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Contractors Tout Progress For Troubled F-35 Jet Fighter

Dozens of Cobham Sensor System employees and various locals turned out to take a turn in the simulated cockpit of the stealth fighter F-35 Lockheed Martin has been developing with parts made by the San Diego-based military contractor.

F-35 stealth fighter in flight.
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Above: F-35 stealth fighter in flight.

Although the simulated plane was easy to fly and land, the overall project itself has been plagued by design problems, issues with parts and rising production costs.

None of that was in evidence Tuesday as employees and others tried to negotiate the simulated landing strip under the watchful, yet pleased eyes of company officials.

According to Steven Callaghan, Director for Lockheed Martin F-35 Washington Operations, the roll-out was meant to show Clairemont-based Cobham employees where all their hard work was going and to give locals a look at the airplane slated to replace 95 percent of the current Air Force fleet. The Navy and Marines are also planning to buy the planes.

However, under the fun exterior of the fake cockpit lies controversy and questions. A recently released Pentagon report suggests that the stealth fighter suffers from a host of problems that range from unreliable components to issues with the helmet-mounted display, a new design that allows the pilot to view data on the visor. In addition, necessary software has yet to be developed.

All these issues are causing delays and differences in numbers. Callaghan told KPBS that “if the current production billed rate and total production run for all the variants is executed the way it’s currently planned, it is our estimate is that the average unit recurring flyaway costs, which is the cost of the jet, for the Air Force version in 2010 dollars would be about $65 million.”

But Air Force officials have expressed concern about the cost. In a budget estimate report released in February of this year, the Air Force upped that price tag to over $85 million dollars and rising.

According to Callaghan, problems with the helmet mount are being addressed but he was unable to discuss the strike capacity or the shorter than anticipated firing range. The F-35 is being designed as a fifth generation fighter, capable of on-the-ground attack within a combat radius of 690 nautical miles. But this month, Reuters quoted a Pentagon document that shows the plane may only be able to fly 85 percent of that range at most.

Added to that, system and development design partners such as the Netherlands and Canada have expressed concern over the shifting cost numbers and have been reconsidering their commitments to purchase the planes.

The United States is planning to buy 2,443 planes to replace its aging fighter force by 2016.

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