Things are starting to look up for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, says the top Pentagon official overseeing the programme.
If the trend holds up, by 2019, the F-35 programme will deliver a “fifth-generation aircraft at fourth-generation prices,” says US Air Force Lt Gen Christopher Bogdan, the F-35 programme executive officer.
While acquisition costs have to be held in check, the aircraft’s sustainment costs will also have to be affordable. The JSF programme is doing everything it can to drive cost down for the F-35, Bogdan says. Sustainment costs over the lifetime of the programme have dropped from a 2010 projection of $1.1 trillion to a current projection of $857 billion. The new cost figures are based on more real world data from F-35 operations and more operationally representative assumptions about the use of the aircraft.
As foreign customers start buying the F-35, the programme office is working to develop unique sustainment cost models for each individual nation for their particular set of circumstances, Bogdan says.
However, one area that still needs work is repair and maintenance costs, “which is not where it needs to be,” Bodgan says. The reliability of some components has sometimes not lived up to expectations — one example cited by Bodgan: the tyres for the F-35B.
Other aspects which have been problematic on the F-35 programme, are well on their way to being fixed or have already been fixed, Bogdan says. A redesigned tail hook for the naval F-35C will be tested in late October or early November. Sea trials for that variant will be held next year.
Meanwhile, the aircraft’s fuel dump system has been more or less fixed, Bogdan says. It is “not perfect”, he says, but the system works.
Similarly, the aircraft’s troublesome helmet is making progress. However, Bogdan says that both the original Vision Systems International helmet and the BAE developed alternative will continue to be developed until it culminates in a competitive fly-off.
Software is still the single biggest concern for the F-35 programme, Bodgan says. However, Lockheed officials express their firm belief that they will deliver the remaining software on time.
On the financial side, the F-35 has survived the Congressional sequestration law intact. The programme was expected to lose a number of tails in fiscal year 2013, but Bodgan says the programme was able to “buy back” those aircraft because of reduced prices.
The reduced cost can be partly attributed to a much-improved relationship between the contractor and the government.