If Lockheed Martin is to be believed, there’s not much wrong with the F-35 program. In a briefing here yesterday, vice president F-35 business development Steve O’Bryan stuck doggedly to the company mantra that development is moving right along, with plenty of accomplishments despite the slow pace of flight testing. Behind-the-scenes though, Monday’s dramatic announcements by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates suggest that a new schedule and a consequent revision of the unit cost estimate is pending. This may hold some nasty surprises, especially for the international partners.
In the meantime, O’Bryan insisted that the date of 2012 for initial operational capability for the U.S. Marine Corps is still valid. He explained that Secretary Gates had allocated an extra $2.8 billion of F-35 funding for the system design and development (SDD) phase. Lockheed Martin would use the extra money to build an additional carrier-capable F-35C and to “increase software productivity.”
O’Bryan further noted that the low-rate initial production aircraft that are now moving down the production line included all the hardware necessary to achieve the end-of-SDD performance that Lockheed Martin has promised. “They’re waiting only for the software load,” he added. And software development is proceeding well on the “Catbird”–the converted Boeing 737 that serves as a surrogate F-35, with 20 flight-test and software engineers on board, and even a complete F-35 cockpit plus pilot. This aircraft has recently been generating high-fidelity synthetic aperture radar images and testing the electronic warfare system.
But although O’Bryan announced the first flight of the third F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing aircraft at Fort Worth Tuesday, he could not disguise the slow progress that the first two F-35Bs have made toward actually demonstrating STOVL in practice. The first vertical landing is scheduled for “later this year,” he said. However, BF-1 has now performed an in-flight transition to powered lift and down to 120 knots with the lift fan engaged, he noted.
According to O’Bryan, static testing has gone well and the missions systems are “maturing well.” The U.S. Government Accountability Office has repeatedly suggested that there is too much concurrency in the F-35 program between development and production. The Pentagon’s F-35 joint program office (JPO) and Lockheed Martin have always challenged that view. Insofar as Secretary Gates made no change to the number of jets that are funded for production in 2011, he is still following the advice from the JPO and Lockheed Martin. But on Monday he fired the Marine general running the JPO. As for Lockheed Martin, despite O’Bryan’s assertion that the company is “focusing on execution,” there is no sign that heads will roll at Fort Worth.
Partners Still Onboard and in the Loop
The eight international partners are still fully committed to the F-35, according to Lockheed Martin vice president F-35 business development Steve O’Bryan. Of the two countries that enjoy “level-three status” and therefore receive ongoing classified information, Israel is negotiating a production contract and Singapore is “ramping up its interest,” he said. Meanwhile, Japan and Korea are also showing interest in the F-35, and Belgium, Finland, and Greece have all recently received classified briefings.
Lockheed Martin said the F-35 is the only fifth-generation combat aircraft that is available internationally. “There are many strengths in developing our international partnerships…we can pool resources,” O’Bryan said.
Pratt Denies Part in F-35 Pitfalls
Pratt & Whitney president Tom Farmer here in Singapore yesterday denied any responsibility for the recent F-35 flight test delays. He acknowledged that the U.S. government had identified 16 “items of interest” in the F135 turbofan, of which four were judged significant, but they subsequently have been cleared, and the flight test engines are demonstrating excellent reliability, performance and thrust response.
After 13,000 hours of testing, P&W has delivered the first production-standard engine for a conventional F-35A aircraft. The initial service release for the STOVL engine for the F-35B would be achieved by late summer, Farmer added.