JUST IN: Coronavirus Affecting F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program

By Jon Harper

Air Force photo

The global outbreak of the novel coronavirus has halted work on the F-35 joint strike fighter in Japan, and the Pentagon is remaining vigilant in case there are additional impacts, defense officials said March 4.

More than 3,000 people have already died from the virus worldwide, with thousands more infected, most of them in China where the new pathogen emerged in December. It has since spread to a number of other countries including Japan, Italy and the United States.

Final assembly and check-out, or FACO, facilities for the F-35 are located in Japan and Italy.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Eric Fick, program executive officer for the F-35 joint program office, said he was informed March 3 that to comply with Japanese government coronavirus directives, the FACO in Nagoya will be closed for one week. The facility is operated by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Work is expected to resume, Fick said March 4 at the annual McAleese & Associations defense programs conference in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Mike Andrews noted in a statement that only Japanese aircraft are produced at the Nagoya facility.

Fick said: “I don't see any other disruptions to the supply chain at this point.”

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the aircraft, is restricting company travel to the F-35 FACO in Cameri, Italy — citing an alert issued by the State Department — and the Pratt & Whitney engine team in Cameri have been directed to telework, Andrews said. The facility is operated by Italian contractor Leonardo.

“There have been no impacts to the production line” in Italy thus far, Andrews said.

However, program officials are on the lookout for other potential coronavirus-related issues. The joint strike fighter has a large international supply chain, with 14 nations currently part of the program. The U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy are buying the A, B and C variants of the aircraft, respectively. The F-35 is the largest acquisition project in the history of the Defense Department.

“We are working very closely with [Defense Contract Management Agency] to monitor the impact of the coronavirus on the F-35 program writ large,” Fick said. “Certainly we will continue to monitor the situation as it evolves, but we're taking no deliberate steps to actively curtail any activity at this point.”

The Defense Department has taken measures to protect U.S. troops from the deadly pathogen, including restricting access to bases in places like South Korea. It is also keeping an eye on the industrial base.

“Combating the coronavirus remains a top priority for the department, and Secretary [of Defense Mark] Esper meets weekly with senior leaders to discuss how we're taking care of our men and women in uniform around the world,” Andrews said. Additionally, “the department remains fully engaged with the defense industrial base on all programs, including the F-35, and stands ready to respond when needed.”

Concerns about disruptions in the international supply chain for civilian products made in China and other locations affected by the coronavirus have garnered headlines.

Speaking at the Brookings Institution earlier this week, Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Committee Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, noted that the outbreak could also be a problem for the Pentagon, which relies on overseas suppliers for parts for many of its military systems.

“It's not just civilian businesses that are dependent upon products and components” from countries with coronavirus cases, Thornberry said. “To the extent … economic commerce is threatened, then of course it could relate to defense weapons and equipment.”

Topics: Air Power, Defense Department

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