Is Lockheed Martin's F-35 Just a Dud?

By Rich Smith Markets Fool.com

President Trump wants Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) to sell its F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter jet for cheaper prices. But the Pentagon might want to rethink whether it wants to buy the fighter at all.

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That's the upshot of a new report out of the Pentagon's Directorate of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E). There, head weapons tester Director Michael Gilmore has just issued a ('nother) damning report on the F-35's deficiencies.

Image source: Lockheed Martin

What DOT&E found wrong

DOT&E's 2016 annual report on Pentagon weapons programs devotes dozens of pages to describing as many as 276 "critical" deficiencies plaguing Lockheed Martin's F-35. Here's just a small sampling:

  • Accelerated wear on an attachment joint "between the vertical tail and the airframe structure" of a test model F-35B, which failed after only 250 hours of flight testing. (It was supposed to survive 8,000 hours of service).
  • Excessive vibration when firing the F-35A's integrated 25 mm cannon, causing its battery to fail.
  • Excessive vibration of missiles and bombs carried in the internal weapons bay on all three F-35 variants. If left unfixed, this could force the plane reduce speed to 550 knots (i.e., less than half the plane's rated speed) for safe operation.
  • F-35C wings incapable of carrying AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, requiring Lockheed to redesign "a more robust outer wing."
  • "Excessive vertical oscillationsduring catapult launches" make the F-35C "operationally unsuitable for carrier operations." (The -C is the aircraft carrier-version of the F-35).
  • And "objectionable or unacceptable flying qualities at transonic speeds" on "all F-35 variants."

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And these are just the mechanical defects. DOT&E also spilled considerable ink detailing problems with "delays in completing the F-35's Block 3F software for mission systems, flight testing, and weapons delivery. According to the office, the plane continues to show "overall ineffective operational performance with multiple key Block 3F capabilities," including:

  • "Ongoing radar and fusion deficiencies affecting air-to-air target track stability and accuracy."
  • Problems with the "seeker status tone" providing information on the plane's AIM-9X Sidewinder and AIM-132 ASRAAM missiles.
  • "Out-of-datelaunch zones" controlling AIM-120 AMRAAMmissiles.
  • And "cluttered ... air-to-ground gun strafing symbology displayed in the [pilot's] helmet" that renders the F-35's 25 mm gun currently operationally unusable."

In all, DOT&E found "17 known and acknowledged failures to meet the contract specification requirements" in Lockheed's 3F software, and "more than 270 Block 3F unresolved high-priority ... performance deficiencies." Meanwhile, new deficiencies are cropping up "at a rate of about 20 per month," and according to the report, there is still "no plan to adequately fix and verify" them all.

What are the consequences for Lockheed Martin?

All of the above problems (and the hundreds more not specifically mentioned here) seem like pretty bad news for Lockheed Martin and its F-35 program -- which already accounts for 23% of Lockheed's revenues, a number that could rise as high as 50% over time. If these difficulties in bringing the F-35 online continue, that could conceivably convince the Pentagon to curtail the program, or even try to replace it with "a comparable F-18 Super Hornet."

That being said, most new weapons experience growing pains in their early years, and the Pentagon surely recognizes this. DOT&E's objections notwithstanding, so far, the Pentagon seems committed to riding the horse it came in on. Says the department: "The Program Office currently has no plans to delay the production and delivery schedule of aircraft to the Services."

Instead, the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps -- and U.S. allies -- will continue buying F-35 aircraft "as is". They will do so even without full Block 3F capability (which will continue rolling out in stages through at least late 2018, and even without the plane having achieved "Initial Operational Test and Evaluation" (IOT&E) -- which DOT&E says probably won't occur before "late 2019 or early 2020."

That said, DOT&E is recommending that the Pentagon rethink future F-35 "block buys" before Lockheed shows more progress fixing the plane's flaws. DOT&E also notes that Lockheed Martin cannot receive a go-ahead to begin producing F-35s at "full-rate production" levels -- and cannot therefore reap the benefits that such economies of scale would give its profit margins -- until IOT&E has been achieved.

And that date is still probably a good three years off.

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Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.