U.S. mulls big order for F-35s in 2018

Lockheed Martin builds the F-35 fighter jet in west Fort Worth.
Lockheed Martin builds the F-35 fighter jet in west Fort Worth. Bloomberg News

The U.S. Defense Department is considering an order for as many as 450 F-35 aircraft from Lockheed Martin starting in fiscal 2018, signaling growing confidence in the advanced fighter’s performance.

The purchase would total 150 jets annually over three years and would include aircraft destined for international customers, Undersecretary Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer, told reporters during a conference call on Friday from Norway, where he was attending an annual meeting of F-35 customers and producers. The deal could potentially yield “double-digit” savings, Kendall said.

That production rate would be “far more than the world has seen for any combat plane since the 1980s,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace and defense analyst with Teal Group, a Virginia-based consultant.

The order would be a big boost for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in west Fort Worth, where the F-35 is being built. Currently, about 8,800 people are at work on the F-35 program in Fort Worth and officials have said that more than 1,000 jobs could be added as the plane progresses to full production.

Output has been steady at around 36 a year in recent years while the jet has been undergoing flight tests, and as Lockheed and its suppliers debugged software and worked to boost engine reliability. Just a year ago, an engine caught fire aboard an F-35 in Florida, prompting the military to temporarily ground its fleet and cancel a scheduled appearance at an air show in Great Britain. Lockheed expects to produce 45 F-35 fighter jets this year.

As the production tempo increases, the cost of making each jet should fall from $108 million to about $80 million by decade’s end.

While the plan to buy 450 planes would require U.S. lawmakers’ approval, the so-called “block buy” wouldn’t face the same congressional scrutiny as a multi-year procurement. That’s typically the stage at which an aircraft leaves the development phase and enters full production.

Using block-buy authority instead of the multi-year procurement process would allow defense officials to avoid Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a frequent critic of cost overruns on the fighter program.

“McCain is not likely to try and kill the program but he would ask a lot of hard questions and perhaps make it very difficult,” said Robert Levinson, a Washington-based analyst with Bloomberg Government. “A block buy does not require permission in a defense authorization bill, only in appropriations legislation.”

The deal would probably include all the jets for fiscal year 2018 through fiscal 2020 in the Pentagon’s latest five-year plan — a request for far more money than the law allows, Levinson said in an e-mail.

Signing the block buy would effectively “wall off the F-35 program from the rest of the DOD budget, and would increase budget pressure on other weapons systems and contractors,” he said.

U.S. officials are “very encouraged” by progress on the $391.1 billion F-35 fighter program, Kendall said.

The first F-35 jets for the Marines could be declared ready for combat as early as July, he said.

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.