Vote avoids manufacturing freeze, but raises aircraft cost

US Congress has voted to slow, rather than delay, initial production of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), avoiding a halt in the line, but still pushing up the cost of early aircraft for US and international customers by several million dollars.

Instead of five aircraft in fiscal year 2007 and 16 in 2008, lawmakers agreed to fund two in FY07 and 12 in FY08. “Two is better than nothing, and 12 is better than we expected,” says Brig Gen Charles Davis, joint programme office director.

“It means we start production on 10 aircraft in 2006, 11 in 2007 and 12 in 2008, including the first six STOVL [short take-off and vertical landing] aircraft,” says Davis.

The ramp-up, more gradual than originally planned, means “we will not come down the learning curve as fast”, says Davis, so there is likely to be a $5-10 million jump in the average unit cost of F-35s over the first five years of production.

This will drive up the price that early international customers such as Australia, the Netherlands and the UK will pay for their initial aircraft, he says, adding: “The big plus is there will be some production in the early years, so they can still buy aircraft.”

Congress also voted to restore funding for the General Electric/Rolls-Royce F136 alternate engine for the F-35. The $340 million provided in FY07 is less than the $408 million removed by the US Department of Defense when it cancelled the engine, but Davis says the GE/R-R team still hopes to keep the first engine to test on schedule.

In another move, Congress added FY07 funding for 10 Boeing C-17s, overruling a DoD decision to stop buying the airlifter. Funding for three aircraft had been expected, and was factored into Boeing plans to build 18 more aircraft. The additional seven aircraft will keep the C-17 line open for another six months at the present production rate, to the end of 2009, says Boeing.

But Congressional conferees cut funding for the US Navy’s unmanned combat air system (N-UCAS) to just $100 million, from a requested $239 million. If signed into law, the reduction would rule out plans to demonstrate a low-observable vehicle operating from an aircraft deck in 2011.

Boeing, which is competing against Northrop Grumman for the N-UCAS contract, says that the cut could push back initial operational capability from 2018 to 2024.

Source: Flight International