F-35 program on track to replace Turkey, Pentagon officials say

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WASHINGTON ― Since removing Turkey from the F-35 program over its purchase of a Russian air defense system, the U.S. has found alternate suppliers for all but a dozen components Turkey is producing for the stealthy fighter jet.

As U.S. President Donald Trump met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House on Wednesday, the Pentagon’s F-35 program executive testified in Congress that he expects Turkey will be phased out on schedule, by March 2020. Lockheed and Pratt & Whitney, he said, have “spectacular progress” finding alternate suppliers.

“We began just over a year ago, very quietly but deliberately, taking actions to find alternate sources for all of those parts,” said the program executive, said Lt. Gen. Eric Fick, adding, “We are not quite there yet, so we have, on the air frame side, 11 components we have to mitigate to be at full-rate production … and on the engines, there’s one: integrated bladed rotors, IBR’s.”

Though the U.S. has narrowed the number of parts down from 1,000 to 12, it’s still set to receive previously-ordered parts from Turkey after the March 2020 deadline. As the Pentagon worked to stand up alternative sources, it did not dual-produce the parts, which saved money but added a wrinkle to phasing out Turkey.

Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord affirmed to Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J., that as of Wednesday, Turkey’s exit from the program was not expected to cause any F-35 production delays, calling the Turkish suppliers, “very very good.”

The U.S. has since kicked Erdogan out of a multinational program producing components of America’s high-tech F-35 fighter jet. In response, Erdogan attended an annual Russian air show this summer in Moscow and expressed interest in buying the latest Russian Su-35 fighter jets.

Trump has not yet decided whether to impose congressional sanctions on Turkey for the S-400 purchase.

The news was a bright spot in a hearing about the F-35 that saw lawmakers from both parties grill government witnesses on a wide range of problems―as well as efforts to cut flying-hour costs, to right its logistics information system, to reach an accord with Lockheed on intellectual property rights and to bring the Joint Simulation Environment online. The witnesses appeared before a joint hearing of the House Tactical Air and Land Forces and Readiness subcommittees.

The hearing came days after the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin have finalized a $34 billion deal for the next three lots of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, setting the price of an F-35A jet below $80 million―a $12.8 percent drop per aircraft. The deal includes 478 F-35s for U.S. and international customers across lots 12, 13 and 14.

The Democrat-led sub-panels also took the rare step of calling Lockheed’s executive for the F-35, Gregory Ulmer, and Pratt & Whitney’s president for military engines, Matthew Bromberg, to hold the companies to account.

“As we look ahead to the next few decades of F-35 service, failing to create an effective and cost-efficient sustainment system would diminish readiness, squander taxpayer resources, and discourage the services and our partners from continuing to purchase the F-35,” said Readiness Subcommittee Chairman John Garamendi, D-Calif. “This would create unacceptable risk for the program and would be an abdication of the trust and investment of the public and our allies.”

Underscoring lawmaker frustration with the complexity of problems with the expensive program, Norcross at one point asked Lord how metrics like cost-per-flight-hour can be standardized between the F-35 and other platforms. “Apples to apples, the metrics that we’re using seem to move,” he said.

After the Pentagon hired the Boston Consulting Group to examine all the costs per flight hour, towards its goal of spending $25,000 per flight hour by 2025, it found $3,000 per flight hour, “that we couldn’t clearly trace back to Lockheed Martin as to the origin of those costs,” Lord said. “We are working with closely with Lockheed Martin to understand it, and it’s the fundamental basis of some confusion we have.”

Robert Behler, the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation, told lawmakers that copies of the F-35, despite of improvements in availability and mission capable rates, are “breaking more often than planned and taking longer to fix.” “The operational suitability of the F-35 fleet remains at a level below Service expectations. However, after several years of remaining relatively stable, several key suitability metrics are showing signs of slow improvement in [calendar year 2019],” he said.

The U.S. F-35 fleet missed the monthly availability target of 65 percent, missed an 80 percent mission-capable target and missed reliability and maintainability metrics. Behler linked recent improvements in availability and mission capable rates to a greater availability of spare parts―through the programs efforts to improve maintenance process and depot support.

Fick noted that the mission capable rate of the operational fleet jumped from 54.7 percent in October, 2018, to 72.5 percent in September of 2019.

Parts shortages was the chief contributor to low mission capable rates, Government Accountability Office’s Director of Defense Capabilities and Management Diana Maurer, told lawmakers. Parts were breaking more often than expected, it’s taken twice as long to fix them and the depots to fix them won’t be ready until 2024.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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