The F-35 Lightning II, which has been touted as the most lethal and versatile aircraft – not to mention the most expensive aircraft – of the modern era, has met its match. It isn’t a rival Russia, Chinese or European-made jet aircraft, but rather the coronavirus. In a twist that is analogous to the final twist in the science fiction novel War of the Worlds, it isn’t a high tech weapon that is the greatest threat but a virus.
In this case however, the F-35 won’t be stopped, but merely delayed. Its manufacturer Lockheed Martin has projected that fewer F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters will be delivered in 2020 due to impacts in its global supply chain. The delays could cost the company $375 million in projected sales this year, Lockheed CFO Ken Possenriede said in a call with Wall Street analysts when discussing first-quarter earnings.
No figures on how many F-35s will fail to be delivered, but the company is still assessing the probable outcome from the delays. Lockheed Martin had delivered a total of 134 units of the F-35 stealth fighters around last year, exceeding its target goals. For this year the company had aimed to deliver 141 of the fifth-generation fighters to the United States and its allied countries.
However, due to the global pandemic, which has impacted suppliers around the world, by the end of March the company had only rolled out 22 fighters. At the same time last year, 26 of the advanced aircraft had been produced.
The stay-at-home orders have only further slowed the production.
“What we’re seeing is there are local distancing requirements that are being more-stringently applied across the globe,” Possenriede told analysts. “There’s workforce disruption. There are likely impacts happening throughout their supply-tier hierarchy; there are shipping constraints. We’re also finding that there are likely going to be some production impacts at our sites.”
Lockheed Martin is also facing disruptions form sick workers, stay-at-home orders, and other shipping delays within its missile projects.
“We are beginning to experience some issues in each of our business areas related to the coronavirus, primarily in access to some locations and delays of supplier deliveries, which have caused us to adjust our full-year sales outlook,” Lockheed CEO Marillyn Hewson said on the call.
DefenseOne noted that these supply problems highlight the fact that the defense industry is not immune to COVID-19-related disruptions. However, the defense contractor has expressed optimism that normal operations will resume in the coming months.
The majority of the F-35s production occurs at its assembly plant in Fort Worth, Texas. As of last week, the Lone Star State had more than 20,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, while some 6,500 people had recovered but more than 500 had died. Texas has announced plans to ease stay-at-home orders while maintaining social distancing in the workplace. While that should help the final stage of production, there will still be delays until the entire supply chain recovers.
In addition to the plant in Texas, a smaller number of aircraft are also built at the final assembly and check facilities in Cameri, Italy, and Nagoya, Japan. Lockheed Martin has said that those plants were disrupted by the coronavirus but are running again.
The company also reaffirmed to the analysts that the modernization and sustainment work on the F-35 program was not impacted by the global pandemic.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.