The F-35 “is a European airplane,” according to J.R. McDonald, Lockheed Martin v-p for F-35 strategy and business development. At a briefing during the recent ILA Berlin airshow, he noted that 10 European countries now had chosen the stealth fighter and that the program generated “tens of thousands” of jobs in the region. Since he spoke, Greece has lodged a letter of request to buy 20 F-35s and possibly more later. The UK recently committed to a further 26, making a total of 74.
The F-35 Lightning II had a controversial development process, and questions remain over availability, sustainment, and operating cost. On the latter, the commander of Air Combat Command said that he doubted whether the U.S. Air Force (USAF) would meet its goal of $25,000 per hour operating costs by 2025. Last year, it was $36,000. Similar criticism came from. Will Roper, who then served as the USAF’s acquisition chief.
However, McDonald sought to refute the criticisms. He said that Lockheed Martin has made a big effort on the cost per flight hour, which it halved since 2015. On reliability, he noted that mean flight hours between failures had reached 9.6, against a requirement of six. The maintenance man-hours per flight hour had fallen to 4.7, from the target of nine. However, the latter two statistics refer only to that portion of the cost of ownership for which Lockheed Martin carries responsibility. That is 39 percent, with engine maker Pratt & Whitney responsible for 14 percent and the U.S. services 47 percent. The F135 engine has suffered through plenty of problems, but they are not all Pratt & Whitney’s fault.
McDonald said that F-35 customers indicated that the cost of ownership now runs lower than that for fourth-generation combat aircraft. The acquisition cost also is comparable, with the F-35 now below $80 million, he added. Ownership and acquisition costs account for the two key reasons why the F-35 has won so many evaluations against the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, the Dassault Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon, and the Saab Gripen. In the past year alone, Canada, Finland, Germany, and Switzerland have all chosen the F-35 rather than those warplanes. In particular, McDonald noted that Finland and Switzerland “had been very transparent” by publishing their evaluation data.
Of these recent wins, the selection by Germany proved notable, as the country previously had ruled out the F-35 as a potential Tornado replacement in favor of the F/A-18 and EA-18G Growler, and additional Typhoons. The incoming Scholz government reversed that decision and has agreed to buy 35 F-35As. They will reside at Büchel, where they will take over the tactical nuclear role using U.S.-owned B61-12 weapons. German F-35 crews will train in the U.S. at the Foreign Military Sales Pilot Training Center being established at Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith, Arkansas, where Singapore will train its F-16 and F-35B aircrew.
While the European nations largely have embraced the F-35, the U.S. has also deployed aircraft to the continent. The first permanently based F-35As are now at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk, where the 48th Fighter Wing parents the 493rd and 495th Fighter Squadrons. The U.S. Force also temporarily deployed F-35As to Spangdahlem in Germany to bolster NATO’s defense of its eastern borders. In late June President Biden announced that the U.S. would deploy another two squadrons of F-35As to the UK.
In the meantime, the F-35’s 20-year development program hasn’t officially ended, and Lockheed Martin is already working on an upgrade for new production aircraft. The cost totals more than $12 billion, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). It consists of “Technical Refresh 3,” which replaces the core processor, upgrades the radar, enhances the electronic warfare system, and introduces a panoramic display, which enables the progressive introduction of new software with an open systems architecture, designated separately as Block 4. That includes auto-GCAS (ground collision avoidance system) integration.
One of the most difficult F-35 developments proved to be the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS). Designed to track parts and schedule maintenance, it never worked properly. The USAF had to bring in its top software hub, named Kessel Run, to help Lockheed Martin resolve the problems. The contractor has revamped the system and renamed it Operational Data Integrated Network (ODIN), with new hardware, more powerful software, and more portability. McDonald noted that ODIN “is not just tracking parts, it’s doing big data analysis to, for instance, predict mean times between failures.”
Lockheed Martin operates a European assembly line with Leonardo at Cameri in Italy. Plans call for the production of aircraft for Italy and the Netherlands, but other European countries will get some, although not all, of their jets from Cameri. The U.S. company continues to court further opportunities in Europe, such as Spain. Romania has also expressed an intention to buy the type. Following Greece’s recent announcement, the next European country to buy F-35s could be the Czech Republic. Lockheed Martin has responded to a request for information from Prague for 18 to 24 aircraft. “They will decide this year whether to move forward with us, or hold a competition,” McDonald predicted.