It’s another big year for Lockheed Martin as they amass a whopping $7.6 billion contract to produce 129 F-35s for the US military.

According to Lockheed Martin’s press release, the contract will cover:

  • 49 F-35A aircraft for the Airforce
  • 3 F-25B and 10 F-35C for the Marine Corps
  • 15 F-35C for the Navy
  • 32 F-35A and 4 F-35B for non-US Department of Defense (DoD)
  • 16 F-35A for Foreign Military Sales customers
  • 16 shipsets of technical hardware

Last July, the DoD approved another contract for $30 billion to build about 375 F-35 stealth fighter jets in the course of three years.

“We are pleased to announce that the Department and Lockheed Martin reached a handshake agreement for the next F-35 lot buy on a basis of 375 aircraft,” said William LaPlante, the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer.

This contract was hard-won since the purchasing process was stalled by legalese on data rights, but DoD and Lockheed Martin finally came into an agreement in Washington.

Lockheed claimed that because of the pandemic and ongoing inflation, they could not lower the prices for the F-35s. Their initial forecasted production for the $30 billion budget was 485 jets but drastically had a 22% decrease in volume because of the overall cost required to build one jet.

The Curious Timing

The multi-billion dollar funding of F-35s has been questionable to some, especially since these aircraft have been reported (here in SOFREP as well)to have malfunctioning seat ejection features that affected military operations, not only in the US but for other countries who use F-35s in their activities.

The reported case halted operations on July 28. Lockheed Martin also provided support during the inspection. However, it’s not reported whether DoD will bill Lockheed Martin for the repairs and administrative support.

Engine F-35
Special STOVL engine Rolls-Royce LiftSystem for a F-35B Lightning II at the Paris Air Show 2009 (Source: Tangopaso/Wikimedia)

The F-35’s engine has also been problematic for the US Air Force (USAF). Last year, USAF reported that 15% of its F-25 fleet was without engines simply because of maintenance delays. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.) previously expressed “discomfort about providing funds to buy more F-35s while a significant number of jets are already in the service in need of engines,” the report added.

“The idea of rolling [out] a new aircraft with an engine while others are sitting—and I’m hearing the numbers and we can argue over which ones they are—but [that is] certainly something that is a real concern,” Norcross said.

Though the firepower and capabilities of F-35s are legion, critics say other alternatives are more reliable and probably cheaper.

Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) also called out the report from the Government Accountability Office that shows only four percent of F-35 engines were delivered on time. Rep. Turner had also raised the question of whether there’s a better alternative to “keep sustainment and operation costs down.”

“Engine costs in sustainment are challenging,” Fick acknowledged while also noting that no F-35 delivery has been delayed because of an engine. “And as we rapidly approach the 2,000-hour first scheduled engine removal, we will start to bear those costs in the sustainment of the air system. And we also know that we have begun to reach a flat or a flatter spot in the learning curve relative to the overall cost of production engines.

“When I couple that with the notion that post-the current Block 4 content, we will likely need increased power and increased thermal management capability from our propulsion system, I think that the need to look for options from a propulsion system perspective is present.”

Department of Defense
The Department of Defense sign, before incoming Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III arrives at the Pentagon after being confirmed as secretary of defense, Washington, D.C., Jan. 22, 2021 (Source: Defense Visual Information Distribution Service/getarchive)

While the DoD’s pushing for this bloated, billion-dollar deal, officers on the ground are scouring for ways to provide a semi-long-term, band-aid solution for the engine problem.

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Lt. Gen. Eric T. Fick, F-35 program executive officer, said they’re looking for a “three-pronged approach” to close the engine gap and shorter the repair time. They are reportedly anticipating the supply meeting demand by 2024, while an intermittent backlog stands to be cleared only by 2029.

And this just covers the issue of the engine.

Just as we’ve previously reported, military analysts are incredibly skeptical about the value the purchase of F-35s brings, especially with the negative impact it has on the current military operations.

“I can say the F-35 is grounded too often, which impacts operations, readiness and our conventional deterrent,” Defense Policy Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute Mackenzie Eaglen said.