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Lockheed Defends Its F-35 After Pentagon Tester's Criticism

Updated on
  • Company says fighter’s reliability continues to improve
  • Pentagon report said F-35 only available about 50% of time

A F-35A fighter jet.

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Lockheed Martin Corp. defended the progress of its F-35, the costliest U.S. weapons system, after the head of the Pentagon’s testing office issued a critical report saying efforts to improve the fighter jet’s reliability are “stagnant.”

“We are confident in the F-35’s transformational capability that continues to be demonstrated through the steady progress in development, production and sustainment operations,” Lockheed spokeswoman Carolyn Nelson said in a statement. She said the company is working with the Pentagon’s F-35 program office to improve repair capability and the ordering of spare parts.

In the testing office’s annual report to Congress on major weapons systems, director Robert Behler said the availability of the F-35 for missions when needed -- a key metric -- remains “around 50 percent, a condition that has existed with no significant improvement since October 2014, despite the increasing number of aircraft.”

Lockheed’s Nelson responded that “the F-35 weapons system reliability continues to improve lot over lot” and “newer jets are averaging greater than 60 percent availability and some operational squadrons are consistently at or above 70 percent availability.”

Related story: Lockheed F-35’s Reliability Progress Stalled, Tester Says

The F-35 is scheduled to end its 16-year-old development phase this year. Starting in September, the program is supposed to proceed to intense combat testing that’s likely to take a year, an exercise that’s at least 12 months late already. Combat testing is necessary before the plane is approved for full-rate production -- the most profitable phase for Lockheed.

Pentagon officials including Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and chief weapons buyer Ellen Lord have highlighted the need to reduce the F-35’s $406.5 billion projected acquisition cost and its estimated $1.2 trillion price tag for long-term operations and support through 2070.

Behler’s report lists a host of unresolved issues that he said “will likely have a cumulative effect” on the aircraft’s capacity during the combat testing scheduled to start in September. That includes flaws in the final version of key software known as 3F, restrictions on aerial refueling, classified “key technical deficiencies” that affect the firing of AIM-120 air-to-air missiles, and “system-related deficiencies” that mar the dropping of air-to-ground weapons to support ground troops.

Nelson said “more than 265 F-35 aircraft are operating from 14 bases worldwide; more than 550 pilots and 5,600 maintainers have been trained; and the F-35 fleet has surpassed more than 120,000 cumulative flight hours.”

Behler’s assessment is “an independent report” that can help “provide us with the road map and suggestions,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said Thursday at a Pentagon news conference.

“We’ll take appropriate steps to work with our partners to find implementable improvement opportunities” after studying the assessment, White added later in a statement.

(Updates with Pentagon spokeswoman’s comment in ninth paragraph.)
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