If you are going to miss a much-heralded debut with your most important international customer and industrial partner, you had better have something good to offer up instead. The Joint Strike Fighter program office and F-35 prime contractor Lockheed Martin think they do: an initiative to drive down the cost of the expensive, stealthy fighter.

While that might mollify a customer familiar with the vagaries of combat-aircraft development, it did not to ease the frustration of a tax-paying public expecting to see the U.K.’s next frontline fighter on display at the prestigious Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) here last week—a disappointment compounded by doubts as to whether the F-35 would make it across the Atlantic to this week’s Farnborough International Airshow.

The fleet grounding prompted by an engine fire has proven to be a thorny public relations issue for Lockheed Martin, engine supplier Pratt & Whitney and the Pentagon and U.K. Defense Ministry. An unofficial plan to fly the aircraft over the naming ceremony for the U.K.’s new HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier July 4 had to be scrapped, and the absence of the fighter at RIAT prompted U.K. Defense Secretary Philip Hammond to cancel a formal announcement, planned for July 11. It is now unclear when the U.K. will announce the purchase of about 14 aircraft to form the first British F-35 squadron.

“We fully understand and support the decision, as safety of pilots and aircraft has to be paramount,” says the Air Tattoo’s CEO, Tim Prince. “It’s not unusual for there to be delays in the development program of any new military aircraft, and the Air Tattoo has been working closely with teams from Lockheed Martin, the U.S. Marine Corps, Department of Defense and [U.K. Defense Ministry] to ensure the aircraft touched down at RAF Fairford for the Air Tattoo. . . . Unfortunately, we’ve simply run out of time.”

The F-35 engine problems are also an embarrassment for Pratt & Whitney, which succeeded in its fierce battle in Washington to kill funding for the F136, an alternate engine being developed by General Electric and Rolls-Royce

Should the F-35 not fly at Farnborough, it would be the second aircraft missing the show due to a Pratt engine problem. The May 29 failure of a commercial PW1500G Geared Turbofan is preventing Bombardier’s CSeries jet from making its air show debut at Farnborough. The aircraft remains grounded pending tests of an unspecified fix for the issue that is related to the low-pressure turbine—coincidentally, the same section at the center of the F-35 problem. More than a month after Pratt said it had made a preliminary determination of the root cause of the CSeries failure, it has yet to provide details publicly.

In the midst of the controversy, U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, head of the F-35 Joint Program Office, is clearly focused on reducing costs and keeping momentum behind the international sales plan. “It is important for the international community to see that this is not a paper airplane,” Bogdan says. Though arrival at RIAT and Farnborough are out of his control, Bogdan and the F-35 industry team are concentrating on reducing the F-35A’s per-unit price (or unit recurring flyaway cost) to less than $80 million by 2019, including the F135 cost.

Under what they call the “Blueprint for Affordability,” the airframe team—Lockheed Martin and its primary subcontractors, Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems—is planning to pay $170 million in 2014-16 for producibility initiatives. These are items that require little investment but allow for high financial return in the short term, F-35 Program Manager Lorraine Martin says. For example, Lockheed Martin can spend $340,000 to manufacture the canopy frame with a different material, which saves $31 million over the life of the program, Martin says. The contractors’ investment in these initiatives would be returned to them in future production deals, Bogdan says.

In total, the team is expected to lower production costs by $1.9 billion through 2019, when the Pentagon is scheduled to approve full-rate production and possibly begin negotiating a multiyear procurement. 

The target price of each F-35A in low-rate, initial production (LRIP) Lot 7 is $98 million. With an estimated $10 million being squeezed out of the price through these initiatives, the other roughly $10 million is expected to be addressed largely by an increase in the annual order book and some reductions to the engine price.

Lockheed Martin boasts that the figure topping out at $80 million will provide “fifth-generation capability at fourth-generation cost” by 2019. The Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, costing about $52 million including engines today, is expected to be out of production by the end of the decade. Eurofighter’s Typhoon is expected to sunset by 2018. What remains to be seen is whether the upgraded Saab Gripen and Dassault’s Rafale can remain in production long enough to directly challenge the F-35 around 2020.

