Safety is the first consideration in whether the F-35 Thunderbolt II joint strike fighter appears at the Farnborough Air Show in England this week, a senior Defense Department official said July 14.
The F-35 fleet was grounded July 3 pending an investigation of an engine fire that occurred June 23 on the runway of Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, told reporters at Farnborough that senior Air Force and Navy officers are assessing data to determine the root cause of the fire.
“Hopefully, they’ll be able to come to a conclusion and begin flying again, but we don't want to prejudge that,” he said. “We don’t want to get ahead of it, and we put safety first.”
Even with setbacks like the grounding, the F-35 program is a much more stable program than it was four years ago," Kendall said. “We’ve got a lot more confidence in the design today. We have the costs much more under control than we did four years ago.”
In 2010, the services were only about 10 to 15 percent into the flight test program. Today, it’s up to about 60 percent.
“It is still a development program,” Kendall said. “We’re still finding things as we go through the testing phase. We’re still finding things that we need to correct and fix, but it’s a much more mature design.”
Cost is a major factor, and Kendall said the new program has brought expenses down, and expects to continue to do so.
“We’re beating our own projections in terms of production costs year by year,” he said. “So the cost growth that plagued the program in the earlier phase of its cycle, I think, in the production side, is behind us.”
The goal, Kendall said, is to bring the cost of this aircraft down to where it is comparable to that of a fourth-generation aircraft by 2019.
“The biggest opportunity we have to reduce cost is probably in sustainment,” the undersecretary said. “We’re looking at that very closely. We were able to reduce our estimate for future sustainment costs by about 10 percent this year, but there’s a lot more work to be done there, and we think there’s a great opportunity there.”
All of the original partners in the joint strike fighter are still in the program, Kendall said, adding that there are two foreign sales candidates outside the partnership with more expected.
“The reason for that is very simple: this is a quantum improvement in air dominance,” he said. “It’s going to be an aircraft that will set the countries that have it apart from countries that don’t by a significant margin for the next few decades. So that’s why it’s such a valuable investment to us, and that’s why we remain committed.”