F-35 Looks to Move Past Recent Setbacks

By Dan Parsons
Even in the infamously troubled history of the F-35 joint strike fighter, recent months have been particularly inauspicious for the most expensive weapon system development program in U.S. history. 

The entire U.S. fleet of F-35s had its wings clipped for more than three weeks after the engine of an Air Force version of the jet caught fire prior to a June 23 training flight. The incident forced officials to ground the fleet and the aircraft missed several crucial international appearances in the United Kingdom, where the F-35 was supposed to make its international debut before foreign buyers who are critical to Lockheed’s plan to reduce unit cost.

“Lockheed and the joint program office were enthusiastic about getting [the F-35] over there precisely to enhance the program in the eyes of foreign buyers,” said Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight, who has written extensively about the systemic problems with F-35.

Laura Siebert, a Lockheed F-35 spokeswoman, said Aug. 5 that the jet’s absence at Farnborough did not reverberate negatively with international customers.

“It did not have any effect on potential sales or current sales or the promise for the future of the program,” she said.

Wheeler strenuously disagreed with Lockheed’s assessment.

“For either of them to say they where not embarrassed by it not showing up is self-contradictory. Everyone else thinks it was a great embarrassment for the program,” he said.

An initial Defense Department assessment of the engine failure determined the malfunction was unique to that aircraft, but Wheeler was dubious without third-party review of the fleet.
“We don’t know yet if this problem in the engine was a one-off or systemic,” he said. “We won’t know that until we have an analysis by an objective party.”

The fire, which caused irreparable damage to the jet before the pilot was able to shut down the engine and safely escape, temporarily halted contract negotiations on the eighth lot of aircraft to be purchased by the U.S. government. Lockheed officials were expecting the most recent low-rate initial production agreement for 43 aircraft to be finalized this summer.

Siebert said the negotiations had resumed and should still be finalized by summer’s end.

“We are currently in negotiations and hope they will be complete by the end of summer,” she told National Defense. “It might push into September, but I think we are in the final trenches. We hope to complete it very soon.”

The Pentagon’s F-35 joint program office confirmed the negotiations were ongoing and had not been affected by the grounding.

“Contract negotiations between the F-35 Joint Program Office and Lockheed Martin continue to move forward,” JPO spokesman Joe DellaVedova said in an emailed statement. “We’re focused on reducing aircraft costs and getting a fair and reasonable price for the government. … Once we reach agreements in principle and finalize the contract with Lockheed Martin, more details will be released.”

The LRIP 8 contract, along with burgeoning international sales, should begin to bring the per-jet price down in line with a price point that has long been promised but never delivered: a cost comparable to the F-15s, F-16s and F-18s they eventually will replace.

Each LRIP contract is supposed to be less expensive per aircraft than the previous deal, Loraine Martin, Lockheed’s F-35 program manager, said in June, prior to the fire.

“We have programs in place, that you’ll hear more about as they become more specific and tangible, that can get the aircraft to a fourth-gen price in the 2019 timeframe,” Martin said. “I do need people to buy them because the economics of quantity is key.”

“We know that the program has not delivered to its expectations over the years,” she added. “I will continue to bring the price down as the quantities go up and as I put affordability initiatives in place.”

The unit cost of the F-35 for the LRIP 7 contract was $98 million, $104 million and $116 million for the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy versions, respectively, according to information from Lockheed. “An F-35A purchased in 2018 and delivered in 2020 will be $85 million, which is the equivalent of $75 million in today’s dollars,” company information said. But none of those figures include the price of the engine, which is negotiated independently between the U.S. government and Pratt & Whitney.

Wheeler said Lockheed and the Pentagon present misleading figures by also failing to include long-lead materials funding from previous budgets and the cost of repairing mistakes found during ongoing testing.

Wheeler’s analysis, published on POGO’s website, found that an F-35A actually costs $148 million to produce. The Marine Corps F-35B costs $251 million while a Navy F-35C costs $337 million.

“Average the three models together, and a ‘generic’ F-35 costs $178 million,” Wheeler said. “Because of the different ways you can calculate the pretend cost, the flyaway cost of an airplane will get you one that cannot fly because it lacks the cost of fuel and lubricants. More to the point, it often lacks the support infrastructure. During their brief at Farnborough, Lockheed advertised a unit cost in their brief that did not include an engine.”

Lockheed is aiming for a single F-35, including the engine, to cost $80 million by 2019 in then-year dollars, Siebert said. To make that happen, the company must ramp up production from the current 36 per year to around 170 aircraft per year, Siebert said.

Per-jet costs published in a Government Accountability Office report in March also fail to jibe with Lockheed’s figures. The report questions whether reducing cost to fourth-generation levels within five years is even possible. 

“The F-35 program’s high projected annual acquisition funding levels continue to put the program’s long-term affordability at risk,” the report said. “Currently the acquisition program requires $12.6 billion per year through 2037, which does not appear to be achievable given the current fiscal environment.

“Additionally, the most recent life-cycle sustainment cost estimate for the F-35 fleet is more than $1 trillion, which DoD officials have deemed unaffordable.”

GAO puts the unit cost of the three variants at $124 million, $156 million and $142 million for the A, B and C models, respectively. That means that cost reductions of between $41 million and $50 million are required to meet the $80 million target by 2019, the report noted.

The company’s “cost war room” has made strides driving expenses out of aircraft sustainment as well. Martin said in June details on those savings would likely be made public together with F-35 JPO chief Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, at the Farnborough Air Show in the United Kingdom.