Though an international block buy is naturally increasing, the Pentagon is backing the concept to lock in purchases from foreign partners at a discount in 2016-18 (see page 96).

With the airframe partners investing in the initiatives for the first two years, Bogdan says the government could follow with its own money if those early years provide expected returns. “This really is something novel. We really never have done this as an industry,” Martin says.

Meanwhile, Pratt & Whitney is “refreshing” the cost-reduction initiatives it started in 2009 in lockstep with, but separate from, the affordability team, Bogdan says. Pratt has vowed to reduce the price of a single F135 to that of an F119, the engine powering the F-22. It has been cited at around $10 million per unit; Pratt declines to provide precise F135 cost data on the grounds that the engine is competitive.

Since 2009, the engine maker has invested $65 million in cost-reduction initiatives similar to those in the affordability initiative; another $15 million is being added ($5 million annually) through the end of 2016, says Pratt spokesman Matthew Bates. Bennett Croswell, president of Pratt’s military engines business, says the company is finishing up protracted talks with the Pentagon for LRIPs 7-8, a forthcoming contract expected to be worth about $2 billion for roughly 80 engines.

Though on hold, flight testing is 57% complete, Bogdan says. Envelope expansion testing for Block 2B aircraft is 95% finished, says Al Norman, an F-35 test pilot. These are aircraft with the software package to be used by the U.S. Marine Corps to declare initial operational capability (IOC) for the F-35B next July. “We are very, very confident that from a flight sciences perspective we will get our 2B work done” this year, Norman says, referring to the latest software version. The test team also has scored seven of seven attempted weapons firings from the F-35, out of 15 planned.

RIAT organizers, in conjunction with the Pentagon and U.K. Defense Ministry, concluded on July 10 that they had run out of time to clear the aircraft for flight in time to make the planned debut display on July 11.

The halt in operations comes in response to an engine fire on a U.S. Air Force AF-27, a recently produced F-35, that was preparing for takeoff at Eglin AFB, Florida, on June 23. The pilot safely egressed. Accident investigators have yet to report on a root cause, and officials here declined to speculate about it.

Bogdan and Martin were optimistic late last week that an F-35 would make it to the U.K. to appear in the shows. “They are working day and night to try and work out when it will be safe to get back in the air,” Bogdan said. “The U.S. and U.K. are perched at [NAS Patuxent] River, [Maryland], and they will sit there until we exhaust the last window of opportunity [to make the trip]. . . . I can assure you the whole of the enterprise is working to bring this to a safe conclusion.” 

Engineers were working to carefully dismantle AF-27 in order to examine aircraft components that might have started the fire. Investigators had begun conducting engine borescope inspections, as well, he said. “The aircraft is pretty well burnt because of a fuel tank fire,” he noted. “Before we can decide whether it is fixable, we have to take the aircraft apart. . . . That has just started winding down.”

Days after the fire, commanders at each of the main F-35 operating bases ordered a safety hold, but this did not appear to stop Marine Corps commanders from allowing three F-35Bs to fly from Yuma, Arizona, to NAS Patuxent River in preparation for the transatlantic flights. These local orders were overridden by a Pentagon directive on July 3, halting all flying and preventing the British aircraft, BK-3, from joining them by flying from Eglin. It remains unclear why it took nearly two weeks for the grounding decision to be made.

Bogdan said there had been no flights or taxiing of aircraft, or any engine runs on aircraft since July 3, although Pratt & Whitney has been “spinning” ground-test engines. He added that as of July 10, the grounding had caused around 50 flight opportunities to be missed.

“Safety is the No. 1 priority, and the decision was a good one because we had little knowledge [of what happened],” Bogdan said. “Two weeks since the investigation began . . . they have taken the engine out of the aircraft, taken it apart. . . . We have learned some things, but we haven’t learned enough yet. . . . As of this moment, the airworthiness authorities need more evidence, and we are providing that.”

He added: “Issues like this happen on every program, and it won’t be the last on the F-35. . . . We will not go scot-free; that’s not the way things are. I am glad we found out about this one with the aircraft on the ground.” 

—With Guy Norris in London.