Lockheed Predicts Record-Setting Readiness Rates Soon for F-35

F-35 Lighting II fighter jets, assigned to the 6th Weapons Squadron, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., fly over the Nevada Test and Training Range July 10, 2017. (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Daryn Murphy/Released)
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The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter's availability rate may not be perfect now, but in a few years time the plane's manufacturer anticipates the stealth plane will outpace its fighter counterparts in readiness, the head of the corporate program said Monday.

"I am certain the F-35 will set records for aircraft availability for a modern fighter in the future, without a doubt," said Jeff Babione, Lockheed Martin Corps executive vice president and general manager of the F-35 Program.

Babione's comments come days after Vice Adm. Mat Winter, director of the F-35 Joint Program Office, said only 51 percent of the 280 operational F-35s purchased to date by U.S. and international partners are available for flight.

Reiterating Winter, who last week gave a public slap on the wrist to the fifth-gen's manufacturer over various ordeals with the program, Babione said the reliability of the first batches of aircraft, including low-rate production lots 2 through 5, aren't as high as the aircraft in lots 6 and beyond.

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"The average right now is about 50 percent [availability], this being, I would say, suppressed by those early airplanes. Clearly, the new airplanes are far more reliable," Babione told audiences during Lockheed Martin Corps annual media day at their offices outside Washington D.C.

Babione said roughly 30 percent of the early aircraft at any given time are being modified to the latest configuration or are undergoing routine maintenance. Additionally, some aircraft may be down because of spare parts issues, he said.

"For various reasons the depots have not come online fast enough" which has "left a gap in repair capacity that the [original equipment manufacturers] are trying to fill," said Babione, who was recently announced as the next vice president and general manager of Lockheed's advanced development program, known as Skunk Works.

The goal now is to buy parts ahead of the demand, which will decrease repair time and increase the reliability of the plane.

Meanwhile, Lockheed has committed to bringing down the price of the F-35A, the Air Force variant and the most exported version of the jet, within the next two years.

Marillyn A. Hewson, Lockheed's chief executive officer, said as the buy rate climbs in US and international sales, the company anticipates the price to come down to $80 million per aircraft by 2020.

"As we provide this revolutionary aircraft to our customers, we are also working to make the F-35 more affordable," Hewson said on Monday. "We continue to collaborate with our industry partners and to advance toward our goal."

Hewson made similar remarks last year at this same event, and credited President Donald Trump for accelerating deal-making on the F-35 lot and emphasizing a lower price point.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.