The United States Department of Defense and at least two other nations have formally stopped accepting deliveries of Lockheed Martin’s flagship F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The hiatus is reportedly the result of continued negotiations regarding who would pay for significant repairs required for hundreds of airframes that have already been delivered.
Although there are a number of repair and maintenance issues plaguing the F-35 program recently, including an Air Force report indicating that the branch can’t afford the exorbitant operating costs of the aircraft and may need to reduce its order to compensate, and a DoD study that showed nearly half of all delivered F-35s are considered non operational, the decision to stop receiving F-35 deliveries was actually prompted by a completely different issue.
This issue was first identified last year, when F-35 maintenance teams began reporting “corrosion exceeding technical limits” where carbon fiber components were mated to the aircraft’s aluminum frame. An investigation revealed the culprit to be a lack of protective coating at the fastening points, suggesting that most, if not all F-35s that have already been delivered will now need to be disassembled, treated, and reassembled in order to prevent the corrosive issue from grounding aircraft well before the end of their operational lives. The endeavor will undoubtedly cost millions, as hundreds of F-35s, already delivered to bases all around the world, will require the repair.
The problem is, neither the government nor Lockheed Martin want to foot the bill – and both place the blame squarely on the other’s shoulders.
While Lockheed did develop and build the aircraft, they claim that the government failed to identify the issue throughout their extensive production inspection process, placing the blame for the corrosion issue on government inspectors. The government, on the other hand, believes that Lockheed is responsible for the problem, and therefore should also pay for the solution.
The F-35 program has been called “too big to fail,” by many, thanks in large part to the distribution of its production facilities throughout the majority of America’s 50 states. Canceling the program, which has already exceeded $400 billion and is expected to cost well over $1.5 trillion in all, would cost thousands of jobs, close factories, and create PR nightmares for many elected officials. Further, with the F-22 program scrapped, the F-35 represents the future of American military aviation, slated to replace everything from air superiority fighters to ground support aircraft like the A-10. With all of America’s aviation eggs in the F-35 basket, it seems unlikely that the halt in deliveries will last for long.
Lockheed also seems to believe the squabble will be short lived, and there’s historical precedent to support that. Last year, deliveries were halted for 30 days over a different corrosion issue that affected 200 aircraft, but promptly began again once a solution was found.
“Production on the F-35 program continues and we are confident we will meet our delivery target of 91 aircraft for 2018.” A Lockheed spokeswoman said in a statement this week. “While all work in our factories remains active, the F-35 Joint Program Office has temporarily suspended accepting aircraft until we reach an agreement on a contractual issue and we expect this to be resolved soon.”
Lockheed Martin has a number of prominent defense contracts, but the F-35 program alone accounts for a full quarter of the massive company’s annual revenue. Lockheed needs the F-35 program as badly as the Pentagon needs the aircraft – so one can assume this squabble will end quickly.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force