Production Issues Cause F-35 Output Contraction of 50 Airframes in 2023: Much Needed Upgrades Difficult to Implement

The F-35 fifth generation fighter’s primary contractor and manufacturer Lockheed Martin is expected to lose hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue in 2023 due to issues with the production of the aircraft, which according to officials from the firm is set to fall short of production goals by approximately 50 aircraft. This represents over one third of total output of F-35s, and more than the entire U.S. Air Force annual order for the aircraft of around 48 per year. Lockheed Martin was initially set to deliver between 147 and 153 F-35s to all clients in 2023, but has suffered significant issues attempting to implement upgrades under the Technology Refresh 3 (TR 3) program. Lockheed’s chief financial officer Jay Malave said delivery delays would cost the firm between $210 million and $350 million. He expressed optimism, however, that the firm could partly compensate by exceeding production targets for 2024.

The confirmation of a sharp decline in production of the F-35, which is several years late in reaching a goal of 156 aircraft annually, comes as a growing number of reports have indicated that China has expanded production of its own fifth generation fighter tremendously to over 120 airframes per year. The J-20 and F-35 are the only fighters of their generation both in production and fielded at squadron level strength, and are in many respects in a league of their own in terms of their advanced features and sophistication – although the J-20 is a much larger twin engine fighter better optimised to long range missions and air to air combat. 

The TR-3 program is expected to improve the F-35’s displays, computer memory and processing power, and precedes the more ambitious Block 4 standard which improves the fighter’s electric warfare capabilities, target recognition and firepower. The Block 4 package is expected to increase the internal air to air missile payload of the F-35A and F-35C variants from four to six missiles, narrowing the gap with the J-20 which is thought to be able to carry up to eight missiles in its much larger weapons bays. The first TR-3 F-35s were at the beginning of the year expected to enter service in April, with unforeseen issues delaying this to December. The delay is one of a very long line of issues the F-35 program has faced, which has led to the aircraft being harshly criticised by both military and civilian leaders. An issue which has gained particularly widespread attention from early 2022 has been the underperformance of the fighter’s F135 engine, which has caused tens of billions of dollars in extra operational costs for the American fleet alone – and very likely significantly more abroad as the majority of F-35s are built for export. 

The last holder of the post of Secretary of Defence under the Donald Trump administration, Christopher C. Miller, referred to the F-35 as a “monster” the military had created and to the fighter itself as “a piece of…”, while former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain called it “a textbook example’ of the country’s “broken defence acquisition system,” stressing in a briefing to the Senate: “the F-35 program’s record of performance has been both a scandal and a tragedy with respect to cost, schedule and performance.” Figures ranging from the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester Michael Gilmore and Marine Captain Dan Grazier, to military think tanks such as the NSN and the RAND Corporation, and organisations such as the Project on Government Oversight, have consistently harshly criticised the aircraft, with the Pentagon repeatedly highlighting that the fighter suffers from poor reliability and that its high operational costs could make it unaffordable in the numbers initially intended to be fielded.

Reports from foreign operators have been similarly critical, with  the South Korean National Assembly’s National Defence Committee having been revealed in October 2022 to have found the country’s F-35s suffered from 234 flaws over 18 months from January 2021 to June 2022 – including 172 ‘non-flying status’ and 62 ‘cannot perform specific mission status’ cases. The 117 flightless and 45 mission specific failures that occurred in 2021 saw little improvement in the first half of 2022. The lack of other NATO-compatible fifth generation fighters, however, has left the U.S. and its allies with few other choices for acquisitions, with older fourth generation fighters expected to face steep disadvantages against the J-20, the upcoming FC-31 fighter developed for China’s navy, and even the less stealthy Russian Su-57 fifth generation fighter. Foreign programs have ruled out the option of relying on aircraft from the last generation, which has left America and its allies with little choice but to invest in the F-35 and in fixing its wide ranging performance and production issues.