F-35 Flights May Resume Within Week of Tracking Down Fault

Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter may resume flying within a week of working out problems that caused its grounding, the program chief for the Pentagon’s most expensive weapon program said.

The grounding won’t affect delivery of the planes and the cause of the engine problems will be known by the end of the week, Chris Bogdan, head of the F-35 program at the U.S. Department of Defense, said in a briefing today in Melbourne. Australia is deciding its order of the stealth aircraft, amid a 7 percent cut to its defense equipment budget and delays in the delivery timetable for the aircraft.

The Pentagon suspended all flights of the $396 billion aircraft program Feb. 22 after an engine inspection revealed a crack on a turbine blade. The program is already facing cost pressures after a redesign, bulkhead cracks, too much weight, and delays to essential software put it seven years behind schedule and 70 percent over budget.

“Once we know what the root cause is and I think we should know that before the end of the week, we have various options for when we get the planes back into flight,” said Bogdan. “If it’s as simple as a foreign object damage problem or a manufacturing quality problem I could foresee the airplane being back in the air in the next week or two.”

The total $1.1 trillion cost of the program could be cut by billions, and events such as the grounding aren’t unusual for planes during development, according to Bogdan. The price of individual aircraft is coming down, he said.

Smoke Incident

In a separate incident, an F-35 test flight on Feb. 14 was cut short after the cockpit had some “smoke issues” and the pilot landed safely, according to Nathan Drevna, a spokesman with Honeywell International Inc., a supplier to Lockheed. That aircraft’s thermal management system, which controls cabin temperature, is being shipped to Honeywell for testing, Drevna said today in a telephone interview.

About a quarter of the aircraft’s production run will be purchased by U.S. allies including Australia, the U.K., Japan, Israel, Turkey, the Netherlands, and Norway. Italy, Canada and Denmark have already scaled back their planned purchases amid pressure on defense budgets and a near-doubling of the cost of each plane to $137 million since 2001.

Australia expects to spend $13.21 billion if it takes out its full order of 100 F-35s, according to a report last September by the government’s audit office, and has already approved a A$2.36 billion ($2.4 billion) spend on the first phases of the project.

Australian Deliveries

The first two aircraft will be delivered during 2014 for testing and training, with an additional 12 to arrive two years behind schedule from about 2017 to 2019. A further decision to lift the total to 100 probably won’t be taken until 2015, the government says.

The delays to the program could prove expensive, the government’s spending auditor said in a report last September, if it forces a delay to the retirement of Boeing Co. F/A-18 Super-Hornet fighters beyond a planned withdrawal date in 2020.

“Defence’s capacity to absorb any more delays,” according to a report from auditor-general Ian McPhee, “is likely to be costly, and has implications for capability.”

Budget Cuts

The Australian government has been trimming its defense spending as it tries to hit a target to reach budget surplus in the year ending this June amid a slowdown in the mining boom that’s powered the country’s economy since the 2008 financial crisis.

Delays to the F-35 program have saved A$1.6 billion from the budget projections, according to a briefing paper attached to the government’s spending review last May. Funding for Australia’s Defence Materiel Organisation will be cut by seven percent to A$9.1 billion this year, mainly as a result of a A$664 million cut in capital investment plans, the government said at the time.

The F-35 program is a “catastrophic technical and managerial failure on multiple fronts,” Peter Goon, a consultant at think tank Air Power Australia, told a parliamentary committee last February.

“The Joint Strike Fighter is a failed program with no prospect of recovery,” he said. “The Joint Strike Fighter aircraft is the wrong product.”

The jet is also facing scrutiny in the U.S. as a March 1 deadline approaches to avert automatic budget cuts set up as part of a 2011 deal to increase the country’s debt limit.

The cuts, to be split almost evenly between defense and non-defense spending, would take as much as $45 billion this year from Pentagon programs, including the F-35.