Prior to Farnborough, Lockheed announced “The Blueprint for Affordability” that enshrined its commitment to deliver F-35s at a fourth-generation cost by 2019. Lockheed and subcontractors Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems — builder of the advanced pilot helmet — agreed to invest up to $170 million between 2014 and 2016 in affordability measures. From 2016 to 2018, the U.S. government has the option to invest further if the initiative proves effective.

“Industry partners will make an upfront investment into cost-cutting measures that the government and taxpayers will reap benefits from by buying F-35s at a lower cost,” Bogdan said in a statement announcing the initiative. “By 2019, we expect that the F-35 with its unprecedented 5th generation capability will be nearly equal in cost to any other fighter on the market, but with far more advanced capability.”

That news was overshadowed by the F-35B’s failure to show up at Farnborough and the Royal International Air Tattoo, at which it was to perform an aerial display of its flight and hover capabilities. Both appearances fell victim to the fleet being grounded following the engine fire.

The cross-ocean flight was an official Marine Corps deployment, which would have given the military and Lockheed an opportunity to test the jets’ performance and bolster its image to confirmed and potential international customers. It was not to be, though the fleet was cleared to fly with restricted speed and flight maneuvers on July 15, before the show began. Those restrictions have since been loosened but not lifted.

The engine malfunction also inspired members of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee to question whether engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney should be kept on as the sole source manufacturer of the F-35’s power plant.

Pratt & Whitney attempted damage control after Farnborough by calling a media roundtable to discuss the program. The company then abruptly canceled the press conference and did not respond to subsequent requests for comment.

Still, the F-35 program is pressing ahead. The Marine Corps is on track to achieve initial operating capability — the point at which the aircraft can be deployed into combat — in 2015. Air Force IOC is scheduled for 2016, with the Navy following in 2017.

In the fall, carrier operation testing will begin with an F-35C aboard the USS Nimitz. Land-based carrier testing is underway at Patuxent River, Maryland, where Martin said the new arresting tail hook that stops jets on a carrier deck is performing well.

Testing of the aircraft’s initial mission-system software, called 2B, which the Marine Corps will use for their IOC, is installed on the aircraft and is fully operational, Martin said. Verification of the aircraft’s 7 million lines of code is ongoing and should be completed by the end of the calendar year, she said.

In all, software and mission systems testing on the three F-35 variants is about 60 percent complete, but the most difficult work lies ahead, said Michael Gilmore, director of operational test and evaluation for the office of the secretary of defense.

“A lot of the missions systems testing remains to be done. A lot of the most difficult and most complex fusion algorithms associated with mission systems testing remains to be done,” Gilmore said July 22 at a Washington, D.C., conference hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association.

“There is some very hard work that remains to be done, both with block 2B and with block 3F mission systems testing,” he said.

If software tests reveal problems with coding or hardware, they would be addressed in later blocks of aircraft, he said. There is little chance that issues that crop up in future tests will threaten the program, he added.

“The department remains committed to the program. I expressed in testimony a year ago … that it was my view the department had no choice but to make the program work,” Gilmore said.

“I don’t see that the program is going to be derailed by any particular test result,” Gilmore said. “What I see is that the department, if it gets negative test results, will work to understand them and to fix them as soon as they can.”

There are about 170,000 lines of code of a total 900,000 lines left to be written for the aircraft’s final software iteration, Martin said.

“We have plenty of time, in my estimation, to get the 3F software complete,” she said. Bogdan has voiced concern that the software development could be delayed by up to six months, but Martin discounted his estimate. Eventually, all three variants regardless of national ownership will have identical software suites, making the aircraft fully interoperable.

To date, focus has centered on the U.S. military’s development and purchase of the aircraft. Going forward, international deliveries will become a larger portion of the annual production of the aircraft. About half of all F-35s built in production lot nine and beyond will go to international partners, a fundamental element of the effort to achieve an $80 million F-35 by 2019, Siebert said. Achieving that goal is contingent upon both Canada and South Korea solidifying their plans to purchase F-35s, she said.

The total program of record for U.S. and international F-35 sales stands at more than 3,000 aircraft. 

Australia received the first two of its planned fleet of 100 F-35Bs in July at a rollout ceremony at Lockheed’s Texas manufacturing plant. The aircraft, designated AU-1 and AU-2 will be the first non-U.S. joint strike fighters stationed at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, which is the program’s designated international training center.

Israel will get its first F-35 at end of 2016. The Israeli military has committed to buying 19 F-35As, but Congress has approved the sale of up to 75 aircraft. Israel is not a partner in the international F-35 program, so its purchases are authorized through the foreign military sales process.

Japan also is buying 42 jets through FMS. The country’s first four aircraft will be built in Lockheed’s Fort Worth, Texas, production facility. The remaining 38 fighters will be built in Japan in partnership with Mitsubishi Industries. Neighboring South Korea selected the F-35 in March for its F-X fighter program and is expected to buy at least 40 jets.

Initial operation of the United Kingdom’s land-based F-35s is slated for late 2018. That country’s maritime versions of the jet will come online in 2020.

Canada’s decision on whether to purchase F-35s as a replacement for its aging F-18 fleet is “imminent,” Martin said. The Canadian decision to purchase 65 F-35s for $8 billion had not been made by early August.

A report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives urged the nation’s federal government to reconsider buying a single-engine aircraft like the F-35. Canada has far-flung territories over which military pilots will fly and be at risk of crashing in the event of engine failure, the report suggested.
Martin countered that single-engine F-16s — the most abundant fighter in the world — fly every day on multiple continents with an acceptable safety record.

Topics: Aviation, Joint Strike Fighter, Tactical Aircraft, Defense Department, DOD Budget, DOD Policy, Procurement, Defense Department

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