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US military unveils possible F-35B redesign in sweeping budget reforms

Lockheed Martin may need to redesign the airframe structure and propulsion system of the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) F-35B, says US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

The changes would raise the weight and cost of the variant ordered by the US Marine Corps, Gates says. As a result, the F-35B will be placed on the equivalent of a two-year probation, with termination possible if the programme fails to recover, he says.

"The Marine Corps made a compelling case that they need some time to get things right with the STOVL and we will give them that opportunity," Gates says.

Lockheed Martin F-35B JSF, Lockheed Martin 
© Lockheed Martin

Meanwhile, the STOVL variant will be moved to the end of Lockheed's production system, Gates says. The US Navy will buy more Boeing F/A-18s in the interim, he adds. The Department of Defense also plans to cap F-35 orders this year at 32 aircraft, or only one more than ordered in fiscal year 2010 under the fourth lot of low-rate initial production.

The F-35 restructuring was revealed as part of a package of budget proposals unveiled by Gates on 6 January aimed at reinvesting $100 billion taken from "unneeded programmes" over the next five years into new priorities.

Gates also announced that the US Air Force will relaunch a next-generation bomber in the FY2012 budget request to the US Congress. The follow-on bomber is a "high priority for future investment given the anti-access challenges the department faces," he says.

The USN also plans to accelerate development and production of a next-generation jammer (NGJ) to replace ALQ-99 pods flown on the Northrop Grumman EA-6B and Boeing EA-18G escort jammers. In addition to buying more F/A-18E/F Super Hornets in place of F-35Bs in the near-term, the navy also will extend the life of 150 of its current F/A-18s, Gates says.

The bulk of the budget proposals in the aerospace sector, however, fell on the F-35 programme. Gates estimates that the changes, which include a more realistic "repricing" plan and production schedule, will generate $4 billion in savings.

"We recognise that long-term confidence in the programme must be earned over time by executing and meeting commitments," Lockheed says in a statement. The new plan unveiled by Gates represents "an essential foundational requirement to ensure future success", it adds.

Gates notes that the conventional take-off and landing F-35A ordered by the USAF and the F-35C variant ordered by the navy are proceeding "satisfactorily".

"By comparison, the Marine Corps variant has experienced significant testing problems," he says.

In November, Lockheed revealed that the F-35B ground test aircraft had suffered fatigue cracks in the 496 bulkhead, an aluminium structure manufactured by Alcoa. The cracking issue was under investigation as Gates's staff reviewed the overall programme's cost and schedule.

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