The Pentagon has stopped accepting Lockheed’s new stealth fighters until technical testing is complete.

More than 80 F-35s could be left in limbo as the Pentagon refuses to accept new aircraft until testing of updated stealth fighter technology is complete.

According to Russ Goemaere, spokesman for the F-35 Joint Program Office, deliveries of new F-35s are on hold until December at the earliest and April at the latest.

That means Lockheed Martin will have to retain 45 planes if the delay runs through December and 81 planes if it runs through April, as the company’s contract says it must deliver nine planes a month with the technology upgrade.

The Pentagon is updating several technologies on its fleet of F-35s, an effort known as Block 4. But before the fleet can receive the updates, the planes need a set of hardware and software enhancements, known as Technology Refresh 3, or TR-3, which is already a year behind schedule. 

“Starting in August, the delivery of approximately nine TR-3 aircraft per month will be contracted,” Goemaere stated. “Starting later this summer, F-35 aircraft coming off the production line with TR-3 hardware will not be accepted (DD250) until the relevant combat capability is validated against our user expectations” . The JPO and Lockheed Martin will ensure that these aircraft are stored safely and securely until the DD250 is produced,” Goemaere said.

While the JPO estimates that the delay could last until next spring, Lockheed said they still plan to deliver by December.

“In all testing programs there are risk analysis models. While the JPO acknowledges that there could be a delivery range between December 2023 and April 2024, we remain committed to delivery of the first TR-3 fighter in 2023,” the company said in a statement.

Asked if the delay would have financial implications for the company, Lockheed said it could not comment because it was in the quiet period ahead of next month’s second-quarter earnings release.

Doug Birkey, executive director of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, told reporters Wednesday that the delay in TR-3 deliveries means less capacity for the Air Force in the near term, ahead of the release of a new report on the 5th generation air power.

Air Combat Command is “literally running queue by queue right now” to avoid a capacity shortfall, Birkey said.

“That being said, Lockheed Martin continues to produce jet aircraft, which are piling up in Fort Worth, Texas. This is a capability that will be quickly reintroduced once the threshold is crossed, because the software is at stake. It’s an easy climb relatively speaking… so I think it will pick up quickly,” he said. “Our position I think is really: Produce these things as fast as you can, allocate the cash, keep it moving, [and] this too will be fixed and come through.”

The first flight test of the TR-3 took place in January, a “major milestone” that uncovered software issues that “the contractor did not identify in the software labs,” according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office. . The new issues put the program on a tighter schedule to complete additional testing and fix software issues.

The cost of Block 4 upgrades continues to rise, with an increase of $1.4 billion since the April 2022 GAO report, bringing the total cost to $16.5 billion, according to the GAO.

But Birkey said it’s not just the industrial base that is to blame for the F-35’s delays and cost increases.

“If you do a forensic analysis, everyone has something to do with it: the people responsible for the financing have been thinking about it for years, the industrial base is also in big problems, the services took risks, the JPO structure has problems, things endemic to the design of a program,” he said.

Despite this, Block 4 is the only lever the Pentagon has to clean up this program, Birkey said. Combat commanders need solutions, and this is a good solution, he said.

“I think the TR-3/Block 4 will be fundamentally, radically better. In many respects it is a completely new aircraft,” Birkey said.

The TR-3 is the “computer backbone” of the Block 4 upgrades, and will feature a new embedded central processor needed for future sensors and weapons, said Greg Ulmer, executive vice president of Lockheed’s Aeronautics division. , last week at the Paris Air Show.

Ulmer said they are conducting flight tests for the new configuration at Edwards Air Force Base and Naval Air Station Patuxent River right now, “so you’ll see us complete that flight test, we’re going to get the certifications underwritten, certified by the government, and then you’ll see us resume delivery.”

Audrey Decker