Military F-35 issues show cost of corrosion

When corrosion issues become present in expensive, high-priority assets, correcting the problem can be particularly difficult and time-consuming. The U.S. Department of Defense's recent delays with the delivery of its F-35 fighter planes definitely qualify for this dubious distinction. Problems with aircraft are always especially worrying due to the catastrophic prospect of a potential failure at altitude. Add that to the large amount of planes ordered and the fact that a lot of public funding is tied up in the F-35 project and the challenges facing the government become clear.

While high-profile government projects become major shows of corrosions's risk and problems when they have issues, there is a major opportunity for these undertakings to show off best practices, techniques and technologies related to preventing corrosion, stopping its spread and repairing aging assets to keep them safely in service. As such, there's plenty of educational potential in breaking down the F-35 saga.

Production halted on jets
According to Military.com, the initial problem took place during autumn of 2017. Between September 21 and October 20, Lockheed Martin stopped shipping F-35 fighters to the government due to corrosion present in fastener holes of jets that had already been delivered and were in for repairs. Tracking the source of the issue led Lockheed to realize an error had taken place in its plants. There was supposed to be an anti-corrosion primer on the fasteners, but it wasn't applied.

About 200 planes were affected and the government and contractor decided on a plan to retrofit the jets and ensure corrosion doesn't become an ongoing risk factor. The plan to fix a majority of the planes will take 24 months, with a nonspecific amount of the remaining jets being addressed over the following years. A statement from the Department of Defense and Lockheed explained that the resolution ensures the craft will remain affordable and effective. However, getting to that point required complicated back-and-forth discussions.

Even after the logistics of corrosion prevention were remediated, another factor reared its head: cost. Disagreements over which of the parties involved should spend to have the planes retrofitted led to a second delivery pause, between late March and the beginning of May.

An industrial laser cuts sheet metal.Delivery of the jets halted twice.

Payment structure unclear
As Defense News reported, the exact terms of the financial agreement between Lockheed and the DoD are unknown. The contractor's press release about resuming delivery didn't mention whether it would be paying for the repairs. The representative from Lockheed also avoided mentioning where the finds will come from. There is a policy against mentioning the exact terms of contracts, and that applies in this case.

The news source added that while production was paused, Lockheed kept making new planes, and now that it is free to deliver them, it plans to reach its target of 91 jets in 2019. Since the cause of the corrosion susceptibility is known, these jets are presumably going to be free of the issues that have caused so much trouble with the previously delivered F-35s.

On the Pentagon side of the project, spokespeople took a different tone toward the resolution of the issues. According to Defense News, Pentagon Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord stated that the corrosion discovery shows there is a need to work more closely with suppliers on issues of workmanship and quality control. That is likely not what Lockheed wants to emerge from this issue as the dominant narrative.

Lord went on to criticize the DoD itself, but only for failing to keep a close enough eye on production quality and the actions of its contractors. The implication that the department was too eager to move ahead with the delivery and thus let standards slip in other ways is somewhat damning toward the contractors that provide the government with its equipment.

An awkward situation
With both sides moving forward but the terms of the deal still unknown, it's clear that the corrosion issues with the F-35 have had a lasting budgetary impact. Dealing with potential corrosion problems requires high levels of diligence among all parties involved in creating complex assets such as jets. Testing and the careful use of cutting-edge corrosion prevention methods are essential for these programs to go without a hitch, and the two pauses in the Lockheed contract show the price organizations pay when issues slip through the cracks, even if they don't lead to crashes or other disasters.