International partners drive Joint Strike Fighter recovery

 - July 21, 2010, 9:04 AM

Buoyed by last week’s endorsement of the F-35 from Canada, Lockheed Martin vice president Tom Burbage, delivered a business-as-usual update on the Joint Strike Fighter program here in Farnborough this week. There was some talk of the alleged mounting costs, but much more about the flight-test program and international partnerships.

Burbage revealed that construction had begun in Italy of the final assembly and check out (FACO) facility, after the recent confirmation. Lockheed Martin is in partnership with Alenia and others on the FACO. Burbage said the Italians would not operate a moving line, unlike the main F-35 production set-up at Fort Worth, where $1 billion has been invested in tooling. The line will move at 51 inches per hour once the full production rate has been achieved.

All the international partners are still “on track,” Burbage claimed. But the Dutch are having second thoughts about joining the operational test and evaluation (OT&E) phase, he admitted. Norway has actually increased its planned buy from 48 to 56, and Turkey might buy more than the 100 currently slated. The Australian government has confirmed its first 14, and will seek approval for 59 more next year. But yes, the UK is having a defense review, he acknowledged, and that is bound to reduce the current planned buy of 138. Canada’s total has dropped by 15 to 65 upon confirmation last week.

Incidentally, none of these airplanes is under contract yet. The fourth low-rate initial production (LRIP) contract for 32 F-35s is still being negotiated; it contains a third OT&E aircraft for the UK and maybe the second for the Netherlands. No other international buys are scheduled until LRIP 6 in fiscal year 2012.

Is the program making up for the delays in flight test? “All of the SDD [system design and development] aircraft are now on the flight line,” Burbage reported. Two aircraft are now flying with Block 0.5 mission software. Both types of air-to-air refueling have been demonstrated (boom plus probe-and-drogue). The first flight of the F-35C went very smoothly, indicating a high degree of maturity, according to Burbage. “Right now, we’re 10 percent ahead of our schedule to do 394 test flights this year,” he added. But, after a successful first vertical landing last March, first STOVL aircraft BF-1 did not fly for four months.

Static testing of the F-35A and F-35B versions is complete. Burbage showed video of the F-35C static test article undergoing drop tests to simulate heavy carrier landings. It will now go into the rig for static testing.

AIN asked for Lockheed Martin’s reaction to the comments in the latest F-35 program report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which raised alarm bells about through-life costs (TLCs). The GAO said that service officials are concerned about escalating TLCs, and that the cost per flying hour of the F-35A is projected to be higher than that of the F-16s it will replace.

Surprisingly, Burbage was unaware of the GAO comments, but he noted that TLC estimates can vary widely, depending on the assumptions about inflation, years of service and so on. “We have a comprehensive annual review of support costs with all our customers. They have more information at this stage than any previous program has provided. Moreover, legacy programs do not collect their costs to the same extent that we do,” he said.

“We’ve always said support costs will be 20 percent below legacy aircraft, and we’re still on track for that. But we need to firm up these estimates. Many decisions on support still have to be made by the various countries.”