The United States Department of Defense has ended its freeze on accepting deliveries of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, apparently ending a dispute over who would be financially responsible for the repair a significant issue plaguing most, if not all, of the air frames delivered thus far in the program’s lifespan.
Early last month, it was announced that the United States and at least two allied nations had stopped accepting deliveries of the fifth-generation fighter after reports of “corrosion exceeding technical limits” began coming in from units fielding the jet. Apparently, a lack of protective coating at the fastening points where body panels are mated to the aluminum frame has allowed for corrosion to begin setting in at alarming rates. Because these aircraft are expected to remain operational for decades to come, this issue poses a significant threat to the existing fleet of F-35s, only half of which are currently operational due to other technical issues.
The endeavor to repair this corrosion issue will likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars, as F-35s will need to be stripped back to their frames to apply protective coating on these fastening points. The Defense Department made it clear that Lockheed should have to foot this repair bill, as they are responsible for the aircraft’s production; however, Lockheed claimed the fault was on the federal government — for failing to identify the issue during their own testing and inspection process.
That disagreement saw a halt in deliveries of the jet, but even Lockheed didn’t seem to take that delay seriously, as they continued production unabated, secure in the knowledge that, at this point, the American government is far too invested in the program to stop taking receipt of the jets. The United States intends to replace several aging platforms with the jack-of-all-trades F-35, including many close air support aircraft and multi-role fighters ranging from the legendary A-10 Thunderbolt II to the workhorse fighter of the U.S. Air Force — the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
With nearly a thousand aging F-16s alone currently in active service and only around 140 F-35s operational, the DoD can hardly afford to change horses mid-stream.
The fact that this dispute seems to have been resolved indicates that the government and Lockheed Martin have determined who’s going to be responsible for footing this repair bill, though thus far, neither are willing to publicly announce what that determination actually was.
“While we don’t discuss specific cost figures and contracting terms, we have a comprehensive plan in place to effectively and efficiently address the F-35 [fastener] hole primer issue,” Lockheed spokesman Mike Friedman told Defense News.
The Federal Government’s Joint Program Office, which oversees the F-35 program, also released a similar statement, providing a timeline for the anticipated repairs, but no information as to who would be stuck with the tab.
The JPO statement about the agreement reads,
The F-35 Joint Program Office, along with the U.S. services, international allies and Lockheed Martin, have implemented a comprehensive corrective action plan to make the necessary repairs to all aircraft while minimizing impact to operations … The majority of aircraft will be complete within 24 months with the remaining aircraft completed as their availabilities/modification timing allows.”
It seems likely that the final decision divided the expense of these repairs in a manner that left both parties feeling suitably appeased, but it would not be a surprise to find that the U.S. taxpayer will be stuck with the larger portion of the cost. With production facilities spread out over a majority of the U.S.’ 50 states, throttling back the F-35 program has become politically infeasible, and with no other platform in development that could assume the varied roles that the F-35 is expected to absorb, the Defense Department’s options are truly the F-35 or nothing in many situations.
All F-35 production continued during the delivery pause, and Lockheed Martin remains on track to meet its delivery target of 91 aircraft for 2018,” the company said.
Image courtesy of the Department of Defense