The US Department of Defense has awarded the first contract to Lockheed Martin to build F-35 components for a foreign military customer, but reports from Australia, Canada and the Netherlands have clouded the overall sales outlook for the Joint Strike Fighter programme.
Lockheed will receive $197 million to acquire long-lead materials for 18 new aircraft, the DoD says, with these comprising eight conventional take-off and landing F-35As for the US Air Force, eight short take-off and vertical landing F-35Bs for the US Marine Corps and two F-35Bs for the UK Ministry of Defence.
The contract omits an expected order for an additional F-35A for the Netherlands, but no explanation was given. The combined order for 10 F-35Bs also is contingent on Lockheed completing the first flight of development aircraft BF-1 in late May or June.
The new order will expand Lockheed's annual production rate from 12 aircraft this year to 18 in 2009. The DoD's original schedule called for buying 32 aircraft next year, but that number was slashed because of schedule delays and funding shortfalls.
Another 19 developmental prototypes have already been ordered to participate in the JSF programme's system development and demonstration phase, with one of these delivered so far.
News of the production award came as one of the JSF development programme's eight international partners disclosed a sharp reduction for its planned order of the type.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, briefing reporters on Ottawa's new defence strategy on 12 May, said his government has reduced its planned purchase from 80 fighters to 65. Canada is buying the F-35A to replace about 130 Boeing CF-18s, 80 of which are now being modernised. The F-35's greater capabilities will allow the government to reduce its planned order by a sixth, he added.
An Australian think-tank, meanwhile, also published a report on 12 May that raises fresh concerns about the F-35's price. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimates that the cost of the F-35A may have grown by one-third, as overall programme costs have increased by 50% since the SDD phase began in 2001.
Lockheed, however, has publicly guaranteed Norway a unit non-recurring flyaway price of $56 million, using current dollars, while Australian newspapers quoted Lockheed officials guaranteeing a unit flyaway cost of $62 million.