Farnborough Air Show

F-35’s Big Farnborough Debut In Doubt

 - July 14, 2014, 12:20 AM
Lockheed Martin is still aiming to bring the F-35 to the Farnborough show.

The Lockheed Martin F-35 may yet show up here, but the odds were still against it yesterday, as AIN went to press. A senior Pentagon official said Thursday that all F-35 engines had been inspected and no faults found. But the organization responsible for the four F-35B STOVL versions that are supposed to make the transatlantic trip did not lift the grounding.

“Additional work is required in order to understand and mitigate air show unique risks,” noted a memo from the head of Navair, which was obtained by Reuters. “The enterprise is working night and day to return F-35s to flight. Safety is paramount and we’re continuing the effort to debut in the UK,” a spokesman for the F-35 joint program office (JPO) told AIN Saturday evening. It seems that in order to save face, officials may go ahead with the deployment, even if the stealth jet can only perform here later this week. It has already missed a flyover of the naming ceremony for the UK’s new aircraft carrier on July 4 and three displays at the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) at RAF Fairford this past weekend.

An unprecedented number of foreign air chiefs are attending RIAT and Farnborough, no doubt eager to see the fifth-generation fighter. The four F-35Bs were due to land and be based at Fairford, from where one aircraft would fly to Farnborough to display.

Despite the absence of the jets, U.S. government and industry officials pressed ahead with planned briefings and meetings at RIAT and here. But British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond postponed the signing of a contract for 14 F-35Bs for the UK’s first squadron, which was due to be inked at RIAT last Friday.

Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top acquisition official, will lead a media briefing here this morning, where he will joined by Marillyn Hewson, president and CEO of Lockheed Martin, and officials from the F-35 partner nations. Hammond is due here tomorrow, with or without his signing pen.

Unit Cost Concerns

Unit cost reduction is a key theme of the briefings, after low-rate initial production aircraft proved to be much more expensive than expected. A new cost-reduction initiative was announced last week that will see Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems spend up to $170 million in affordability measures, such as changing materials. The goal is to reduce the unit recurring flyway cost of an F-35 (including the engine) to $80 million by 2019. Industry will get their investment back only if accrued savings are actuallyproved.

“Affordability worries me most,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, who is the head of the F-35 JPO. Speaking at RIAT last Thursday, he floated the concept of “block buys” to drive cost down further. To date, F-35s have been acquired year-by-year, and that is still the current plan for full-rate production. But Bogdan called for both the U.S. and foreign air arms that are buying F-35s to commit to what is essentially the multi-year procurement (MYP) model.

“It does no good when [they] move airplanes to the right. We want to incentivize them [so] they get a better price, and industry has certainty,” Bogdan said. He also revealed the government’s own cost reduction initiative. “I will invest tens of millions of dollars in determining whether parts should be redesigned for better reliability and maintenance. We must do that now, before we are building 150 airplanes a year,” he said.

The JPO chief also declared his goal to reduce operations and maintenance costs by 30 percent by the early 2020s. “We’ve achieved 9 percent to date,” he added.

The Pentagon tapped Bogdan to run the F-35 program two years ago after serious delays and cost overruns soured the relationship with industry, and led to a major adjustment of the program schedule in 2009. He said that there is now a better balance of risk between government and industry.

“I’m searching for better behaviors. We communicate better. I’m pretty satisfied with progress,” Bogdan said. “This program has had a tragic past. But get over it!” he added.