The coming months will determine whether F-35s roll off the line anywhere other than in Fort Worth, Texas. Italy is the only partner nation to have formally expressed interest in hosting a final assembly and check out (FACO) line, but UK industry is pressing its government to invest in a similar facility.
“Italy has specified an interest in a FACO, and there is government-to-government agreement that this is acceptable,” says Tom Burbage, Lockheed Martin executive vice-president and general manager F-35 programme integration. “The next step is a decision by Italy.”
Burbage makes clear that Italy will have to pay to set up the FACO, and that it will be a Lockheed Martin facility. “There is a desire to establish a European footprint for JSF, to get some synergies across Europe and to share expenses,” he says. “But they would still be buying their aircraft from Lockheed Martin. We would use local manpower, but it would be a Lockheed Martin facility.”
Italy has offered to assemble aircraft for Denmark, the Nether-lands, Norway, Turkey and the UK. So far, only the Dutch have indicated an intent, signing a memorandum of understanding to take F-35s from Italy in return for the Netherlands becoming a centre for JSF engine heavy maintenance. The UK government has declined the Italian offer, Burbage says, but has not yet expressed a desire for its own FACO.
BAE Systems has proposed the idea of an assembly line to the UK Ministry of Defence “because of the synergy with major repair and upgrading”, says Tom Fillingham, F-35 programme manager. The MoD asked BAE to study a FACO with the Department of Trade and Industry and Regional Development Agency. The report was submitted last August, after which the MoD sought an independent view. “It’s in process and we expect a conclusion in the summer,” says Fillingham. The MoD says it will get a report on the viability of a FACO from the UK National Audit Office “by the end of summer”, and will only then make a decision.
An offshore FACO will be equipped with duplicates of the mate tools, assembly stations and test facilities in Fort Worth. One unanswered question concerns the application of low-observable coatings, a one-time operation performed after assembly is complete. The technology is sensitive, and a US-owned facility may be required in-country for coating application and subsequent radar cross-section measurement.