JSF Continues to Make Progress While Troubles Swirl

by: Matthew Potter
March 22, 2011

Category: Business Line, Companies, Congress, Department of Defense, development program, Events, Federal Budget Process, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Military Aviation, northrop grumman, Northrop Grumman Corp., production program, Proposal, Restructuring, Services, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Navy | RSS 2.0

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a great many things. It is the largest defense acquisition program in U.S. history with total costs projected in the hundreds of billions. It is the future of military aviation for America and several of its Allies for the bulk of the next century. It is also moving slowly towards entering full production.

At a time when the power of modern combat aviation is being demonstrated over Libya through the use of some of the more advanced and newer systems in use by the U.S. and its European NATO allies in combat that is right now strictly using air assets the JSF continues its testing and development. Designed to replace the ubiquitous General Dynamics (GD) F-16 that forms the core of the United States Air Force as well as many NATO countries military it will also be used by Navy and Marine Corps off of aircraft carriers and as a new Vertical and Take Off/Landing (VTOL) aircraft. Because of this complexity the program headed up by Lockheed Martin (LMT) has suffered its share of delays and cost growth that have threatened its completion.

In its most recent report to Congress the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that software development especially is now seeing delays. Final completion of this key component is now expected to be at least three years late in 2015. Part of this is due to the slow build up of flight testing although the program has seen great strides in that effort in recent months. The concern of the GAO, Congress and the Pentagon is that delayed development and entry into production will require more money at a time when the defense budget and Federal spending as a whole is under pressure to be reduced due to the recent large deficits.

Even though the second Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP) aircraft has joined the test fleet it and the others had to be grounded due to a oil leak and generator failure. Work by the Joint Program Office (JPO) and contractors have led to seven of the fourteen existing aircraft being cleared to fly again but the two LRIP remain grounded as it is believed a newer generator design may have led to the problem. Again problems like this is why you do testing but it does add time to the schedule.

Northrop Grumman (NOC) who is one of the major sub-contractors on the program responsible for making large parts of the fuselage assembly continued their support by opening their integrated assembly line in California. This production facility utilizes technology developed for the auto industry and has automated tools for assembly and manufacture as well as moving sections around. It is hoped that the more efficient line will lower costs and increase production rates.

The JSF program is ambitious, costly and now necessary. The U.S. and its Allies need a modern aircraft to replace systems originally developed in the Seventies and built in the Eighties for a general war in Europe. The JSF is suffering development problems like so many other programs have in the past. These are multiplied due to the size of the program and the amount of money committed to it. If the JSF was to be canceled or scaled back another aircraft would have to be developed and produced eventually at a potential greater cost. The requirement will be there no matter what.

Photo from Sh4rp_i’s flickr photostream.

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