Italians produce first F-35 MDF

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Benjamin Aronson
  • 350th Spectrum Warfare Wing

Italy became the next F-35 Partner Support Complex (PSC) partner nation to complete its first Mission Data File (MDF) on its own in support of the Italian Air Force F-35 Lightning II fleet.

The F-35 PSC, activated in 2016, is home to seven partner nations that have purchased F-35s from the U.S. and work with the U.S. on the development of MDFs.

“It’s been interesting working together because every nation approaches things somewhat differently,” said Robert Kraus, F-35 PSC director. “It’s interesting and fun and can be challenging at times.”

Aircraft rely on MDFs to provide pilots with the awareness of what potential threats may be in an area and how to counter them, such as radars and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). The information comes from what aircraft sensors pick up during flights and is driven by the mission data. Upon landing, the pilots review their tapes and provide feedback on MDF performance to the mission data developers to improve future performance.

“The lab is really a hardware in the loop test facility, and we have effectively all the EW [Electromagnetic Warfare] equipment through the aircraft being stimulated by threat simulators and a master computer running the overall scenario,” said Kraus. “Our team is in there [the lab] watching screens like the cockpit screen to see what is happening and we have computers collecting data.”

The F-35 poses a greater challenge compared to legacy aircraft MDF development not only due to increase advanced capabilities, but also that the U.S. government policy requires MDF to be developed within the U.S.

“Perform testing in a 5th Gen environment requires you to take into consideration multiple variables that interact in a complex environment” said Italian Air Force Lt. Col. Alessandro Macculi, Norway Italy Reprogramming Laboratory Italian lead. “When you’re testing with a 4th Gen, the interaction amongst variables is more predictable and the overall volumes are smaller.”

The first Italian member showed up at Eglin, AFB, in 2017 and the team has grown to eight members, consisting of Italian Air Force and Navy personnel. Over that time, the team became familiar with the equipment, processes supporting F-35 MDFs and finally learning how to operate within the testing lab.

“When we came over here [to Eglin, AFB] and were looking around to our U.S. partners and the other nations, the first question was: would we be able to deliver with the same quality process?” said Macculi.

Macculi and his team answered that question recently by finalizing their first Italian-made MDF ahead of their projected timeline. As the team moves forwards and continues to build their databases and expertise, they expect that time to shrink.

“Delivering an MDF as quickly as we did would have taken much longer without the help of the U.S. team, that supported us with knowledge, training, and education. That has been the real game changer for us,” said Macculi.

With the complete MDF in hand, the Italian Armed Forces will upload it to aircraft and test it in field and bring their findings back to the team here to continue to improve their data and their MDFs. This accomplishment also marks a milestone in the Italian F-35 fleet’s path towards Full Operational Capability (FOC).

“No one is ever going to fight alone,” said Kraus. “It’s always going to be a coalition and for us we’ll always go to someone else’s AOR [area of responsibility] so it’s going to be very helpful to have those relationships prebuilt and those CONOPS [concept of operations] of the aircraft established before we go to combat.”