F-35 Tech Upgrade Slips to 2025; ‘Truncated’ Version in the Fall

Deliveries of full-up Tech Refresh Three-equipped F-35s, previously expected in the middle of this year, now won’t come until 2025, Lockheed Martin officials reported on their April 23 first-quarter earnings call. In the meantime, they hope to deliver a so-called “truncated” version of the hardware/software package this fall.

Chief Executive Officer Jim Taiclet said there will be two releases of TR-3: a “combat training-capable” version that should be delivered in the third quarter of this and a “fully combat-capable” version in 2025. Lockheed has been storing newly-built F-35s with the TR-3 pending completion of testing and integration. Some 70 aircraft are in storage at an undisclosed location, awaiting a green light for delivery.

The Joint Program Office has said for several months that it has been discussing release of a “truncated” TR-3 package in order to get deliveries moving again and prevent further disruption to the units in a number of countries that have been waiting for their F-35s.

The delays are due to supply chain issues with TR-3 components as well as ongoing testing of the configuration, which comprises a processor and software package, along with other new gear that underwrites the F-35 Block 4 upgrade of the international fighter.

“We are wringing out all of the software through all of the new hardware and integrating it into all the aircraft,” which has “taken longer than our team predicted,” Taiclet said.

Meanwhile, the F-35 program office says the Block 4 program will be “reimagined,” with many of the planned capabilities now deferred to the 2030s.

As a result of the testing and supply delays, Taiclet said only 75 to 110 F-35s will be delivered in calendar 2024, versus a goal of 156. He noted that even a more modest schedule assumes “timely receipt” of components.

Taiclet said the F-35 program is highly concurrent, with “development, production, and sustainment” all happening simultaneously, which can lead to bottlenecks.

“We are bringing all relevant resources across our company and collaborating closely with our customers and suppliers to fully implement the TR-3 capabilities that everybody’s looking forward to getting,” he said.

System stability is improving from prior software versions into “the combat training capable configuration” and flight testing of this configuration is now underway, he said. Lockheed was “maturing the system with approximately 95 percent of TR-3 capabilities in this flight test program,” Taiclet added, with “continual software updates to support capability insertions over the Block 4 program and beyond.”

The truncated capability means Lockheed Martin “can get these jets in the hands of squadron, wing and regional commanders so that they can start training their pilots on them and training their maintenance organizations, and also get their base infrastructure, spare parts, tools, everything else.” The final software load for this release will be available “sometime in the next few months.” However, he insisted those jets “could be deployed into actual combat operations” if necessary.

The JPO said Release 1 is called 40P01 and will go out “when the code is stable, capable, and maintainable to deliver TR-3 configured aircraft for use in combat training,” but only with Release 2—40P02—will full combat capability be realized.

The F-35 partners and other “stakeholders” have approved TR-3 truncation acceptance criteria,” the JPO said.

When TR-3 is fully delivered, users will already be well-versed in “the operational patterns and procedures on how to actually fly the jet in combat,” Taiclet said.

He noted that, despite the TR-3 delays, the F-35 remains a good seller. The Czech Republic recently became the 18th country to buy the jet, and the U.S. agreed to sell additional jets to Singapore.

The Lockheed estimates jibe with that of F-35 Program Executive Officer Lt. Gen. Michael Schmidt, who told the House Armed Services Committee tactical air panel on April 16 that the whole Block 4 program must be “re-imagined” due to supply and testing delays and shifting requirements.

In a 25-page prepared testimony for the hearing, which closed shortly after it began, Schmidt said that a “Technical Baseline Review” of the F-35 “assessed that numerous Block 4 capabilities will not deliver until the 2030s due to technical complexity, software efficiency, human and financial resourcing, flight test capacity, lab quality and capacity, and a lack of defined requirements.”

The Government Accountability Office has urged on several occasions that Congress separate Block 4 from the overall F-35 program and make it a Major Acquisition Program in its own right; due to its cost and complexity, and the better to highlight troubles. Schmidt said the JPO plans to create that “subprogram” next year.

Schmidt acknowledged to the House panel that “TR-3 has taken far too long to deliver.”

He explained that the TR-3 hardware design is not yet fully mature, and this is a “significant complicating factor in software integration.” The result is “low manufacturing yields of parts necessary for aircraft production.” That in turn has led to “using software to overcome hardware design maturity challenges.” An independent review of the software architecture found “we have a solid software architecture, but until the underlying hardware is fully mature, the F-35 program will continue to struggle with software integration efficiency.”

Taiclet said there’s a silver lining to the situation and that the company is adapting to imposed program changes, so there will be incremental “step function increases in capability every few years.” He noted the DOD recently extended the expected service life of the aircraft

Lockheed chief financial officer Jay Malave said the two-stage TR-3 release “really keep our production on track here in 2024″ by decreasing the aircraft Lockheed has to keep in storage.

Malave also acknowledged that the extension of TR-3 into two releases could hurt profitability on Lots 15-17, given that the timing of deliveries affects progress payments and incentive fees.

Lockheed is pursuing “anti-fragility” efforts with the F-35 supplier base to ensure multiple vendors of parts and components, Taiclet said.

The COVID-19 pandemic underscored that “we need to have second and maybe third sources and geographic diversity … having single sources outside the U.S. is probably not the best idea,” even if more supplies drive up prices, he said.

For example, the supply of F-35 canopies is “one of the big degraders we have,” Taiclet said, suggesting that the company relies on only one supplier for that element.

In his prepared HASC testimony, Schmidt said the JPO has been working on reducing concurrency in the program, and that the “reimagined” Block 4 has “established Capability Decision Points (CDPs) to rigorously assess the technical maturity of hardware and software and the readiness for introduction into F-35 aircraft production lots.”

The re-imagined upgrade now includes 88 “must-have” capability improvements, he said, and these include “common capabilities for electronic warfare; communication, navigation and identification; sustainment,” new weapons for the partners as well as U.S. service-unique weapons, and “partner-unique capabilities.”

Block 4 will have to consist of “what industry can actually deliver,” Schmidt said.