Lockheed Martin unveils first F-35 built for Japan

With traditional Japanese taiko drums providing a dramatic aural backdrop, Fort Worth-based Lockheed Martin Aeronautics on Friday unveiled the first F-35A aircraft built for the Far Eastern ally.

The stealth fighter is the first of 42 planes ordered by Japan to beef up its air defenses and defend the nation from what many believe is a growing military threat in East Asia — particularly North Korea, which has drawn international criticism for its continued development of nuclear technology.

“This is a quantum leap improvement over any other aircraft out there,” Frank Kendall, U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, said after the ceremony at Lockheed Martin’s massive manufacturing facility in west Fort Worth. “Anyone thinking about challenging Japan will have to think about dealing with the F-35.”

About 100 dignitaries and visitors from Japan were on hand for the ceremony, including several dozen foreign journalists as well as Japan’s minister of defense, Kenji Wakamiya, and the chief of staff of the country’s Air Self-Defense Force, Gen. Yoshiyuki Sugiyama.

The rollout ceremony featured a decidedly cultural bent, with guests filing into the F-35 plant amid subdued blue and orange lighting and soft harp music. But the calm gave way to throbbing taiko drums, smoke machines and a backdrop showing images of Mount Fuji. The screen eventually gave way, and revealed Japan’s first F-35A Lightning II fighter.

Sugiyama kept the mood light while telling the crowd how impressed he was during a tour of Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth facility, where renovations have been underway to increase annual output of the planes. He joked that the “cutting edge” F-35A controls would impress even video gamers.

“I look forward to the next generation of fighter incorporating a Japan-made video game controller,” the general quipped through an interpreter, drawing loud applause from the crowd of about 500 onlookers.

The rollout ceremony took place even though Japan’s first F-35A — with its tail marking 69-8701 — isn’t actually flight ready. The aircraft was among 57 planes found to have crumbling insulation around lines that carry liquid to cool combat systems and computers.

Earlier this month, 15 F-35 jets were temporarily grounded after mechanics discovered the problem. Subsequently, the poor insulation was found on 42 other planes — including the one at center stage Friday — still in production at Lockheed Martin.

The insulation problem was pinned on a manufacturing problem involving a subcontractor that makes the cooling lines, and Lockheed Martin officials say fixing the problem won’t delay the delivery of Japan’s planes.

Japanese flight crews will undergo several months of training on F-35As, and by the time they actually put one of the planes up in the air the problem will be long fixed, said Jeff Babione, Lockheed Martin’s executive vice president and general manager of the F-35 program.

The first four aircraft ordered by Japan are being built in Fort Worth, and Japanese flight crews will train at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona for several months beginning in November before the planes are delivered overseas. The remaining 38 aircraft will be built at a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Final Assembly & Check-Out facility in Nagoya, Japan.

This report includes information from the Star-Telegram archives.

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796, @gdickson