In talking to analysts during yesterday’s earnings call, Lockheed Martin CEO Bob Stevens shed some light on the component problems that are causing delays in the F-35 flight test program, particularly the Stovl version.
As is often the case, and Steven should know from the company's experience on the Jassm stealthy cruise missile, it is often not the big hardware that causes headaches, but the parts that are considered easy (and perhaps because of that don’t get the oversight needed).
Stevens says that “the components that are failing are more of the things that would appear either smaller or more ordinary like thermal cooling fans, door actuators, selected valves or switches or components of the power system.”
But even a small component problem can cause not insignificant delays. As Stevens points out “in some cases, we've had to remove the engine to get access to the component, and because we're in the early stages of flight test where we all exercise an abundance of caution, it's important to perform an additional series of tests when you take the engine out including ground tests, which consumes a lot of time to get to a more ordinary part like a cooling fan.”
The government and Lockheed are now scrutinizing supplier manufacturing processes, but also examining whether they need to simply order up more spares to make sure that when parts fail more quickly, they at least have the required replacement in hand. That, of course, can only be a short-term solution. After all, whenever a component has to be swapped, then time is lost to flight testing…time the program can ill afford to give up.
Stevens asserts that Lockheed “and our customer subject-matter experts believe this component reliability condition can be corrected and the inherent reliability can and will be improved.” Given what has been promised on F-35 in-service support cost reductions, meeting that commitment will be crucial. Interesting to see, though, will be how the government scores the current reliability when it calculates its estimate for F-35 life-cycle costs.