In what will be a big blow for the US aerospace juggernaut Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon has put the approval of the full-rate production of its fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighter jets on indefinite hold.
As per officials, there is currently no set date when the advanced F-35s will be ready for combat testing, a process that is being delayed since 2017.
The development came to light when Ellen Lord, the Under-Secretary for US Defense Department for acquisition and sustainment in the Trump administration, decided to scrap the “no later than March” deadline for the full production decision of the fighters.
According to a statement released by Lord’s spokeswoman, Jessica Maxwell, one of the reasons for the decision (to put the F-35 jets on indefinite hold) was due to the outbreak of Coronavirus pandemic.
“Technical challenges and the impact of Covid-19” have delayed preparation of the simulation facility where the sophisticated testing of the costliest U.S. weapons system will be conducted”
The decision is in stark contrast to the Lord’s comments last year back in August when she had said that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter would finally go into full production by March of 2021, following a series of delays.
“I am confident that we are going to meet the March date,” Lord had said.
According to Maxwell, a new date would be “based on an independent technical review.”
This means that the production of the fighters will continue at the low-rate initial production (LRIP) till the revised dates are announced. The first LRIP contract for the fighters, which covered just two F-35As, was signed back in 2007.
The decision to indefinitely hold the full-rate production means that it will now be the responsibility of President-elect Joe Biden’s administration.
The full-rate production decision, referred to as Milestone C, on whether to ramp up the manufacturing of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF), had already been pushed from December 2019 to March 2021.
As per the latest developments, the decision is now on hold till the time the F-35 fighter undergoes the completion of the final phase of its operational testing.
While it is obviously a big setback for Lockheed, according to sources, suggestions regarding the delay had already been up in the air before the confirmation.
Before the formal launch of the full-rate production of the fighter jets, there is a need for the successful completion of the Initial Operational Test & Evaluation (IOT&E), which is a formal requirement for the entire process.
The completion of that will enable the Pentagon to officially display its confidence in the maturity of the program and that the fighters have the ability to perform in all operational conditions as per the requirements.
The production-related milestone is likely to instill the fact that the F-35 stealth fighters will meet all the maintenance requirements, which have fallen short in the history of the entire program, and that the manufacturing effort is expected to run smoothly.
However, even if the fighters complete the operational testing, a period of another two to three months will be needed to analyze all the data gathered and to prepare a report for the Pentagon, on which it will base its decision.
So, when can the revised dates for the Joint Simulation Environment tests and the potential full-rate production decision be announced? According to Laura Seal, a spokeswoman of the F-35 program, the revised dates could be announced as early as the end of February 2021.
Depending on the requirements of different nations and emerging new customers, Lockheed Martin could ultimately end up mustering a total of 3,200 F-35 fighters.
The United States Air Force alone has a program of record to eventually purchasing around 1,763 conventional take-off and landing F-35A fighters. Of the total, around 241 fighters have already been delivered to the armed force as of the summer of 2019.
So far, over 600 F-35s have been manufactured by the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) enterprise, which includes around 123 units delivered for the year 2020. The effect of the Coronavirus pandemic has altered the actual jet target for the year, with fewer fighters delivered than originally planned.