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May 12, 2011

Lockheed: Let us build more F-35s and we'll keep the costs down

That's pretty much the message that Lockheed Martin executives have been spinning ever since Defense Secretary Bob Gates decided to slow down orders for F-35s over the next five years to free up money to pay for the work that hasn't been done yet, both development and building of planes.

F-35 AF-7 3-09-11 They spun it again in an article published today by Reuters. There's not any real news here, other than that Reuters is the latest news organization allowed to see the gee-whiz stuff inside the Lockheed plant in west Fort Worth.

 Lockheed Martin says it is attacking costs on every aspect of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, but the real key to making the new warplane more affordable is to speed up production.

The Pentagon's No. 1 supplier is building about two of the new radar-evading fighters a month now in its mile-long plant here, but Lockheed says it could produce at least twice that number, in part thanks to new automated equipment.

The company has invested about $1 billion to modernize the same factory where "Rosie the Riveter" and other workers churned out 10 B-24 bombers a day during World War Two.

These days, there's a new bright blue rail that moves airplane pieces down the line, and laser-guided machines that cut labor costs and eliminate expensive errors.

The new machinery is working wonders, but Lockheed says accelerating production would have even more impact. 

"If you don't build the airplane in high production rates, you're never going to get the economic benefit of having that infrastructure in place. It's going to be just a cost to you," Tom Burbage, executive vice president and general manager of the F-35 program, told Reuters.

That's ok, but a couple of points seem fair to make here:

1) DoD wouldn't have to keep trimming production to find money to pay for increased costs if Lockheed had met any major budget or development timetable or goal.

2) Lockheed has not yet delivered all of the development and test airplanes and just last week delivered the first production airplane, which was ordered by DoD four years ago.

3) The Government Accountability Office (among others), which has over the last decade proved far better at forecasting what was going to happen with the F-35 program than either DoD or Lockheed, has repeatedly warned that aircraft production should be kept slow until far more flight and development testing is completed. 

Lockheed issued a release Wednesday announcing that it had completed 878 test flights. That leaves something more than 5,000 to go, if all goes well.

- Bob Cox


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Nice post! I'd just add that the 2011 GAO Assessment report points out that the JSF went into production even though three critical technologies were immature, the manufacturing process was unproven and the testing was incomplete. It boggles the mind.

And now Lockheed recommends increasing the build rate? Um, how about they put a little more effort into developing the technology, proving out their process and doing the testing before building the planes.

With all due respect to Mr. Burbage, if you don't build the plane out of mature technologies, using proven manufacturing processes and well-tested designs, you're just asking for trouble, delays and costly fixes down the line.

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