The U.S. Defense Department may require more rigorous inspection of parts for the F-35 fighter jet, its most expensive weapons program, add maintenance staff and buy more replacement components as the agency works to prevent major flight delays because of failing parts.
Other responses to a “higher than expected” failure rate on some components for the Marine Corps and Air Force versions of Lockheed Martin Corp.’s $382.4 billion fighter-jet program include revised flight days and parts redesigns, if necessary, Pentagon spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin said in an e-mailed statement prepared by the program manager.
Development and combat testing of the Joint Strike Fighter, also intended for use by the Navy, is behind schedule, prompting the U.S. government to warn that it may withhold millions of dollars in fees. Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed has encountered equipment shortages and late deliveries from some of its more than 3,000 suppliers during the past several years, the Defense Contract Management Agency has said.
The failures of parts from valves to batteries and electrical switches are “part of the normal course of development testing,” Irwin said. Lockheed Chief Executive Officer Robert Stevens said on a July 27 conference call with analysts that the malfunctions involve smaller components.
Major systems, such as the engine and the lift-fan that enables the Marine Corps’ short-takeoff jet to hover on a landing deck are performing well, Stevens said.
Lockheed rose 42 cents to $75.57 at 2:19 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. The shares have climbed less than 1 percent this year.
The U.S. may withhold from Lockheed as much as $614 million in fees because of delays on the warplane, pending improvements in flight tests, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said. Lockheed said in June it expects to still have the opportunity to earn all of those withheld payments.
Lockheed has flown a total of 136 test flights for the F-35 this year compared with a plan for 118 tests, Stevens said on the July call. The conventional jet and the aircraft-carrier variant are both ahead of schedule, with 62 flights compared with a planned 23, he said.
The short-takeoff version has made only 74 flights out of a targeted 95 because “we are seeing failure rates that are higher than predicted” on selected components, Stevens said.
Correcting the malfunctions often takes “longer than you think given the less-significant nature of the parts involved,” he said. “In some cases, we’ve had to remove the engine to get access to the component.”
Both Lockheed and military experts “believe this component-reliability condition can be corrected and the inherent reliability can and will be improved,” Stevens said on the July 27 call. “We’re also looking at ways to improve the overall flight-test efficiency, with the goal of improving tempo.”