FORT WORTH -- A top Lockheed Martin Aeronautics official expressed confidence in the affordability and development of the largest jet fighter program in U.S. history at an early Friday news conference.
"It's been a transformative year for the program,'' Executive Vice President and General Manager Lorraine Martin told reporters. "It's been about maturing this program, not only the aircraft but all the capabilities."
Lockheed Martin held a special ceremony Friday at its west-side plant to commemorate the production of the 100th F-35 jet fighter. All told, 87 fighter jets have been delivered to the U.S. Department of Defense, Lockheed officials said.
The 100th F-35 jet will be delivered to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, the largest fighter base in the world, Lockheed officials said. More than 10,000 employees are dedicated to the F-35 program in Fort Worth.
The company is touting the cost of the aircraft, which had spun out of control in recent years, as costing the government just under $100 million each.
After years of setbacks, cost overruns and design issues, the $400 billion jet fighter program appears to have stabilized this year, according to industry analysts and others. Several Pentagon officials visited Lockheed's west-side plant in June to voice stronger support and optimism for the program, saying they were "cautiously optimistic" about production efforts.
A major turning point was that more recent lots of aircraft were produced at a cheaper price, Pentagon officials have said. Contracts for lots 6 and 7 showed a cost reduction from previous lots, Martin said. The company submitted its Lot 8 proposal to the Pengaton and hopes to settle a contract in the spring, Martin said.
"We do expect the price to come down lot after lot,'' Martin said. "The uncertainty regarding any of our customers' budgets depends on how much money they will have."
Budgets for the Department of Defense have been hampered by the threat of sequestration cuts. In addition, as wars wrap up in Afghanistan and Iraq, the expectation is that there would be greater call for tighter military budgets.
Adding to the optimism, Martin said, are improved relationships between Lockheed and Pentagon officials. In past years, Pentagon officials expressed frustration with Lockheed's former leadership team. This year, Lockheed named new leadership, including Martin and top aeronautics executive Orlando Carvalho.
"He and I on our teams don't let things sit,'' Martin said, referring to Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the Pentagon's program manager on the F-35 program.
Lockheed expects to build about 30 of the aircraft this year. Martin said the company is about 60 days behind schedule and told told reporters she would have more specifics by the end of the year.
"We will make sure we're sharing those ... as we have in the past,'' she told reporters.
Martin also spoke about F-35 pilot training at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. To date, 944 maintenance personnel have been trained to work on the aircraft, and 92 pilots have completed training on flying the jet, she said.
The goal is that by 2019, an F-35 fifth-generation fighter will cost less than the fourth-generation fighter, she said. That will include weapons capability, radar and other equipment.
On cost, the latest lot of aircraft was a 55 percent reduction in cost from lots 1-7, she said. The latest lot of aircraft, Lot 7, came under $100 million, which includes the airframe only, she said.
"The learning curve is still important,'' she said. "... The silly stuff, you learn fast and as you go forward, you start to refine how you start building the aircraft ... and yes, if you buy more, it will be cheaper."
Why should the government buy more jets?
Martin said the U.S. and most nations need the aircraft because it's "going to bring someone home safely and be able to be in theater (to face) not only the threats today but in the future,'' Martin said.
The U.S. and other nations are "all focused on what are their defense posture, how are their current fleets aging and when do they make decision to add this to their inventory."