| WASHINGTON, March 26
WASHINGTON, March 26 The retiring chief of the
trouble-plagued F-35 Joint Strike Fighter says he remains
bullish about the hi-tech war plane, with costs soon to be
further reduced as production takes off, and believes the
program will transform the aerospace industry.
Tom Burbage, a former Navy test pilot and general manager of
the F-35 program since its inception 12 years ago, said the $396
billion weapons program, which will create a supersonic,
single-engine fighter jet for use by the United States and its
allies, still made strategic sense.
Mounting budget pressures and escalating threats made the
coalition and joint-service warfare of the F-35 fighter more
important than ever, Burbage, a top executive with manufacturer
Lockheed Martin Corp, said on Tuesday.
"The value proposition as it was stated then is even more
important today," he told reporters.
The F-35's development has been hit by a spate of technical
setbacks, is 70 percent over initial cost estimates, been
restructured three times, and is now years behind schedule.
As a result, the United States has postponed some orders of
F-35s and other nations are re-considering their plans.
Some U.S. officials are worried that any further reductions
in orders by the U.S. military or allies overseas could trigger
a classic death spiral in which rising costs spark reductions in
orders, which in turn trigger further cost increases and so on.
Burbage, who will retire in March, said the company would
soon be producing larger numbers of F-35s than any other
military aircraft in recent history, which would help drive
costs down further.
"We're going to wind up being very competitive in the long
run," he said, adding that the F-35 already cost 50 percent less
to produce than when the first planes rolled off the assembly
line in Fort Worth, Texas five years ago.
Burbage said further reductions were expected in the next
two production contracts now being negotiated with the Pentagon.
Pentagon officials and Lockheed have said they expect to
wrap up those contract talks by this summer after long delays in
the negotiations for the two previous batches of planes.
Burbage said there was a risk that further delays in U.S.
orders, which had already added billions to the cost of the
program, would slow cost cutting.
But he said the large number of countries involved and
growing interest from additional buyers in Asia should help
offset the impact of any budget-driven cuts in U.S. orders.
"It's important to get that leveraged buying power of a
larger production base than just the airplanes the U.S. is
buying," he said.
Along with the United States, eight countries are helping
fund the F-35's development: Britain, Canada, Italy, Turkey,
Australia, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands. Israel and Japan
have also placed orders.
Burbage said much of the F-35 cost-cutting will come from
suppliers that produce about 70 percent of the state-of-the-art
plane, a big change from earlier weapons programs, when a given
prime contractors built about 70 percent of a plane.
The F-35's supply chain was spread around the world, a
deliberate move aimed at ensuring continued commitment to the
new weapons program by participating nations, he said.
"In many ways we're recapitalizing the aerospace and defense
industry while we're recapitalizing the multi-role fighter
forces," Burbage told the reporters.
Working together with Lockheed, smaller companies in the
partner countries developed new ways of machining parts out of
titanium, working with advanced composite materials, and
processing complex engineering models, he said.
The F-35 program had led to the creation of four to five
advanced composites factories around the world that would be
available for work on other aerospace projects in the future.
In the Netherlands, Fokker Elmo, the company that produces
the wiring harnesses for the F-35, has already parlayed its work
on the F-35 into additional orders for other warplanes and
military and commercial engines, Burbage said.