Despite ongoing budget pressures, Lockheed Martin expects production of its F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to expand significantly over the next several years, creating more than 1,000 additional jobs at its west-side plant, the company’s top executive in Fort Worth said Friday.
Orlando Carvalho, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, said production of its next-generation fighter is expected to expand from about 36 this year to more than 120 a year by the end of the decade. He made his comments during a speech at a Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Petroleum Club.
The latest projections are less than what Lockheed had estimated just a year ago, when executives told the Star-Telegram that they hoped to boost production to more than 150 planes a year by the end of the decade and add 2,400 jobs in Fort Worth. Carvalho said Lockheed currently has about 13,300 employees in Fort Worth.
Lockheed is aiming to reach full-rate production on the aircraft now that it has worked through a bevy of technical issues that delayed its development. The U.S. government and the manufacturer expect that increased production will bring down the cost of the plane, currently at more than $100 million apiece, to between $70 million and $80 million.
But sequestration and political pressures in Washington continue to loom over defense spending plans. Earlier this year, the Defense Department revealed plans to cut 17 of the 343 F-35 fighters it planned to buy between fiscal years 2016 and 2019 unless Congress decides to get rid of automatic budget cuts.
Carvalho said the bipartisan budget deal reached late last year relieved pressure on the program for two years but that the threat of reductions in future years remains. Still, he said Lockheed is confident that it will build more than 3,000 F-35s over the life of the program for U.S. and foreign customers. It completed its 100th F-35 in December.
The F-35, he predicted, will one day be as successful as Lockheed’s F-16, which this year is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Lockheed is still building the Fighting Falcon and sees opportunities for future sales to countries such as Colombia and Pakistan that could extend the life of its production line in Fort Worth beyond 2017.
Earlier this month, Lockheed staged a ceremony in west Fort Worth to deliver the first of 36 F-16s it’s building for Iraq. With advances by Islamic militants now causing a crisis in that country, the arrival of the first F-16 in Iraq, which was to be ferried over this fall, has been delayed. Production of the other F-16s for Iraq will continue, Carvalho said.
“We’re all very sad to see what’s happening in Iraq, with the commitment our country has made over the last 10 years,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking.”