Nation & World

Lockheed Martin touts F-35 program's progress

As Pentagon officials and Congress grapple with defense spending in a period of tight budgets, Lockheed Martin officials want them to know how well the F-35 joint strike fighter program is going, finally.

In separate releases, Lockheed said this week that it is making solid progress testing the three versions of the F-35.

The announcements came as the Air Force Association was meeting in Washington, an annual gathering of Air Force officials, retirees and their friends in the defense industry, not to mention a legion of trade media.

They also come at the same time as new reports from Washington that the Defense Department is considering delaying orders of 100 more F-35s.

Lockheed reported Tuesday that flight testing of three F-35 models continues to run slightly ahead of the plan for 2011.

On Monday, it said that static ground testing, where the planes are subjected to enormous strains designed to test the strength and resiliency of the structural parts, had been wrapped up. The planes are subjected to loads, or stresses on the plane that simulate those of combat operations, up to 150 percent of the design requirement to make sure the wings and other structures don't break.

"We're still early in the program so anything can happen, but right now we're pretty happy with where things are," Lockheed spokesman Michael Rein said. "The ground structural testing was one of five milestones outlined [by the Pentagon] for the program this year."

Ground testing for lifetime fatigue damage to the aircraft is continuing and has uncovered some key structural part defects that have to be redesigned and remanufactured.

Lockheed officials and their supporters in the Defense Department, Congress and the military are eager to change perceptions of the F-35 from that of a troubled, long-delayed and over-budget program to one that is now on track.

The flight testing is slightly ahead of schedule despite planes being shut down for at least a week three times during the last year over various technical and reliability problems.

"That shows we now have a flight test program that's based in realism," Rein said, adding that time is built into the test plan to allow for problems to be found and fixed.

With 642 completed test flights this year, the F-35 program more than doubled its total from prior years. As of this week, 1,202 flights have been completed, about 20 percent of the total planned.

Lockheed's production line in Fort Worth is beginning to turn out planes fairly regularly. Rein said 11 have been delivered for testing and training this year and nine more are expected to be turned over to the Air Force and Marines before year's end.

The Marines expect to begin shipboard testing of the F-35B short-takeoff-vertical-landing version this fall, and the Air Force is preparing for pilot training for all models at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida early in 2012.

The scrutiny is intense. Twice in two years, at the direction of recently departed Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Pentagon officials restructured the program to provide more time and money to allow Lockheed to overcome past delays and get production and testing on track. To pay for those changes, orders for 224 planes have been delayed over the next several years.

The Pentagon has also reported that the cost of the first 31 planes exceeded budgets by $1.1 billion and has asked Congress for approval to shift funds to pay for those overruns.

Reuters news service reported Monday that Pentagon planners are considering further delaying orders for 100 planes as a way to meet new five-year budget targets.