In today’s media climate, even the most ardent follower of the news could be forgiven for falling behind on the complex issues of the day. Between work, family, friends, and the other obligations that make up everyday life, it’s a miracle anyone has time to devote some thought and concern to the plight of civilians in war-torn countries like Syria, or the geopolitical ramifications of China’s efforts to control the South China Sea.
With important and relevant information about these topics split up over multiple stories published over weeks or months, keeping up with these issues can be tough — and it can be even harder to see the ways these seeming disparate pieces of the puzzle come together to form a broader understanding of the topic at hand. Even if you’re familiar with all the pieces, it sometimes helps to get a glimpse of the bigger picture, to better understand where each piece falls into place. That’s the intent behind the Summarizing the News series: in these articles, we’ll endeavor to provide a brief synopsis of important topics, followed by links to articles you can go to if you’re interested in learning more.
The first subject we’re going to tackle is the troubled future of American military aviation: Lockheed Martin’s F-35 program.
The F-35 has long made headlines due to technical issues, delays, and cost overruns, but in the past few months, the narrative has begun to shift. Squabbles between the Defense Department and Lockheed about unit pricing, who is going to pay for necessary repairs, and the cost of maintaining the aircraft have led to a number of striking revelations – and that’s just the start of it.
The U.S. Government has stopped taking deliveries of the F-35
The United States and at least two other nations have officially stopped accepting deliveries of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The hiatus is reportedly the result of continued negotiations regarding who would pay for repairs required on hundreds of airframes that have already been delivered.
Last year, 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 that a lack of protective coating at the fastening points was the cause, suggesting that 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. Lockheed has faulted the DoD for failing to identify the issue, whereas the DoD believes the repairs should be at the expense of the manufacturer.
Lockheed appears confident that the two can find a solution, as they have not stopped production despite the halt in deliveries.
You can read more about this story in the article: Pentagon halts F-35 deliveries from Lockheed Martin due to dispute over repair costs
The U.S. Air Force may reduce their order of F-35s by a third because they can’t afford the maintenance.
An internal assessment produced by the U.S. Air Force revealed that under projected budgeting, they will not be able to afford to operate the full number of F-35s they have on order because of the operational costs of the aircraft.
The Air Force is faced with the daunting challenge of finding a way to reduce the costs of operating their fleet of F-35s by a whopping 38% in order to avoid reducing their total order by 590 aircraft. If their findings are replicated in other branches, the total order of F-35s could easily drop far enough to result in an increased per unit price on the aircraft, negating any savings produced by reducing the order in the first place.
“Right now, we can’t afford the sustainment costs we have on the F-35, and we’re committed to changing that,” Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord said. The DoD is reportedly working with Lockheed to find ways to reduce operating costs – more than half of which are attributed to contract work Lockheed is expected to do.
You can read more about this story in the article: Air Force admits it can’t afford massive operating costs of F-35 fleet, may reduce order
Only about half of the F-35s Lockheed has delivered so far are actually fit to fly
According to statements made by Vice Adm. Mat Winter, head of the Defense Department’s F-35 Joint Program Office, only 51% of the F-35s that have been delivered to the United States and its international partners are actually operational, with the rest indefinitely grounded pending repairs and upgrades.
The culprit behind many of the non-operational F-35s was a policy called “concurrency,” wherein F-35 production began before testing of the aircraft was completed. The idea was to get the ball moving on construction of the advanced fighters before the anticipated decades long shake down process was completed, then the early iterations of the jet would be brought back in for upgrades once testing of the final version of the platform was complete. However, the immense costs associated with the aircraft have forced lawmakers to prioritize new orders, in order to keep per-unit costs down. This method has left only half of the 280 F-35s that have been delivered operational, leaving somewhere between $1.4 and nearly $1.8 billion worth of 5th generation fighters sitting on the tarmac.
You can read more about this story in the article: Half of all F-35s delivered by Lockheed Martin are non-operational as negotiation continues on new contract
Despite all this, Lockheed has already pitched building a “superior” fighter to the F-35 to Japan
With concerns about Chinese aggression throughout the region, the Japanese government has already begun making the political changes necessary to transition away from a strictly defensive force toward a modern military with the means to take proactive deterrent action. Doing so has involved the purchase of a number of systems from the United States military, including ballistic missile defenses, MV-22 Ospreys, and of course, the F-35.
However, it’s been years since anyone saw the F-35 as a legitimate air superiority fighter. It’s slower and less maneuverable than America’s other 5th generation fighter, the stealthy F-22, and would have to rely entirely on stealth and over the horizon weapons systems to engage 4th generation fighters like the Su-35 fielded by both Russia and China — because it too can outrun and out turn Lockheed’s show pony. Japan’s air superiority fighters, based on American F-15 and F-16 platforms, also aren’t up to the task of taking on China’s J-20 and forthcoming J-31 — prompting Japan to start looking for a new air superiority platform.
Enter Lockheed Martin, who has offered to develop a “hybrid” of F-22 and F-35 technology into a new air superiority fighter that they claim would be superior to both. The F-22 and associated technologies have been barred from export by the American government, so it stands to reason the U.S. would likely need to be on the customer list in order to permit such a deal.
You can learn more about this potential project, as well as the threats it aims to deter in the article: Lockheed Martin pitches Japan an F-22/F-35 hybrid that would be ‘superior to both’
Image courtesy of the Department of Defense