Covid Dents F-35 Production as Development Continues

 - July 23, 2020, 4:55 AM
F-35As from the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings perform an “elephant walk” during a Combat Power exercise at Hill AFB, Utah in January. The Lockheed Martin program has now delivered 540 aircraft to U.S. and allied air arms. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

Considering that the Lockheed Martin F-35 is the largest global defense program currently under way, with a vast number of suppliers—both domestic and international—in the supply chain tiers, it comes as no surprise that the Covid-19 pandemic has affected its production rate.

“We expect to see F-35 delays of two to three months,” said Darren Sekiguchi, Lockheed Martin v-p of F-35 production during an FIA Connect event. “At this time, we expect to see impacts of 18 to 24 aircraft in 2020. However, we will accelerate production when we return to pre-Covid-19 conditions to recover as many delayed aircraft as possible. This year’s delivery target is 141 aircraft, and we continue to work towards that goal.”

Lockheed Martin designed the F-35 production system to be as flexible and resilient as possible so that alternative souces can cover single-point supply problems, but the worldwide effects of Covid-19 have inevitably affected the supply chain. Sekiguchi hopes that production rates can return to pre-Covid rates by “the late summer or early fall this year.”

Lockheed Martin is keen to maintain the financial health of its suppliers, especially the smaller Tier 2 and 3 companies. To maintain its major defense contractors and their key programs during the crisis, the U.S. government introduced an accelerated program payment scheme that released more than $1 billion in F-35 payments to Lockheed Martin, all of which has cascaded into the supply chain to ensure that it remains intact.

The F-35 production line has delivered 540 aircraft, and more than 1,000 pilots and 10,000 maintainers are now trained to fly and work on the aircraft. Eight countries have F-35s operating from their territories, and six services have declared initial operational capability (IOC).

The aircraft continues to expand its capability and is currently undergoing a program known as Tech Refresh 3, which provides additional computer capacity. “That computational capability allows us to have additional new software modes, to be able to use new information and fuse it in different ways from the sensors,” said Santi Bulnes, v-p of F-35 engineering and technology. “It will enable interoperability, new datalinks, [and] the connectivity that is so important in the modern warfare world. All those things will be enabled by that additional throughput.”

New weapons are coming too, said Bulnes. “We’re going to be easily adding upwards of 20 new weapons over the next few years," he noted. "That gives the warfighter the flexibility needed when they go into theater. Not only can they penetrate where others can’t, but they’ll have the right weapons to do it.”

The automatic ground collision avoidance system, which has been operational in the F-16 for some time, has proved an important addition from a safety standpoint. “We’ve been able to pull that capability up five years early with our new software processes on the F-35,” reported Bulnes.

Arguably the most important upgrade underway is to the aircraft’s data information system, which lies at the heart of logistics, maintenance, training, operations, and technical support planning. The original Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) design emerged in the mid-2000s and has not benefitted from any technological refreshes, although it continues to receive updates on a quarterly basis.

To replace it, a Joint Program Office-led team has developed the Operational Data Integrated Network (ODIN), which leverages the huge advances made in digital technology over the last 15 years to create a system that can handle far more data. ODIN is expected to achieve IOC next year and reach full operational capability in 2022.