Software troubles delay F-35 fighter jet deliveries ... again

There's more than one way for these things to crash

Deliveries of Lockheed Martin's F-35 fighter jets to the US military are being delayed again and despite all the metal, software is the culprit. 

Lockheed held its fourth quarter earnings call yesterday, with president and CEO Jim Taiclet blaming the delays on software associated with Technology Refresh 3 (TR-3), a key component of modernization efforts for the aircraft, which were first delivered to the US military in 2015.

"While this system maturation process continues to advance, it is taking somewhat more time than we originally anticipated," Taiclet said. Lockheed is still targeting the second quarter of 2024 for delivery of TR-3-equipped F-35s, but "we now believe that the third quarter may be more likely scenario for a TR-3 software acceptance," the CEO added. 

TR-3 software is a major part of "Block 4" code block designed to make the aircraft continually upgradable. The TR-3 package includes improvements to data storage and processing, as well as an improved user interface, with a focus on sensing, jamming, cybersecurity, target recognition, and additional munitions capabilities. 

Unfortunately, the work is going slowly, and that means fewer fighters for US forces.

As recently as July of last year, Lockheed expected to deliver its first TR-3-equipped aircraft sometime in 2023. Along with TR-3 readiness, Lockheed believed it would deliver between 100 and 120 upgraded aircraft last year, but Taiclet said during yesterday's call that only 98 jets made it to customers around the world by the end of the year.  

A filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission in September pushed the TR-3 readiness date back to between April and June 2024. An F-35 equipped with TR-3 first flew in January 2023; Taiclet said during yesterday's call that "over 90 percent of the TR-3 functionality is currently in flight test," raising the question of how much progress has been made since. 

Lockheed Martin didn't respond to our questions. 

More software, more problems

Even with Lockheed claiming TR-3 would be ready this year, its F-35 delivery numbers have continued to drop. Taiclet said on yesterday's earnings call that Lockheed expects to deliver somewhere between 75 and 110 of the aircraft next year, the smaller end of which would put it below even last year's decreased deliveries. 

Analysts from Zacks reported earlier this month that Lockheed expected to deliver between 147 and 153 F-35s in 2024. It's not immediately clear how it arrived at that number - we've asked Lockheed if it could validate those figures. 

The TR-3 delays are just the latest in a line of trouble for the F-35.

One of the aircraft went missing last year after a pilot ejected and the aircraft kept flying for 60 miles before finally crashing, leading to days of searching for the remains of the stealth fighter. 

Not long after that incident, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that F-35 aircraft were only ready for flight 55 percent of the time due to complicated maintenance needs, as well as a lack of training and parts. 

The GAO followed its September report in December with concerns that modernization costs associated with Block 4 had grown by billions of dollars, with the US Department of Defense not fully reporting reasons why. 

"Block 4 was originally defined as 66 capabilities and estimated to cost $10.6 billion, with development expected to be completed in fiscal year 2026," the GAO said. "In May 2023, GAO reported that Block 4 costs had grown to $16.5 billion and the effort was now estimated to be completed in 2029." 

The DoD's report to Congress didn't properly explain those increases, the watchdog said. "Consequently, Congress does not have a clear picture of the reason for the growing F-35 modernization costs," the December report added. 

Add additional delays to the mix, and all those F-35 fighters might just be getting harder to justify. ®

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