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F-35 drops to 50 aircraft produced per year, J-20 jumps to 120+

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F-35 drops to 50 aircraft produced per year, J-20 jumps to 120+​

On Jul 22, 2023

Lockheed Martin, the main contractor, and manufacturer of the F-35 fifth-generation fighter, is bracing for a significant financial hit in 2023. Production issues have led to a shortfall of about 50 aircraft, which is expected to cost the firm hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

F-15E Strike Eagle flies more hours per month than the F-35


Photo by Airman 1st Class Jose Miguel T. Tamondong

The production hiccup represents over a third of the total F-35 output and exceeds the entire annual order from the U.S. Air Force, which usually stands at around 48 aircraft. Initially, Lockheed Martin had plans to deliver between 147 and 153 F-35s to all clients in 2023. However, the implementation of upgrades under the Technology Refresh 3 [TR 3] program has been fraught with significant challenges.

Despite the financial setback estimated between $210 million and $350 million, Lockheed’s Chief Financial Officer, Jay Malave, remains hopeful. He believes that the firm can recover some of the losses by surpassing production targets for 2024.

J-20 production is booming​

News of this drastic drop in F-35 production comes amidst reports of China’s rapid expansion of its own fifth-generation fighter production, exceeding 120 aircraft per year. The F-35 and China’s J-20 are the only two fighters of their generation currently in production and deployed at the squadron level.

Thrust vectoring engine: J-20 performs strong maneuvers at low speed


Photo credit: eng.chinamil.com.cn

Both aircraft sit at the pinnacle of aviation technology with their advanced features and sophistication. However, the J-20, a larger twin-engine fighter, is more attuned to long-range missions and air-to-air combat.

TR-3 program​

The TR-3 program aims to enhance the F-35’s displays, computer memory, and processing power. It’s a precursor to the more ambitious Block 4 standard, which will boost the fighter’s electrical warfare capabilities, target recognition, and firepower.

The Block 4 upgrade will elevate the internal air-to-air missile capacity of the F-35A and F-35C variants from four to six missiles. This narrows the gap with the J-20, which can reportedly carry up to eight missiles in its more spacious weapons bays. Initially, the first TR-3 F-35s were slated to enter service in April, but unforeseen obstacles have pushed this date back to December.

There will now be six air-to-air missiles in the F-35 'belly'


Photo credit: Aviation Week

The F-35 program has experienced a series of setbacks, drawing criticism from both military and civilian leaders. One of the most notable issues since early 2022 has been the underperformance of the F135 engine, which has resulted in billions of dollars in additional operational costs for the American fleet alone and likely more for international operators as most F-35s are built for export.

Christopher C. Miller, the last Secretary of Defence under the Trump administration, described the F-35 as a “monster” and referred to the fighter as a “piece of…”. John McCain, former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman, called it “a textbook example” of America’s “broken defense acquisition system,” stating, “the F-35 program’s record of performance has been both a scandal and a tragedy concerning cost, schedule, and performance.”

A chorus of criticism​

A chorus of criticism has been directed at the F-35 fighter aircraft from a variety of sources. The Pentagon’s chief weapons tester Michael Gilmore, Marine Captain Dan Grazier, military think tanks such as the NSN and the RAND Corporation, and organizations like the Project on Government Oversight have all expressed severe discontent. Their critiques center on the aircraft’s poor reliability and high operational costs, which could potentially make it unaffordable in the intended quantities.

Japanese F-35's device avoids the engine resonant vibrations


Video screenshot

Foreign operators have echoed these sentiments. The South Korean National Assembly’s National Defence Committee disclosed in October 2022 that the country’s F-35s had experienced 234 flaws in 18 months from January 2021 to June 2022. These included 172 incidents rendering the aircraft non-operational and 62 cases where specific missions could not be performed. Despite hopes for improvement, the first half of 2022 saw little change in these figures.

Despite these issues, the U.S. and its allies face a conundrum. There is a noticeable lack of NATO-compatible fifth-generation fighters, leaving them with limited options. Older fourth-generation fighters are likely to struggle against advanced aircraft like China’s J-20, the forthcoming FC-31 naval fighter, and even Russia’s slightly less stealthy Su-57. Relying on last-generation aircraft is not a feasible solution, forcing America and its allies to invest in the F-35 and work tirelessly to rectify its myriad performance and production issues.

 
Since the Chinese navy can outbuild US navy hands down by a landslide margin, there's no reason that Chinese airforce can’t pull the same trick in the near future.

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Production issues have led to a shortfall of about 50 aircraft,

This is simply not true. Aircraft are still being built but the Pentagon will not accept them until the TR-3 upgrades are tested and finalized because they don't want to have to fly them all back to the factory if some issue needs adjusting.

any F-35 jet coming off the line starting in July that is expected to get the TR-3 configuration will be warehoused until that testing is finished. The best case based on existing estimates is around five months; worst case is closer to nine months, or even beyond if delays occur. (Lockheed is still building jets with a TR-2 configuration, whose deliveries will continue.)

 
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