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Paris Air Show 2015: Lockheed Martin prepares for F-35 ramp-up to drive down costs

16 June 2015
Lockheed Martin will be turning out 17 aircraft per month by the time full-rate production kicks in in the early 2020s. Programme officials expect the unit price for the A model to be at about USD80 million by this time. Source: Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin has begun preparing for a significant ramp-up in production of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) as it looks to realise its goal of a USD85 million per unit price-tag for the aircraft in the 2019 timeframe, a senior official reported on 15 June.

Briefing during the Paris Air Show at Le Bourget, Lorraine Martin, executive vice-president and general manager of the F-35 programme, said that infrastructure improvements to the primary manufacturing site at Fort Worth, Texas, coupled with the opening of a line in Cameri in Italy, and ongoing preparations for a line in Japan, should see the programme on its way to achieving its full-rate production goal of 17 aircraft a month by the mid-2020s. This, in turn, will provide the economies of scale needed to get the F-35 down to USD85 million from the current approximately USD120 million.

"All the facilities in Fort Worth, Italy, and Japan are keeping pace with the preparations needed for ramp-up," she said. "We are right now in negotiations for approximately 150 aircraft under [low-rate initial production] LRIP 9 and 10 for later this year, and by about 2019 we will start seeing the [price] reductions anticipated under the 'Blueprint for Affordability' [initiative]."

Specifically, the infrastructure improvements include a new receiving dock for major components at Fort Worth, as well as new laser-aligned mating stations, a doubling of the paint-shop capacity (to 17 aircraft a month), as well as the addition of new flight-line hangar bays (up to 34 by 2018). The facility in Cameri is now and up running, with the first aircraft having already been rolled out (the orders for Italy and the Netherlands will be satisfied by this plant). Preparations for building a Japanese facility are under way also, Martin said.

With the programme having already reduced the F-35 unit cost from USD250 million down to about USD120 million through LRIPs 1 to 8, Martin anticipates shaving another USD1 million of the price of the jet in LRIP 9. The final LRIP (15), which is expected in 2021, should see the cost at about USD80 million per aircraft (while the A model aircraft is quoted, the savings apply also to the B and C, although perhaps with some variations related to the different systems and components).

The savings so far envisaged will be brought about by the Blueprint for Affordability initiative, which was revealed by programme officials at the Farnborough Air Show in 2014. At that time, Martin and Department of Defense (DoD) F-35 programme executive Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan said that the Blueprint for Affordability will see Lockheed Martin and partners Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems front-up a combined USD170 million in extra investment over the next two years, with the purpose of taking costs out of the aircraft. This would then open up a potential USD300 million investment from the US government, providing that industry is able to make the savings it promises.

While these savings will go a long way to bringing down the aircraft's unit cost, the kind of reductions being aimed for will only be achieved with the economies of scale that come with massively increased production volumes: the more aircraft that are built, the less they will cost to buy.

To this end, the US government is currently in discussions with the international customers on tieing them in to a multi-year procurement package that could include between 450 and 500 aircraft. "Secretary [Frank] Kendall [Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics] has mentioned a multi-year buy, and we are now asking each country to see if they are interested," Martin said.

As the programme currently stands, 229 aircraft of all variants have been ordered by 12 countries. The system, design, and development (SDD) programme has so far seen more than 35,000 hours have been flown by the international fleet based in the United States. The SDD phase is set to be completed in 2017, after which Lockheed Martin will begin focusing on Block upgrades.

The F-35's software and capability blocks are broken down into Block 1A - initial training, Block 1B - advanced training 1, Block 2A - advanced training 2, Block 2B (initial combat capability), Block 3I (initial full capability), and Block 3F (full combat capability). Block 3F is due in the third quarter of 2017, after which the further Block upgrades will be developed and rolled out.

The official programme-of-record is as follows:

Australia has a requirement for 100 aircraft, of which the order of 72 has so far been announced. Production of the first two Australian F-35As began in 2011, with those jets being delivered to Luke Air Force Base (AFB) in Arizona in December 2014. These are now being used for pilot and maintainer training. In November 2014, the US DoD assigned Australia with F-35 heavy engine Maintenance, Repair, Overhaul, and Upgrade (MRO&U) for the Asia-Pacific region and heavy airframe MRO&U for the Southern Pacific. Sustainment planning is now under way for the arrival of the first aircraft into Australia in 2018.

Canada has a requirement for 65 F-35As, but is still going through an appraisal process on how best to replace its ageing Boeing CF-18 Hornet fighters. The first set of F-35C outboard wings built by Canadian industry has been delivered to the F-35 production facility in Fort Worth, Texas, and the first Canadian-built F-35A horizontal tail assembly flew on an F-35 in February 2014. Canada continues its seven point plan process to replace its current CF-18 fighter fleet.

Denmark has a requirement for 30 F-35As. Danish industry contributes to production of the F-35 in the areas of advanced composites, aero structures, machine parts, logistics, and wiring harnesses. The Royal Danish Air Force has contributed an F-16, pilot and maintenance personnel to support the F-35 flight test programme at Edwards AFB in California. Danish company Terma manufactures the 25 mm gun pod, which will be used on the F-35B and F-35C, and Denmark plans to select an aircraft to replace its F-16 fleet later in 2015.

Israel has a requirement for 33 Foreign Military Sales F-35As. In October 2010, the Israeli Ministry of Defence has signed the Letter of Offer and Acceptance (LOA) for the procurement of the first 19 F-35 aircraft. A second LOA for 14 additional aircraft was signed in February 2015. Israel will become the first non-US country to establish an F-35 operational capability, when it declares initial operating capability (IOC) in 2016. Israeli industry will provide significant contributions to the programme, with Elbit Systems selected as the sole sources provider of the helmet, and Israel Aircraft Industries making outer wing sections.

