Can Lockheed Martin Deliver? Reaching 2,400 F-35s by 2044 Seems Improbable Based on Current Plans

F-35 fleet availability and mission capability rates continue to fall short of expectations due to spare parts shortages and other difficulties. Resolving maintenance issues will be critical to ensuring a smooth production ramp up.

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

The United States has great aspirations for its fifth-generation fighter, the F-35. According to US military projections, by 2044, the total number of F-35s in service in the US military will be 2,456, with these aircraft remaining on duty until 2070. Initially, Lockheed Martin predicted that over 5,000 F-35s would be sold.

Although Lockheed Martin’s news that the 1000th F-35 had been completed surprised many, given the increased number of F-35s being built, it only accounts for around a fifth of total production. There are still many more F-35 fighter jets awaiting production.

Last month, the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation [DOT&E] released a report on the status of existing programmes, which included numerous numbers.

The paper states that Lockheed-Martin delivered 628 F-35 fighter-bombers to US armed forces, including all versions. And 51% of them are currently “coded for combat,” which means they have been assigned to a squadron capable of carrying out military operations.

The DOT&E reports that the F-35 fleet’s operational readiness falls short of expectations and standards, with an overall availability rate of only 51%, compared to the target of 65%. This figure only applies to aircraft capable of completing at least one designated mission. This percentage lowers to 30% for aircraft capable of carrying out all the tasks they were designed for [Full Mission Capable]. Between October 2022 and September 2023, over a quarter of the fleet (27%) was waiting for replacement parts.

Fortunately, the stats are better for F-35s “coded for combat” since they receive priority maintenance and spare parts supply. According to the report, their availability rate averaged 61%, which is still lower than the prescribed 65%. This goal was only reached once in 2023. The average percentage of “full mission capability” was 48 per cent.

Furthermore, the US Air Force’s F-35A fleet was expected to attain an average flying time of 20 hours between two “critical failures” [mean time between failures – MTBF] after 75,000 collected flight hours. However, by 2023, this rate had dropped to 10.5 flight hours despite completing 288,000 hours. Only the F-35B [short takeoff and vertical landing] of the US Marine Corps performed better, with an average rate increase of 2.3 points between 2022 and 2023.

In its report, the DOT&E reiterated last year’s suggestions, calling for actions to enhance the supply of spare parts, “particularly for the F135 engines,” to reduce F-35 downtime.

This report supplements those previously produced by other oversight authorities, such as the GAO [Government Accountability Office]. In September, it highlighted Lockheed-Martin’s and its subcontractors’ roles in F-35 Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul [MRO].

In recent years, DoD authorities have recognised that the F-35 program’s MRO expenses are unsustainable in the long run. According to the GAO, several have expressed serious concerns about subcontractors’ labour expenses.

It also turned out that military technicians were not permitted to search for spare part references in a Lockheed Martin database. The analysis indicates that a lack of easy access to part numbers impedes aircraft repair by delaying the procurement and shipment of critical components.

Despite the existing shortages and in light of the recent global developments, it is indisputable that the production of fifth-generation F-35 fighter aircraft will persistently increase. Undoubtedly, more nations will acquire F-35s in the coming years, which bodes well for Lockheed Martin. While Japan is the primary consumer of the F-35, Europe also exhibits substantial interest, as numerous countries are preparing to replace their current fleet with F-35 jets.

Norway and Denmark have declared their intent to supply Ukraine with F-16s. The F-16s currently under their possession are obsolete, having been in service for over three decades. European nations are divesting their F-16 aircraft to replace them with more sophisticated models, with the F-35 emerging as the predominant candidate.

Russia started ramping up the production of the Su-57, a fifth-generation fighter, which poses a challenge to NATO allies. Currently, the F-35 is the only fifth-generation aircraft available worldwide. Unfortunately, there is no other option for the Western camp countries.

According to the current plans for manufacturing ramp-up, it seems highly improbable that Lockheed Martin would be able to reach the target of delivering 2,400 F-35s by the year 2044. 151 F-35s were scheduled to be delivered by Lockheed Martin in 2023. After that, production will increase to 176 jets in 2024 and 194 jets in 2025, according to the plans.

To meet 2,400 jets by 2044, they would need to average approximately 150 jets per year for the next 19 years, from 2026 to 2044. So far, the highest estimated manufacturing volume is 194 jets in 2025. Maintaining an average output of 150 per year for over two decades seems ambitious.


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