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Engine fire won’t delay increased F-35 production

An engine fire that prompted the U.S. military to ground its fleet of F-35 fighter jets last month is not expected to delay a planned increase in production at Lockheed Martin’s west Fort Worth complex in coming years, a top Pentagon official said Thursday.

Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, also said the military’s decision to scrap the F-35’s highly-anticipated appearance at the Farnborough International Airshow in England last week was “wise” and does not mark a major setback for the program.

“I fully supported it and so did the Secretary of Defense,” Kendall said. “We communicated that [to customers at Farnborough] and I think it was understood.”

Kendall was among a bevy of top government and military officials who came to Fort Worth to attend a rollout ceremony to mark completion of the first two F-35s built for Australia. Also in attendance was Marillyn Hewson, Lockheed’s chairman and chief executive officer, and Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the Pentagon’s F-35 program chief.

The event was billed as a milestone for the F-35 program and for Australia, one of eight foreign development partners on the fighter jet program. In April, Australia announced plans to increase its F-35 orders from 14 to 72, strengthening its commitment to the program which has suffered from years of cost overruns and technical delays.

Air Marshall Geoff Brown, chief of the Royal Australian Air Force, said the F-35 will become a key component of the Pacific nation’s defense strategy, and provide an “exponential leap” in technology, with its advanced stealth and electronic warfare capabilities.

The first Australian F-35s will head to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, where they will be used in flight training for foreign pilots. The aircraft are expected to arrive in Australia in 2018. The U.S. military has a fleet of 97 F-35s in the midst of flight testing, and others have been completed for the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

As a development partner on the aircraft, Australia was also able to have companies participate in the manufacturing process. As a result, there are Australian parts in almost every F-35 being produced, said Mathias Cormann, a Senator in the Australian Parliament and Minister for Finance.

The June 23 engine fire occurred during a test flight’s takeoff at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Investigators have determined that some parts in the engine rubbed together too hard, causing the blade to fail, Bogdan said.

The F-35 was cleared to resume limited flying last week, and restrictions are likely to remain in place until the fire investigation is completed.

“We’re reasonably confident that we can fly the aircraft, so it’s back in the air,” Kendall said.

While it’s likely that some changes will be required to fix the Pratt & Whitney engine, the work is not expected to be monumental and shouldn’t slow down production, Bogdan said.

“Skin in the game”

Lockheed and the Pentagon have been aiming to boost production of the F-35, now at about 36 a year, to more than 120 a year by the end of the decade. Increased production would help lower the cost of the fifth-generation fighter from more than $100 million apiece to about $80 million. Lockheed and its main corporate partners, Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems, also recently agreed to invest $170 million in the program to help bring down costs.

Bogdan said that Lockheed is making “slow and steady progress” in moving the F-35 program forward. Regarding the new investment, he said, “We like the idea of industry and government both having skin in the game to bring costs down.”

More than 6,000 people work directly on the F-35 program in west Fort Worth, and increased production could add upwards of 1,000 jobs over several years, Lockheed officials have said.

While the Farnborough show was expected to be a coming-out for the F-35 on the international stage, its no-show following the engine fire was “taken in stride” by potential customers, said Orlando Carvalho, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics.

“There was a combination of disappointment but also understanding,” Carvalho said. Customers understand that the high-tech plane is still in its development phase, he said, and that events like that are possible.

Thursday’s rollout shows that “the F-35 is very real and so is confidence in the program,” he said.

Also in attendance at the ceremony was Tom Schieffer, the Fort Worth native who served as the U.S. ambassador to Australia during the Bush administration when Australia signed on as a partner in the F-35 program.

Schieffer said he well remembers being part of the lobbying effort to convince Australia’s minister of defense, Robert Hill, to advocate that his country become a development partner. He didn’t know whether Hill would do it, but Australia decided to become a partner and committed to buy jets.

“To remember that day and now to see the airplane, it’s a great day,” Schieffer said.