Italy has a requirement for 60 F-35As and 30 F-35Bs. In July 2013, F-35 assembly operations began at the Italian Final Assembly and CheckOut (FACO) facility in Cameri. In March 2012, Alenia Aermacchi delivered its first wing component for the F-35, and the first Alenia Aermacchi-manufactured wing components installed on an F-35 made their maiden flight in March 2014. In November 2014, the US DoD assigned Italy with F-35 initial airframe MRO&U for the European region. Italy rolled out its first Italian F-35A (AL-1) from the Cameri FACO in March 2015, and is progressing towards its first flight. Aircraft deliveries from of the Italian FACO are part of the LRIP 6 and LRIP 7 contracts.

Japan has a requirement for 42 Foreign Military Sales F-35As. The government of Japan competitively selected the F-35 as Japan's next-generation front-line fighter in December 2011. The US and Japanese governments and industry are working closely to establish F-35 Final Assembly and Checkout (FACO) site in Nagoya, Japan. In November 2014, the US DoD assigned Japan with F-35 airframe MRO&U for Northern Pacific region. The first deliveries to Japan F-35 will take place from Fort Worth in 2016 (LRIP 8), with subsequent deliveries coming from the Japanese FACO.

The Netherlands has a requirement for 37 F-35As, having officially announced its selection of the F-35 to replace its current fleet of F-16 aircraft in September 2013. The country purchased two jets to participate in the F-35 operational test and evaluation effort, and in November 2014 the Royal Netherlands Air Force changed the command of its detachment at Eglin AFB, Florida, to 323 Squadron at Edwards AFB, California (for Operational Test and Evaluation with AN-1 and AN-2). Dutch industry plays a key role in the international production of F-35 components. Areas of focus include composite in-flight opening doors, wire harnesses, arresting gear, cryo-coolers, radar components, and embedded training software. In March 2015, the country ordered its first eight production F-35As.

Norway has a requirement for 52 F-35As, having selected the F-35 to replace its F-16 fleet in 2008 and approved acquisition of four training aircraft in 2011. In June 2012, the Norwegian parliament approved acquisition of an additional 48 F-35s for a total of 52.Norway recently moved up delivery by one year and has fully funded its programme. In November 2014, the US DoD assigned Norway with F-35 heavy engine MRO&U for the European region if additional capacity is required beyond Turkey's capability. Norwegian industry is contributing high technology components for F-35 production areas of advanced composites, aero structures, communications, and sensors. Two F-35As are scheduled for delivery in 2015 and will be used for pilot training at Luke AFB in Arizona, and Norway has approved a bill to authorise the contract for six F-35s in LRIP 10.

The Republic of Korea has a requirement for 40 Foreign Military Sales F-35As, having selected the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II aircraft for its F-X fighter acquisition programme, with an LOA signed on 30 September 2014. Initial deliveries are in 2018, with South Korean pilot training starting that same year at Luke AFB.

Turkey has a requirement for 100 F-35As, with the Turkish Ministry of Defence announcing its purchase of the first two F-35As in May 2014, and reaffirming the country's plans to eventually acquire 100 F- 35As. In November 2014, the US DoD assigned Turkey with F-35 initial heavy engine MRO&U for the European region. In January 2015, the Turkish Ministry of Defence announced its purchase of four additional production F-35As. Turkey has declared F-35 industrial opportunities for Turkish industries are expected to reach USD8 billion, and Turkish industry is a second-source on the centre fuselage, delivering these components for the worldwide fleet of F-35s.

The United Kingdom has a requirement for 138 F-35Bs for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. The first two (BK-1 and BK-2) were delivered in 2012, with BK-3 following in June 2013. These are in the United States as part of the international OT&E and training fleets. The United Kingdom announced plans to procure 14 additional F-35Bs as part of the programme of record, of which the first four have been contracted. In November 2014, the US DoD assigned the United Kingdom with F-35 airframe MRO&U for the European region if additional capacity is required beyond Italy's capability. In February 2015, the RAF's 17 Reserve Squadron was designated the UK's OT&E squadron at Edwards AFB.

The US Air Force (USAF) has a requirement for 1,763 F-35As. Eglin AFB received its first jet in 2011, and is the Integrated Training Center and home of F-35A and F-35C pilot training and all three variant maintenance training. Edwards AFB received its first jet in 2011 and is the home of F-35A SDD and OT&E. Nellis AFB received its first jet in 2014, and participates in OT&E as well as being home to F-35A Fighter Weapons School. Luke AFB received its first jet in 2014, and started pilot training in May 2015. It is the home of USAF and International F-35A pilot training. Hill AFB, Utah, will receive its first jet in 2015 and will become the first USAF F-35 operational base. The USAF will declare IOC in 2016.

The US Marine Corps has a requirement for 353 F-35Bs and 67 F-35Cs. Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River in Maryland received its first jet in 2010 and is home to the F-35B and F-35C SDD Integrated Test Force (ITF). Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Yuma received its first jet in 2012, and will be home of the first USMC Operational Air Squadron. MCAS Beaufort received its first jet in 2014 and is home to USMC pilot training (and will be home to UK and Italian F-35B training also). The United States Marine Corps will declare IOC in July 2015.

The US Navy has a requirement for 260 F-35Cs. It currently flies the variant at NAS Patuxent River and Eglin AFB. NAS Lemoore in California will be home to the service's first operational squadron, with IOC set for 2018/19.

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