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Pentagon: Slow F-35 Production

by John Reed on December 2, 2011

First International F-35 Rolls Out of the Factory

So, the interwebs are abuzz this morning with news that the man in charge of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program wants to slow down production — and therefore deliveries of the jet.

The slowdown is needed to install fixes to numerous structural cracks and “hot spots” that have been found in the plane over the last year, Vice Adm. David Venlet, JSF program manager, told AOL Defense. The work needed to remedy these cracks could add $3 to $5 million to the cost of each jet.

Keep in mind that the Pentagon just reduced the latest F-35 purchase by five jets, so this news comes on top of that.

Venlet insists that these cracks aren’t an immediate safety issue, they would however cause the airframes to be pulled from service well before their planned 8,000 flight-hour lifetimes.

Here’s key quote from Venlet where he says that ‘heavy learning’ is still happening with the program — I have to say that many were hoping Lockheed and the F-35 office were beyond the heavy learning years:

“The analyzed hot spots that have arisen in the last 12 months or so in the program have surprised us at the amount of change and at the cost,” Vice Adm. David Venlet said in an interview at his office near the Pentagon. “Most of them are little ones, but when you bundle them all up and package them and look at where they are in the airplane and how hard they are to get at after you buy the jet, the cost burden of that is what sucks the wind out of your lungs. I believe it’s wise to sort of temper production for a while here until we get some of these heavy years of learning under our belt and get that managed right. And then when we’ve got most of that known and we’ve got the management of the change activity better in hand, then we will be in a better position to ramp up production.”

These hot spots were found after the Pentagon and Lockheed examined the plane following the discovery of cracks in an important bulkhead on the F-35B last year. He apparently wouldn’t say how much production should be slowed.

The big question now becomes, what will a production slowdown to to the cost of each airplane at a time when many JSF buyers are looking to cut billions from their defense budgets? The second question is, what does this mean for the existing fighter fleets that are/were supposed to be replaced by F-35s sometime this decade?

Yes, the F-35 has had a very good year of flight testing but, as Venlet points out, overall testing still nowhere near close to finished. F-35 customers have got to be wondering what additional surprises will come along:

Flight testing of the F-35, though going extremely well lately, is only 18 percent complete, Venlet said. As of Nov. 29, 1,364 test flights had been flown — 896 of them in the past 10 months, despite two stoppages of a couple of weeks each to fix problems found by flying. Under a new program baseline created after the JSF project breached cost limits under the Nunn-McCurdy law, about 7,700 hours of flight tests are planned. “That’s a lot,” Venlet said, adding that number will grow if more problems are found.

Fatigue testing has barely begun, Venlet said. The CTOL variant’s fatigue testing is about 20 percent complete; the CV variant has not started yet. For the STOVL variant, fatigue testing was halted at 6 percent last year and has not resumed after a crack in a large bulkhead in the wing was found, requiring a major redesign of that part.

Here’s the article.

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