F-35 fighter a high-profile no-show at Farnborough

An engine fire three weeks ago has grounded the expensive new fighter jet. US military officials still hope the jet can make a last-minute appearance at the prestigious UK airshow, though.

Three variants of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, also called the Joint Strike Fighter.
Three variants of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, also called the Joint Strike Fighter. Lockheed Martin

FARNBOROUGH, England -- Monday was supposed to be the splashy European debut of the F-35 Lightning II, the fifth-generation jet also known as the Joint Strike Fighter.

Instead, an engine malfunction three weeks ago grounded the aircraft family, and as a result, the Farnborough International Airshow is more about civilian aircraft -- at least so far. But Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan of the US Air Force said it's still possible safety officials could grant the plane clearance.

"It would have been wonderful for the rest of the world to see it's not just a paper airplane. It's a technological marvel," he said at a press conference here. "We're not giving up yet."

Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan speaks about the F-35 Lightning II at the Farnborough airshow.
Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan speaks about the F-35 Lightning II at the Farnborough airshow. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Lockheed Martin has delivered 101 of the fighters to the US Defense Department, though operational status for the aircraft won't come till at least 2015. For now, pilots, ground crews, and command staff are getting a feel for how the performance of the F-35 variants, which are intended to replace a variety of planes including the A-10, the F-16, the F/A-18, and the AV-8B Harrier.

Other customers that have lined up include the UK, Italy, Canada, Australia, Turkey, Israel, Norway, Japan, and the Netherlands. Although financial pressures have led some to delay orders or cut their size, all the partners are still involved, said Frank Kendall, a US undersecretary for defense.

The F-35 is key to US military planning: The Air Force intends to have 1,763, the Navy 260, and the Marine Corps 340. The jet is a stealth model designed to evade radar detection and is equipped with advanced sensors and communication abilities. It comes in three varieties -- one for conventional runways, one for aircraft carriers, and one that can take off using only a short distance and can land vertically (STOVL). Their weapons payloads are 18,000 pounds (8,160kg) for the two more ordinary models and 15,000lb (6,800kg) for the STOVL model.

"It'll set the countries that have it apart from those who don't by a significant margin for the next few decades," Kendall said.

The June engine problem appears to have been isolated. The Air Force has examined all the engines it has in aircraft and in reserve and hasn't found any other examples of the problem, Bogdan said.

"All 198 of the other engines did not indicate the same phenomenon on the one engine that failed," Bogdan said.

The problem itself has been identified, he added. Some fan blades in the jet rubbed more severely against a stationary carbon element. That led to higher temperatures than planned, which led to microcracks, which led to materials fatigue, which caused "that section of the engine to fall apart."

Cutting costs

The F-35 has been hobbled by high costs, but Lockheed Martin and the US military are working to reduce down -- the expense of both production and operation.

So far the only F-35 to make it to the Farnborough International Airshow is this USB drive used to store electronic press kits.
So far the only F-35 to make it to the Farnborough International Airshow is this USB drive used to store electronic press kits. Stephen Shankland/CNET

"We have brought the production costs under control, and we are going to bring them down further," Kendall said. "We are beating our own projection costs."

Current planes cost $112 million apiece to build, Bogdan said. "In 2019, I believe we can get to between $80 million and $85 million. "Our goal is to get it below $80 million. That would be comparable to many fourth-generation airplanes."

And that price -- equivalent in 2019 dollars to the price of today's fighter jets -- will be persuasive, he added.

"That's very easy to understand: fifth-generation capability for a fourth-generation price," Bogdan said.

Faster production rates are key to the cost reductions.

"In the next three years we will go from about 50 airplanes delivered a year to about 70, then to a little over 100. You will see a doubling of the production line in terms of throughput," Bogdan said. "It's at that point where the economies of scale kick in and you can talk about an $80 million airplane by 2019."

But for today, at Farnborough, there's nothing to show for the work.

"It's a disappointing thing. The timing was bad," Bogdan said. "But we have confidence in the program still."

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Sci-Tech
About the author

Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, Web development, digital photography and new technology. In the past he has been CNET's beat reporter for Google, Yahoo, Linux, open-source software, servers and supercomputers. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces.

 

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