Despite the national and international turmoil of COVID-19, 2020 was a gangbuster year for the global F-35 Joint Strike Fighter enterprise, delivering 123 aircraft to the US and global partners, including Australia.
The 123rd aircraft is an F-35A conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) variant, built at the Cameri, Italy, Final Assembly and Checkout (FACO) facility and delivered to the Italian Air Force. In 2020, 74 F-35s were delivered to the United States military, 31 to international partner nations and 18 to Foreign Military Sales customers.
In response to COVID-19 related supplier delays, in May the initial annual delivery goal was revised from 141 to 117-123 aircraft to strategically avoid surging, which would increase production-related costs and create future delays and disruption.
Bill Brotherton, acting vice president and general manager of the F-35 program said, “The F-35 joint enterprise team rapidly responded to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic to continue to deliver the unmatched combat capability the F-35 brings to the warfighter.”
“Achieving this milestone amid a global pandemic is a testament to the hard work and dedication of the team and their commitment to our customers’ missions,” Brotherton added.
Lockheed Martin took proactive measures to mitigate COVID-19 supplier impacts and position the program for the fastest possible recovery by adjusting employee work schedules, maintaining specialised employee skillsets, and providing accelerated payments to small and vulnerable suppliers. Lockheed Martin provided accelerated payments to more than 400 F-35 suppliers in 45 states and Puerto Rico.
Though COVID-19 will have short-term impacts on production, the F-35 program continues to work diligently and is on track to meet the joint government and industry recovery commitments over the coming years.
With more than 600 aircraft operating from 26 bases and ships around the globe, the F-35 plays a critical role in today's global security environment. More than 1,200 pilots and 10,000 maintainers are trained, and the F-35 fleet has surpassed more than 350,000 cumulative flight hours.
Nine nations have F-35s operating from a base on their home soil, nine services have declared Initial Operational Capability and six services have employed F-35s in combat operations.
The United States Air Force deployed the F-35 for 18 consecutive months from April 2019 until October 2020 in the CENTCOM Area of Responsibility with hundreds of weapons employments in support of US service members and their allies.
The year also included initial fielding of the Operational Data Integrated Network (ODIN), the follow-on to the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), with excellent initial results. The system will be fully operational in 2022.
Mission capable rates for the aircraft continued to improve in 2020 with rates greater than 70 per cent across the fleet, and even higher for deployed units.
The F-35 also proved its value in Joint All-Domain Operations with multiple exercises that highlighted the aircraft’s ability to gather, interpret and share information with various platforms.
For the RAAF, the F-35A's combination of full-spectrum low-observable stealth coatings and materials, advanced radar-dispersing shaping, network-centric sensor and communications suites – combined with a lethal strike capability – means the aircraft will be the ultimate force multiplying, air-combat platform.
Over the coming years, Australia will purchase 72 of the advanced fifth-generation fighter aircraft as part of the $17 billion AIR 6000 Phase 2A/B program – which is aimed at replacing the ageing F/A-18A/B Classic Hornets that have been in service with the RAAF since 1985.