a TL, the part was flown aboard within the day via MV-22. Average wait times from date of order to arrival aboard Essex ranged between four to six days. Challenges presented themselves when using replenishment-at-sea, generating longer wait times.

JSFs are the Navy’s and U.S. Marine Corps’ first fifth-generation aircraft with low observable mission system, which introduced new hazardous material (HAZMAT) challenges. This included tougher customs restrictions on proprietary JSF HAZMAT and shorter shelf lives in comparison to legacy HAZMAT. JSF HAZMAT is stored under refrigeration to extend the HAZMAT through the length of a deployment to avoid wait times and travel restrictions.

The inaugural deployment of the F-35B was a huge success in establishing baseline support, requests, and critical lessons learned in a new and unique supply chain. The unique trials of this maiden combat deployment were crucial to identifying supply chain issues, manning requirements and other unique support, ensuring the success of future operations.

–photos by MC Sabyn L. Marrs

Spring 2019