Lockheed Martin’s head of international business says the producer of advanced aircraft is on track to complete Australia’s order of 72 F-35 Lightning II fighters by the end of 2023.
Steve Over spoke with FlightGlobal at the Avalon Airshow outside Melbourne on 1 March.
“As of today, they have 59 airplanes, here in Australia,” says Over, noting that a 60th jet is complete and “waiting on the ramp” at Lockheed’s Fort Worth, Texas production facility.
“We’ll deliver the remaining 12 aircraft before the end of this year,” he adds.
The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) hopes to declare full operational capability for its F-35 fleet in December 2023, Over notes.
All deliveries of F-35s are currently on hold, following the crash of a Lockheed-owned F-35B last December. The incident took place during the pre-turnover flight trials each jet undergoes before Lockheed makes final delivery.
The pilot of that F-35 ejected at ground level after a failed vertical landing attempt in Fort Worth. The B variant is a short take-off and vertical landing aircraft used by the US Marine Corps, the UK and Italy.
The Pentagon has not disclosed the exact nature of the issue that caused the aborted landing, but describes it as a “rare system phenomenon involving harmonic resonance” in the F-35’s Pratt & Whitney (P&W) F135 engine.
“Think of it as a vibration,” Jennifer Latka, vice-president of P&W’s F135 programmes, said on 28 February.
She notes harmonic resonance is not an unknown engine issue, but the recent incident raised “new design learning”. P&W has since developed a fix for the problem, which it has already incorporated into new-production engines.
The company is also applying the update to affected F-35s already in active service.
While a hold on flight operations remains in effect for new F-35s and airframes with less than 40 hours of operation, the Pentagon said on 24 February cleared P&W to resume engine deliveries – paving the way for a return to normal deliveries.
Lockheed notes it has continued producing jets during the flight pause, and expects to keep its delivery obligations. The aerospace giant missed its F-35 delivery target for 2022 by seven jets, which executives – including chief financial officer Jay Malave – attributed to the flight hold during the firm’s fourth-quarter earnings call on 25 January.
The airframer delivered 141 F-35s in 2022 – and set a 2023 goal of shipping 156 of the single-engined fighters.
With its planned fleet of 72 F-35As, Lockheed says Australia is the second-largest operator of the fifth-generation jet, after the USA. There also remains a possibility that Canberra could up its total purchase to 100 of the stealthy fighters.
A much-anticipated indepenent analysis – known as the Defence Strategic Review (DSR) – of Australia’s military forces and policies was completed on 14 February and delivered to senior leaders in Canberra, including defence minister Richard Marles and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
Marles says the government will review the document and make public its response in April. That could include a 28-aircraft increase to Australia’s F-35 order – something previous Canberra governments have discussed.
Recent actions by Australia’s regional neighbour China appear likely to be a major factor in the conclusions of the DSR
“In the Indo-Pacific, China is driving the largest conventional military build-up we’ve seen anywhere in the world since the Second World War,” Marles said ahead of the Avalon show. “Much of this build-up is opaque.”
Over says that while Canberra’s initial F-35 order will be complete this year, any additional acquisitions would take approximately four years to fill.
Australia is in the midst of a broad build-up of both defence hardware and domestic production capability. The RAAF is partnered with Boeing in developing an autonomous combat jet, of which the service has ordered 10 examples.
Meanwhile, the Australian army says it will acquire 29 Boeing AH-64E attack helicopters and 20 Lockheed Martin long-range rocket artillery systems, which it will pair with Lockheed Martin C-130J tactical transports to create a deadly precision-strike capability.
Canberra has also established partnerships with munitions producers Lockheed and Raytheon to expand Australia’s domestic capacity for manufacturing advanced weapons.