Lockheed Martin has announced that it will deliver its first F-35 Lightning II fighters to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida within days, and that the base will receive its first aircraft before the end of the month.
Company spokesman Mike Rein said Lockheed Martin is “very close” to delivering the first jet, the Pensacola News Journal reports.
Rein said that six aircraft will be delivered by the end of the fiscal year, which ends on the last day of September. Eglin Air Force Base will receive most of the 59 F-35s on order within the next three years.
“While we’ll still be delivering aircraft to other bases, Eglin will be the primary focus for the coming years,” Rein said.
Eglin was originally scheduled to receive its first F-35 in November last year, but deliveries was delayed due to technical problems and development delays.
Last month Lockheed’s chief executive, Robert Stevens, said his company was confident that it could resolve development challenges facing the F-35 programme, which is the Pentagon’s costliest arms purchase ever.
“We know that we have challenges in our development program,” Stevens, said. “But we’re confident that we know how to fix the challenges that we have.” He said that the radar-evading F-35’s performance characteristics are “very solid and very good”.
Eglin will be an important base for the F-35 as it will be the primary training centre for F-35 crew and maintenance personnel. In 2009, the Air Force redesignated Eglin’s 33rd Fighter Wing as a training unit and began converting the wing’s facilities into a training centre, the Pensacola News Journal notes.
Lockheed Martin expects the F-35, due to be the backbone of U.S. air combat power for decades to come, to account for more than 20 percent of its global sales once full production kicks in, at a date still to be determined.
But the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, has said the program has not fully shown that the aircraft design is stable or that manufacturing processes are mature and that the system is reliable.
Total development funding is now estimated at US$56.4 billion to wrap up in 2018, a 26 percent cost increase and a five-year schedule slip from the program’s current baseline, according to GAO.
Three F-35 models are being built for the US Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and eight allied countries under a program most recently projected to total some US$382 billion over the coming two decades, for 2 443 aircraft.
President Barack Obama has asked Congress for US$9.7 billion in fiscal year 2012, which starts on October 1, for continued system development, test and purchase of 32 early production F-35s.
The F-35 will be the subject of a high-level Pentagon review in the coming days, Reuters reports. Defense Undersecretary Ashton Carter, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, and other senior defence officials are due to establish a new procurement baseline at the meeting for the F-35.
The new baseline – against which any future cost growth will be measured – will reflect a major restructuring of the programme announced by Defence Secretary Robert Gates in February, the program’s second major revamp in two years.
Pentagon spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin gave no specific date, but said the panel would meet in mid- to late-June for a detailed review of the Pentagon’s costliest weapons program.
The F-35 programme came under fire for rising costs at a Senate hearing late last month when Carter told the committee that buying the planned 2 443 F-35s would cost twice as much in real terms as originally expected. Carter said that price was “unacceptable and unaffordable,” but expressed confidence that the Pentagon would be able to trim excess costs in the coming months and years.
The total cost of operating and maintaining the new aircraft over coming decades is expected to top US$1 trillion, according to Pentagon estimates, but defence officials and industry executives say they are working hard to reduce those costs.