FORT WORTH, Texas: F-35 Lightning II maker Lockheed Martin has allayed safety concerns over the fighter jet following its first crash in late September, pointing to a long record of crash-free flights prior to the incident.
“While you don’t want to brag about it, it’s remarkable that it’s taken that long for that to happen,” F-35 international business development director Steve Over told Channel NewsAsia on Oct 2.
On Sep 28, a US Marine Corps F-35B crashed in South Carolina with the pilot ejecting safely and no injuries reported on the ground. The F-35B is also the short take-off/vertical landing variant that Singapore is reportedly interested in buying.
Initial investigations pointed to problems with a fuel tube, leading to a grounding of F-35 fleets worldwide as safety inspections were conducted and suspect parts replaced. Since then the US, UK and other countries have cleared majority of their F-35s to resume operations.
READ: Australia says delivery of F-35 jets not disrupted by September crash
This total-loss crash was the first in nearly 160,000 hours of flying the F-35 since it first took off in 2006, prompting Mr Over to describe it as an “excellent safety record”.
In contrast, he said more than 50 pilots had been killed at this point in the F-16 programme, attributing the crashes to pilots losing consciousness during extreme manoeuvres. F-16s are now equipped with software that automatically flies the plane when it is going down.
Still, even as Mr Over said he doesn’t expect the crash to affect production timelines, he refused to downplay the incident, calling it a “tragic day” for the programme.
“If the airplane had contributed in some factor to this, then just like with everything else on the programme, we’ll dive in along with our customers to get to the root cause of this, and what we need to do to the airplane going forward,” he said before the cause of the crash was identified.
But the crash is hardly the F-35’s first setback. In its 17-year history, the multi-billion-dollar programme has suffered from significant delays, cost overruns and technical problems that ranged from faulty ejection seats to an under-performing helmet display.
In a June 2018 report, the US Government Accountability Office noted more than 900 unresolved technical deficiencies on the F-35, over 100 of which could “jeopardise safety, security or another critical requirement”.
However, Mr Over said the majority of the critical deficiencies have been resolved with the release of a major software update last December, stating that the F-35 can now deliver every operational capability that was promised when the programme started in 2001.
“Does that mean the software today is perfect? No, it does not,” he added. “There are still lower category deficiencies that exist in it. As we’re moving forward, we’re now adding new capabilities in addition to resolving those outstanding deficiency reports.”
These fix-and-add software updates, which started this year and will be released twice a year, also help future-proof the F-35s as threat weapon systems evolve.
For example, the most recent update allowed the F-35 to use a type of bomb capable of hitting moving targets on the ground. Future editions include new weapons and improvements to the jet’s radar, electronic warfare and targeting systems.
“Certainly, this airplane is going through a modernisation programme that will allow it to stay well ahead of the threat for the lifetime of the airplane,” Mr Over said.
The cost of this modernisation programme, expected to be well over US$10 billion (S$13.7 billion) till 2024, will be borne by the US and its partner customers.
Foreign military customers who want to buy the plane have to pay a one-time “recoupment cost” that is a “tiny fraction” of the cost of these updates.
When these customers first buy the jet, they will also get a logistics support package, comprising training equipment, spare parts and maintenance systems, that will cost roughly 20 per cent of the jet’s unit price.
Both of these costs are on top of the jet’s unit price, which for the B variant currently stands at US$115.5 million.
But Lockheed Martin has been trying to reduce this by ramping up production and building economies of scale. To date, it has produced more than 320 F-35s, a figure that will increase three-fold by 2022 to meet demand.
This means that for the latest production run of the aircraft, the F-35A costs US$89.2 million, a 5.4 per cent decrease from the previous one. Lockheed Martin expects the price to drop to US$80 million by 2020, which Mr Over said is less or equal to the cost of most fourth-generation fighters like the F-16.
READ: Lockheed agrees to cut price for new F-35 fighter jets: Pentagon
The defence contractor is also trying to reduce maintenance and operating costs by issuing standard spare parts and equipment that can be shared among global partners, and showing military technicians how to maintain the planes more efficiently.
In addition, engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney is working on making the jet more fuel-efficient, which Mr Over said will reduce costs by more than a third over the next five to 10 years.
Citing a Pentagon report, Reuters reported in September that it costs about US$30,000 per hour (in 2012 dollars) to fly the F-35, compared to around US$25,500 per hour for the F-16.
Mr Over said Lockheed Martin’s objective in the next five to six years is for the F-35 to be as affordable to maintain as the F-16. And he is even more confident of hitting the US$80 million-per-jet target by 2020.
“If I can show you the discriminating capability and you’re not being asked to pay a price premium for that airplane, it becomes a really, really easy choice,” he said.
The choice has been easy for the UK, Italy, Turkey, Australia, Norway, Denmark, Canada and the Netherlands, the programme partners that are expected to field some 600 F-35s in the coming years.
Israel, Japan and South Korea, the three foreign military customers, have also placed orders for more than 100 of the jets.
The list goes on, with Mr Over revealing that Belgium, Finland, Germany and Switzerland are considering the F-35 as they look to refresh their fighter capabilities.
Like Israel, Singapore joined the programme as a security co-operation participant, which means that it paid for detailed information on the airplane’s capabilities, its test reports and how it was developing.
Singapore had also conducted localised studies on how the F-35 would support its needs, Mr Over said.
“Basically, (this is) enough information to decide if the F-35 makes sense to the RSAF (Republic of Singapore Air Force),” he added. “They’re still sifting information and trying to decide if or when it makes sense to move forward with the F-35.”
In June, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said the country was also considering fifth-generation fighters from Russia and China.
Russia and China’s respective Sukhoi Su-57 and Chengdu J-20 stealth fighters have both been plagued by engine problems, with reports indicating that Moscow will not mass produce the Su-57 and Beijing only nearing mass production of the J-20.
“(The F-35) is going to stay well ahead of those airplanes,” Mr Over said. “We do our own intelligence assessments of where we think our adversaries are located. And I can tell you in my opinion we’re at least 15 years ahead. Not only in stealth but also in the mission systems on the airplane.”
While Mr Over is bullish about the F-35’s prospects, including its potential to feed data to other ground-based and maritime assets and change the way battles are fought, he acknowledged the programme’s checkered past.
“Our development process wasn’t perfect getting here,” he said. “We certainly underestimated some things and had our own challenges trying to get through them.”
After leading some of the most recent sales of the F-16, Mr Over joined the F-35 programme in early 2013, during its “darkest point” as customers were thinking of walking away and looking at other alternatives.
“Fortunately, they stuck with us,” he said. “One of our customers once said: ‘If you hadn’t had the challenges you faced, then I wouldn’t have believed that you were doing something that was worthwhile.’
“While it took us more time and money to get there, the airplane that we’re fielding right now is really remarkable.”
Channel NewsAsia's visit to the F-35 assembly line was facilitated by Lockheed Martin.