The number of potential cracks and hot spots discovered in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s airframe during initial fatigue testing has led the head of the US program to call for a slow down of production over the next few years.
The comments by US Navy Vice Admiral David Venlet, which came in an interview with the website AOL Defence, are another blow for the troubled F-35 program and its prime contractor Lockheed Martin.
Lockheed has repeatedly pushed the US to ramp up production in an effort to improve economies of scale. But Venlet said early fatigue testing had already found enough parts that require redesign or replacement to add roughly US$3 to $5 million to the cost of each plane that will require a retrofit. Lockheed is currently building the planes for roughly US$111 million each.
Venlet said the problems would not affect safety or performance of the fighter but would shorten its life span and were best addressed now. The discoveries came after a bulkhead crack was found in the F-35B last year, leading to a range of engineering analyses meant to identify parts likely to crack before the jet reached its 8000 hour life span.
“Most of [the problems] are little ones, but when you bundle them all up and package them and look at where they are in the airplane and how hard they are to get at after you buy the jet, the cost burden of that is what sucks the wind out of your lungs,” Venlet told AOL Defense. “I believe it’s wise to sort of temper production for a while here until we get some of these heavy years of learning under our belt and get that managed right.”
Venlet also criticised as a “miscalculation” the program’s assumption that F-35 production could begin even as flight testing continued, though he said it remained his job to see the program through as it was.
“What we’re doing is, we’re taking the keys to the shiny new jet, giving it to the fleet and saying, ‘Give me that jet back in the first year. I’ve got to go take it up to this depot for a couple of months and tear into it and put in some structural mods, because if I don’t, we’re not going to be able to fly it more than a couple, three, four, five years.’ That’s what concurrency is doing to us,” he told AOL.
Venlet declined to say how much he thought production should be slowed, according to the website. The Pentagon has ordered 30 F-35s in fiscal year 2011, down from previous plans to order 42. Production had been scheduled to ramp up each year, hitting 108 by FY 2016 and more than 200 once fatigue and flight testing was finished, but those plans have already come under heavy doubt as the Pentagon faces deep budget cuts.
The US is ultimately scheduled to buy 2443 of the jets as part of a US$379 billion program to replace a variety of current fighters. Eleven other countries including Australia are also part of the F-35 program. Flight testing of the aircraft is roughly 18 per cent complete, with 1394 test flights having been flown through the end of November.
Already the Pentagon’s most expensive project ever, the F-35 has faced repeated cost overruns that yesterday led US Senator John McCain to bash the program as a “scandal and a tragedy” and call on Lockheed to assume more of the burden for any future overruns.
McCain, a leading US defence figure and the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, earlier this year led a effort that would have seen the F-35 canceled within 18 months if costs kept rising. That effort was narrowly defeated in the Senate.
Australia launched its own review of the F-35 program schedule in October before committing to its first batch of 14 out of a requirement of 100 F-35s. The review is meant to ensure that delivery delays in the JSF program will not lead to a capability gap with the retirement of the RAAF’s ageing F/A-18A/B ‘classic’ Hornet fleet.
Meanwhile, last week also saw the end of a long-running side show to the F-35 program as General Electric and Rolls-Royce officially dropped development of the F136 “alternate” engine for the JSF. The program had been the darling of some US lawmakers, who viewed it as healthy competition that would put pressure on official F-35 engine maker Pratt & Whitney and lead to a better and more cost effective design.
The US cut funding for the program in February. GE and Rolls-Royce had said they would self-fund continued development, but announced an end to the program on December 1.