Air Force, Lockheed Agree That F-35 Is Back On Track (UPDATED)

By Dan Parsons

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — A year after the Air Force general in charge of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter threw Lockheed Martin under the bus for failing to deliver the aircraft on time and below cost, he and the company are in agreement that the program is on schedule and the problems of the past are just that.

Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan at the 2012 Air Force Association conference called out F-35 lead contractor Lockheed for misleading the government on its ability to deliver the capabilities required in a fifth-generation fighter aircraft. Bogdan then said the relationship between the Air Force and its industry partners on the F-35 was “the worst I’ve ever seen.”

On Sept. 17, speaking at the same conference, Bogdan said the problems that have plagued the F-35 since its inception “are in the rearview mirror."

“Last year, I threw a hand grenade into the crowd,” Bogdan said of his public chastising of Lockheed and Pratt & Whitney, which makes engines for all three variants of F-35. “That was intentional. A lot has changed since then. Some hasn’t changed as fast as I would have liked. … We are making some good progress.”

Bogdan said his relationship with Pratt and Lockheed is “orders of magnitude” better than it was this time last year. Lockheed’s F-35 General Manager Lorraine Martin said she and Bogdan work on the relationship every day.

“We have used the [lots six and seven] negotiations as a symbol and a test case of our ability to work together,” she said.

Martin, who took the directorship of Lockheed’s F-35 program right around the time Bogdan took the company to task, said the past 12 months have been a “solid year of meeting commitments.”

“The technical issues we’ve had are well understood and are being retired,” Martin said. “We are addressing and retiring risks on the program. We’ll continue to focus on them but we are putting them behind us.”

Whereas 30 JSFs were delivered last year, Lockheed says it has already delivered 20 as of September. A total of 49 are to be delivered by the end of this calendar year. The 100th aircraft is due to arrive this quarter at Luke Air Force Base, which will be the first of a squadron.

To date, 67 pilots are qualified to fly one or more of the JSF variants. At least 820 maintainers have been trained. Of those, two pilots and 18 trainers are from the United Kingdom, which partnered with the United States on JSF development and acquisition.

By the end of the year, the Air Force will have completed half of the overall flight testing, Bogdan said. Live weapon separations — a major concern with the operational capability of the aircraft — are scheduled to begin before the end of the year.

Contracts have since been finalized on two lots of aircraft, with guarantees that Lockheed will be stuck with the bill should those buys go over the negotiated price, Bogdan said.

Costs per aircraft have been coming down with each lot purchased, both Bogdan and Martin said. From low-rate initial production lots one to five, the cost has decreased 55 percent across all three variants, Martin said. That accounts for a $500 million reduction from lots one to five. The Air Force’s conventional takeoff and landing version now sits at $150 million per copy, she said.

The Defense Department plans to spend $327 billion on airframes and $64 billion on engines for a total 2,457 F-35s.

Lockheed is expected to submit its offer for lot eight before the end of this calendar year.

In the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, the Pentagon has allocated $8.4 billion to buy 29 aircraft. The Air Force will get 19, the Marine Corps six and the Navy four. 

All three services have announced the dates they intend to declare initial operational capability, beginning with the Marine Corps in 2015. The Air Force will follow in 2016 and the Navy plans to begin operational flights in 2019. IOC is the point at which the service declares its version of the aircraft ready for combat.

Both Bogdan and Martin said they were were confident the Marine Corps will have an operational aircraft on time, meaning sometime between August and December 2015. Martin insisted the service would have at least 12 fully operational aircraft by that date. The basing decision for the Air Force’s first JSF squadron is expected sometime in November, Martin said.

Technical challenges remain, mostly with the software that will run the extremely complicated aircraft. Bugs still have to be worked out of the helmet worn by pilots that provides flight data and 360-degree vision. The aircraft must also be cleared to fly in adverse weather. The F-35 Lightning II is not cleared to fly within two-dozen miles of lightning. Its electronics are too vulnerable.

As with most design flaws that have emerged with the F-35, a retrofit has been fashioned and will be included as a standard feature on lots seven and beyond, Bogdan said.

Correction: This article originally misidentified when the Navy and Air Force plan to declare initial operating capability for their versions of the F-35. The Air Force plans to declare IOC in 2016 and the Navy will follow in 2019.

Topics: Aviation, Joint Strike Fighter

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