| RAF FAIRFORD, England, July 10
RAF FAIRFORD, England, July 10 Borne of the last
downturn in U.S. military spending in the 1990s, Lockheed Martin
Corp's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was intended as a quick
and affordable way for the United States and its allies to
replace thousands of aging F-16s and other warplanes while
avoiding the pitfalls of earlier programs.
Nearly two decades and a $166 billion jump in projected
costs later, the world's largest arms program was poised for a
high-profile international debut at two British air shows when
the Pratt & Whitney engine on one of the jets broke apart and
caught fire during a takeoff from a Florida air base.
The incident has grounded the existing fleet of 97 F-35 jets
and triggered a fresh wave of criticism about the costly new
warplane, although U.S. and British officials are underscoring
their continued commitment to the program, which now has a
revised price tag of $398.6 billion.
The latest engine issue came weeks after an in-flight oil
leak that sparked a brief grounding in June, but U.S. officials
remain hopeful the jet will at least fly at the bigger of the
two UK events - the Farnborough Airshow that starts on July 14.
Lockheed's F-35 program manager Lorraine Martin told
reporters that the planes would miss the first day of the Royal
International Air Tattoo air show, but could still arrive in
time to fly at the event, which continues through July 12. She
said Lockheed had spare parts on hand at the air field in case
they were needed.
British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond on Wednesday said
the F-35 may miss the Air Tattoo given the grounding order, but
said he was optimistic that the plane would fly at Farnborough.
It would be a huge embarrassment if it misses that show too,
and could undermine export interest in the jet just as several
countries including Canada and Denmark, both of which helped
fund development of the jet, are weighing F-35 orders.
With three different models, supersonic speed and
cutting-edge electronics, the F-35 was designed as a
multi-service, multi-national program to lower development and
production costs. Yet early technical challenges drove the cost
of the program nearly 70 percent over initial estimates.
Pentagon officials say the F-35 is finally making progress
after several major restructurings and years of delays, but also
say the jet still has 40 percent of developmental testing to go.
The sheer complexity and scale of the program, which
involves three U.S. military services and 9 other countries that
have placed firm orders, also mean that grounding and technical
issues have a far wider impact than on a single-service weapon.
Lockheed is developing and building three models of the F-35
for the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, and a growing
number of countries.
Analysts say the latest technical issue underscores the
danger of starting production of a new weapons system before all
testing is finished, a practice known as "concurrency".
Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's chief arms buyer, has called
that approach "acquisition malpractice", and is putting in place
reforms to avoid similar problems on other weapons programs.
The Pentagon recently lowered its estimate for the cost of
concurrency - or retrofitting existing F-35 jets to correct
design problems - but officials warn that new issues can always
crop up, such as the June 23 incident in Florida.
"Engineering discoveries are a normal part of this and every
other aircraft development program. Some of them are relatively
insignificant, and others more concerning, but with each test
event and every training mission we are learning and constantly
improving," said U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Christopher
Bogdan, who runs the Pentagon's F-35 Joint Program Office.
The F-35 program is still in development, but the airplanes
are already being used for training and some operations, and the
Marine Corps plans to start using them in combat from July 2015.
Marine Lieutenant General Jon Davis, deputy commandant for
aviation, reiterated those plans in a statement to Reuters,
noting that the jet's capabilities would "revolutionize the way
the Marine Corps projects power from the sea and the shore".
But he said the Marine Corps would not declare an "initial
operating capability", or IOC, next year if any capability
defined in its requirements was not delivered.
Bogdan provided no details on the investigation into the
engine incident, but said he was confident in the plane's design
and operation given its "increased maturity and stability".
He said everyone involved in the F-35 program was working
"day and night" to try to understand the cause of the engine
failure, and safety remained the program's top priority.
A strictly controlled U.S. Air Force investigation into the
engine failure continues, which means U.S. government and
industry officials are more tight-lipped than ever.
But questions are emerging about quality control issues at
Pratt, which faced problems with fuel lines last year.
"This could have serious consequences for Pratt unless they
can say without a doubt why this part failed, and can convince
the Joint Program Office that this was a one-off thing," said
one defense official who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The program's complex structure - with jets already owned by
three different military services and two foreign countries -
has also revealed the need to better coordinate any moves by
"airworthiness" authorities to suspend flights.
In this case, the Air Force launched its standard safety
investigation procedures after the engine incident, quarantining
the jet and locking out the other services, as per its
protocols. But that left many questions unanswered for the other
military services and global partners on the program.
The Pentagon is expected to revamp the process to ensure
better coordination in the future, said multiple sources
familiar with the program.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; editing by Jason Neely)