Pentagon chief says Lockheed’s F-35 now on track for success

An Air Force version of the F-35 taxis out for a test flight at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Fort Worth.
An Air Force version of the F-35 taxis out for a test flight at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Fort Worth. Star-Telegram

Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jet, the Pentagon’s long-troubled and costliest weapons program, is now on course to become a success and even a relative bargain, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter says.

“My memory goes back seven years ago to a development program way over cost and way behind” and to “early buys which were too expensive,” Carter, who was the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer at the time, said in an interview. “So we’ve put a lot of effort” into making the fighter jet “what it’s supposed to be: not only the best tactical aircraft in the world but the most affordable.”

While the F-35 program is still projected to cost a record $391.1 billion, getting down the cost per plane is crucial to selling it to buyers abroad. Eleven foreign partners and customers for the fighter include the U.K., Italy, Australia, Norway, Japan and Israel.

The aircraft’s “reputation internationally is now very solid,” Carter said in the interview last week. “There are a lot of buyers and more queuing up to buy.”

Canadian officials, who originally said they wanted to buy as many as 65 aircraft, now want to evaluate it in a competition. Canada’s exit from the program could increase the per-jet cost of the most common model by 1 percent.

Still costly

Production of the fighter jet is being ramped up at Lockheed’s mile-long assembly plant in west Fort Worth, which is undergoing a $1.2 billion reconfiguration. The company expects to produce 53 F-35s this year, up from 45 last year, then about 60 in 2017 and as many as 100 in 2018,

Air Force Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan , who heads the F-35’s program office, told reporters last week that as many as 873 F-35s will be produced through 2021. Of these, 54 percent, or 471, will be for the U.S. military, Bogdan said.

The basic “flyaway” cost of a conventional Air Force F-35 model, which includes its engines, will drop to about $85 million by 2019 in current dollars at that time from about $100 million anticipated for the latest contract, Bogdan said.

“Affordability is still a big problem,” said Richard Aboulafia, a military aircraft analyst with the Teal Group.

The F-16, also built by Lockheed, costs about $50 million, and the competing Swedish-made Saab Gripen NG goes for $55 million, Aboulafia said. The current flyaway cost of the F/A-18E/F from Boeing Co. is about $77.8 million, according to fiscal 2017 Navy budget documents.

The F-35’s current flyaway cost is in “roughly the same class as the Typhoon Eurofighter — around $90 million — and Boeing F-15,” Aboulafia said.

‘Ready to deploy’

Lockheed and the Pentagon are in selling mode this week at the annual Singapore Airshow.

“We are operating the airplane, training in the airplane, making us ready to deploy to the Pacific,” Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Jon M. Davis, the service’s deputy commandant for aviation, said Wednesday during a briefing. “We have developed workarounds to get around any deficiencies we have seen out there. Right now, operating capabilities and advantage we get from this airplane far outweigh any deficiencies.”

The Marine Corps declared in July that its version of the F-35 had achieved initial combat capability.

Even in expressing optimism about the F-35, Carter acknowledged, “there are some parts, particularly software, that are still being developed, production is still ongoing and we need to make sure we maintain cost control.”

The Pentagon’s director of testing warned last month that fighter production was outpacing the combat testing needed to prove its effectiveness in combat.

Those tests won’t begin until at least August 2018, a year later than planned, and more than 500 jets may be built before the assessment is complete, Michael Gilmore, director of the testing office, said in his latest annual report.

“The program is now schedule-driven” instead of being guided by test results and “is on a path that could result in” the aircraft’s combat systems “meant to provide full combat capability providing significantly less capability than has been expected or advertised,” Gilmore wrote in a Jan. 27 memo to Carter.

“To meet schedule, substantial amounts of previously planned developmental testing will have to be foregone, and significant deficiencies accepted,” Gilmore told Carter.

This article includes material from Star-Telegram archives.