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AVALON: F-35 programme chief cites slow, steady progress

The executive officer of the Lockheed Martin F-35 joint programme office is cautiously optimistic that the aircraft is on track to achieve key objectives, and that unit costs will continue to fall for the platform.

Speaking to journalists at the biennial Avalon air show, USAF Lt Gen Chris Bogdan said that memories of severe delays and problems prior to the F-35's "re-baselining" exercise in 2010-11 continue to overshadow the programme, but much progress has been made in finding ways to drive down costs. Crucially, the relationship between the US government and key contractors, Lockheed and Pratt & Whitney, has improved.

"The programme is seeing slow, steady progress," he says.

Bogdan's comments were widely anticipated among media attending the show. In 2013, he used the same venue to lash out at Lockheed and Pratt & Whitney, bemoaning what he viewed as the bad relationship between the US government and the two main contractors in the F-35 programme.

Since then, he says the relationship has improved mainly through a better balancing of risk between the government and the two key contractors.

Bogdan placed a great deal of emphasis on the jet's affordability. He estimates that by 2019 the cost of a single F-35A should will be around $80-85 million, which includes the aircraft, its F135 engine, inflation, and a profit margin for contractors.

"This is an important number," he says. "If you look across the landscape of fighter aircraft, this gets close to what you pay for a fourth generation aircraft. If a country has a choice between a fourth generation aircraft and a fifth generation aircraft at roughly the same price, that is a pretty easy decision in my mind."

There is a strong emphasis on costs. The "blueprint for affordability" programme sees the JPO incentivise contractors to cut costs related to the aircraft. Bogdan also hopes to include Foreign Military Sales (FMS) under a 'block buys' proposal, which could help drive economies of scale through the negotiation of multi-year contracts for new F-35s, as opposed to annual contracts.

A "cost war room" has been established to identify potential cost savings.

One example he gives of a war room success relates to the F-35's panel fasteners. Previously, these had a tendency to break, forcing maintenance personnel to fish around inside the aircraft for debris. This was identified as a waste of time and resources, and led to a fastener redesign. More automation is also being used to create the fighter's canopy, whereas previously this process relied almost entirely on manual labour.

Bogdan points to impressive growth in production numbers in the coming years. After the production of 36 F-35s in 2014, 45 will be produced in 2015, 61 in 2016, 72 in 2017, 93 in 2018, 102 in 2019, and 120 in 2020.

In regard to programme delays, Bogdan admits that they continue to be an issue, but says that delays now are registered in days and weeks, while previously delays were measured in years. Still,the F-35 programme still consumes $185 million per month in development costs.

Bogdan also remains confident that the US Marine Corps is on track to grant the F-35B initial operating capability this year. He adds that discussions with potential overseas customers, including Singapore, are deepening.

"The best marketing you can do is to succeed," says Bogdan.

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