U.S. Services Declare F-35 Operational Capability Dates

 - June 7, 2013, 10:30 AM
An F-35B from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 conducted the first vertical landing outside a testing environment at the Yuma, Ariz., Marine Corps air station on March 21. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)

Responding to a requirement of the Fiscal Year 2013 defense authorization act, U.S. military services declared their planned initial operational capability (IOC) dates for the three variants of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) on May 31. The legislation required the services to establish IOC dates by June 1.

The Marine Corps said that it will achieve IOC, or initial combat readiness, of the F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing (Stovl) variant by December 2015. The Air Force declared IOC for the F-35A conventional takeoff and landing variant in December 2016. The Navy will reach IOC of the F-35C carrier variant in February 2019.

In each case, the service said the JSF will be capable of meeting expected threats on the date that it enters service, but in future years will require the “enhanced lethality and survivability inherent in Blocks 3F” and future software upgrades. The Marine Corps F-35B will begin operations with Block 2B software. Lockheed Martin reports that Block 3F software will be released to the services in 2017.

On May 23, the Department of Defense (DOD) released a summary of annual selected acquisition reports (SAR) to Congress with the latest cost, schedule and performance estimates of the F-35 and other weapons programs, as of December 2012. The SAR summary states that F-35 aircraft subprogram costs have decreased by $4.94 billion, from $331.8 billion, to $326.9 billion, “due primarily to decreases in the prime contractor and subcontractor labor rates and revised airframe and subcontractor estimates that incorporate the latest actual costs from early low-rate initial production (LRIP) lots.”

Lockheed Martin issued a statement following the DOD release, saying it is “pleased with the $4.5 billion reduction in acquisition, operating and support costs reflected in the 2012 selected acquisition report. This was the first year a cost reduction was noted. We will work with the F-35 Joint Program Office to implement further cost-saving measures, which will result in additional significant decreases to the total program cost.”

Steve O’Bryan, Lockheed Martin vice president of F-35 program integration, provided a briefing on the program status for reporters on May 14. The program is progressing on concurrent development and production and sustainment paths, he explained. By the end of this year, it will be about halfway through system development and demonstration (SDD) based on flight-tests and test points.

On the production side, the company is under contract with DOD for the first-through-fifth LRIP lots. It has started the build process for LRIP 6 and ordered long-lead items for LRIPs 7 and 8. LRIPs 3 and 4 include jets for the UK and the Netherlands; LRIP 6 contains jets for Italy and Australia. (On May 22, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified Congress of the potential sale of F-35 weapons to the Republic of Korea, where the aircraft is competing for the pending FX-III fighter requirement.)

“From LRIP 1 to LRIP 5 we’ve reduced the cost of the airplane by more than 50 percent,” he said. “The cost of an airplane that’s delivered in approximately 2020 in then-year dollars [including inflation] is about $85 million.”

Pratt & Whitney, manufacturer of the aircraft's F135 engine, said that since the delivery of the first F135 engine it has reduced engine cost by 40 percent. "Lacking U.S. government funding, P&W self-funded many elements of the latest production lot contract (LRIP 5), and we've further demonstrated our commitment to reduce costs for the government by taking on 100 percent overrun risk in LRIP 5," the company stated. "We've been able to reduce costs in each successive LRIP and we hope to keep that momentum going forward."