Lockheed F-35 training work gets big boost

Lockheed Martin Corp. has received a nearly $233 million boost to its Orlando work on flight-training and maintenance simulators for the advanced but often troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

The contract increase – one of the largest for Lockheed Martin's F-35 simulation work – calls for production of 19 training simulators and nearly 70 technical support systems, the U.S. military announced late Friday. The vast majority (96 percent) of the work will be done in Orlando.

Lockheed's Orlando training systems unit manages the F-35 flight training center at Eglin Air Force Base in the Panhandle. It also produces automated logistics computers for the stealth fighter jets. More than 500 jobs in Orlando are tied to the F-35 work, including weapons-targeting systems produced by Lockheed's missiles group in south Orlando.

The Pentagon has pressed forward with the F-35 program despite frequent schedule delays, cost overruns and technical problems – the most recent being an engine fire on June 23 that temporarily grounded the jets. Investigators are still trying to determine what caused the fire on takeoff from Eglin. The F-35 engine is made by Pratt & Whitney.

The Pentagon acknowledges that Lockheed has taken a number of measures to cut costs and address performance issues over the past year.

Most recently, Lockheed and its F-35 partners rolled out a new plan last month to reduce costs on the advanced aircraft. The plan called for spending $170 million through 2016 to shave costs of each F-35 to $80 million, down from $100 million, by the end of the decade.

Still, at a projected price of $400 billion – including development costs - it is still on track to become the most expensive U.S. weapons system in history, with 2,400 planes to be built for the U.S. Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and foreign allies.

Lockheed officials say every major advance in U.S. military technology has had glitches in its early stages. They insist the tactical superiority offered by the F-35 will be worth the price.

Lorraine Martin, Lockheed's F-35 program chief, recently defended the program against a critical New York Times editorial calling for the Pentagon to consider curtailing purchases of the F-35 and buying more proven aircraft such as the F-15 and F-16.

"Our responsibility is to provide the most advanced and affordable multi-role fighter to our forces," she wrote in a letter to the Times. "We have no intention of relenting in this critical pursuit, especially when the imperative of maintaining future air dominance cannot be accomplished by buying more fourth-generation aircraft, as your editorial imprudently suggests."

Over the past decade, the F-35 program has been worth more than $1 billion in contract revenue to Central Florida defense operations, including Melbourne-based Harris Corp., which makes F-35 cockpit avionics and communications. More than 1,000 jobs across the region are tied to work on various aspects of the advanced stealth aircraft.

rburnett@tribune.com or 407-420-5256