WASHINGTON: The government office that runs the F-35 program says the plane should meet the mandated readiness rate of 80 percent by 2020 if the problems with the plane’s canopies and spare parts shortages can be fixed.
As we reported last week, the presumptive Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, said in his written answers to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the F-35 would not meet the 80 percent readiness rate because, primarily, of problems with the canopies. Here’s a shortened version of the email exchange I had with Brandi Schiff, the F-35 program spokeswoman:
Q1.) What are the problems with the cockpit transparencies?
A1.) The primary source of unserviceable canopies is transparency coating delamination. Delamination occurs when the surface coatings on the canopy separate from the base transparency. Though this condition occurs through normal use, several transparencies have delaminated unexpectedly after only a couple hundred flight hours of use. This issue does not impact the airworthiness of the canopy or aircraft.
The problem is the delamination — that is, the coating peeling away from the plane’s surface — affects the F-35’s stealth characteristics, which may mean the plane’s radar cross section is affected.
I asked when and how will they be fixed? Her answer:
A2.) The (Defense) Department is working closely with Lockheed Martin and their subcontractor GKN Aerospace to get GKN’s production processes under control to improve yield. A combined F-35 JPO/LM/GKN engineering and program management team are investigating every aspect of the design and manufacturing process in search of the root cause (or causes) of early delaminations. Recent findings suggest that the principle cause is a change to the sealant between the transparency and the aircraft frame introduced in 2015 as a cost saving measure, which can be corrected by reverting to the previously used sealant. Canopies are now being delivered with the correct sealant, and the number of early delaminations is expected to decrease as a result. The correction will be verified after modified canopies have been delivered to the fleet and achieved several hundred flight hours without delamination.
The program has qualified a second vendor, PPG, to provide the capability to repair damaged transparencies from the fleet and return them to supply for use as replacement canopies. This action to qualify a second source to repair damaged canopies will greatly improve spares availability and will have a positive effect on F-35 mission capability status.
In addition, the government is in the final stages of qualifying PPG to produce new transparencies in addition to the company’s current repair capability. All necessary contracts are in place and testing is in progress to support the production of new transparencies from PPG. Specification verification and ejection seat compatibility testing are in progress and expected to run through the first quarter of 2020. Delivery of PPG transparencies is expected to begin early second quarter of 2020.
Finally, I asked when the F-35 fleet would hit the 80 percent readiness marker. This answer is quite a bit mushier, but does commit the program and Lockheed Martin to meeting the target in 2020.
A3.) We continue to see improvements in F-35 A, B and C Variant readiness rates and are receiving positive feedback on the aircraft’s performance, especially from our forward deployed combat units in the Middle East, Pacific and across Europe for joint exercises and operations. Newer A, B and C Variant aircraft are averaging greater than 60 percent mission capable rates (emphasis added), with some units consistently at or above 70 percent. We’re taking aggressive action across the full F-35 enterprise to achieve the 80 percent mission capable rate as soon as possible for combat coded units, but expect to achieve 80 percent during 2020 with major drivers being canopies and aircraft spare parts (emphasis added).