Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James visited Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth headquarters Wednesday, making her mark on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s forward fuselage — literally.
“Thank you Team Lockheed Go Air Force!” she wrote on the fuselage, which will be part of the 100th F-35 produced for the Air Force.
James came to Lockheed to check on the progress of the F-35 project. The Pentagon announced that Lockheed will head the F-35 program in 2001, building the Joint Strike Fighter for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. The project was originally meant to finish in 2010, but difficulties with the plane’s propulsion system, reliability and weight put a delay on the project. The project also dealt with some software issues as well.
Despite the delay, James said she was “thoroughly impressed” by the work Lockheed has done so far.
“The team here is really hitting the ball out of the ballpark,” she said.
She said she expects the Air Force to declare “initial operating capability” for the F-35 by August 2016, meaning the plane can fly in limited combat operations. The Marines declared initial operating capability in July, while the Navy is expected to give the F-35 the same designation in 2018.
The planes are expected to be fully ready for combat by early 2020, said Lockheed spokesman Mike Rein.
As the project continues, Lockheed plans to add about 1,000 jobs in the next three years, he said.
The cost of the entire project, from its beginning in 2001 until 2039, is projected to be about $389 billion.
James said one of her biggest concerns is the government’s sequestration of the armed forces budget, which puts a ceiling on how much money is spent on the military.
Unless the government reverses sequestration, funding for the F-35 project will be negatively affected, she said.
“I never miss an opportunity to call upon Congress to lift sequestration and give our military the right amount of money that we need to be able to support our people and their training and their equipment,” she said. “I’m worried about our current state of affairs in Washington.”
Lockheed plans to deliver a total of 3,170 F-35s to both the U.S. and foreign military. The projected cost to purchase an F-35 in 2018 will be $85 million, which is equivalent to $75 million today.
The F-35 has three variants: the F-35A, F-35B and F-35C. The plane uses stealth technology to give pilots greater anonymity in the air, allowing them to hit targets without being seen by the enemy.
James said she understands the difficulty of dealing with software, but she’s optimistic that the issues will be fixed in time.
“If there’s a long pole in the tent, it probably relates to some of the software code and to some of the mission planning systems which are crucial for the operation of the aircraft,” she said. “Again, there’s a path forward. We think we’re going to get there to declare initial operating capability next year, and that’s what we’re driving toward.”
James also paid a visit to fellow Fort Worth defense firm Bell Helicopter earlier in the day. James was given a company overview by Bell Helicopter leaders, followed by an update on the V-22 program and the company’s entrant into Future Vertical Lift program with the V-280 Valor tiltrotor. The Future Vertical Lift program is meant to develop a replacement for current vertical lift vehicles, such as the Black Hawk. The Secretary also tried out a V-280 tiltrotor avionics simulator as well as a tour through the Bell Helicopter advanced composite center.
“We were delighted to host the Secretary today and honored to have the opportunity to show her in person the work Bell Helicopter is performing every day on current and future tiltrotor platforms,” said Bell Helicopter President and CEO John Garrison. “The V-22 continues to redefine what is possible in military operations, and we are grateful to the Secretary for making time in her schedule to see firsthand where this transformative technology takes shape at our Fort Worth campus.”