Export customers for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter are being pushed to commit to a multiyear buy, as soon as next year. But some are far from ready to do so, and the proposal represents a departure from U.S. procurement policy.

Lockheed Martin (Static Display C-2) and the Pentagon are resuscitating the eight-year-old proposal for a multiyear, multinational “block buy” of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, as part of a campaign to secure enough export orders to support planned production-rate increases late in this decade. Lockheed Martin documents show that international orders are expected to account for more than 40% of the total over the next five years, but so far only 30 exports are under contract.

Under the block buy plan, outlined by Pentagon procurement chief Frank Kendall to a meeting of program leaders in Oslo last month, U.S. and international export orders for three years – fiscal 2018 through fiscal 2020 – would be bundled together, giving prime contractors and suppliers the incentive to invest in cost-reduction products and more leverage in their own purchases. Savings would be passed on to participating nations, but customers who do not take part will see “some cost increases” in their per unit orders, Kendall told reporters recently. Buyers would need to commit next year, a program official says, to get the complex plan underway.

The block buy faces a number of challenges. Block buy contracting (BBC) is different from multiyear contracting (MYC) – the F-35 program does not yet meet the rigorous eligibility standards for MYC. Only two, purely national defense programs – the Virginia-class submarine and the Littoral Combat Ship – have used BBC, and there is no formal statute governing it. Congress has been wary of expanding multiyear procurement because it reduces flexibility to change numbers in the face of strategic and budget changes. BBC does not necessarily include funding for economic order quantity (EOQ) purchasing, which is a contributor to cost savings.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, F-35 program executive officer, says he is targeting at least 150 F-35s in each of those years, for a cumulative total of more than 450 U.S. and export aircraft. But partner nations, too, may not be ready to commit to fiscal 2018-20 buys next year. Canada, with a 65-aircraft requirement, issued a defense acquisition guide in late May indicating that a contract for a new fighter is not expected before 2018-20. The conservative government decided last year to extend the life of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Boeing F-18 Hornet fighters, punting the controversy beyond the next election, due on Oct. 19.

Italy’s government released plans in late May that call for 30 more F-35s to be ordered between now and 2020, spurring angry reaction from major opposition parties. Turkey reportedly plans to put its first F-35 into service in 2018 and add to the force at a rate of 10 aircraft per year, but so far no aircraft are under contract. Denmark, which restarted its fighter competition in 2013, had been expected to make a decision this summer, but that will slip now that a June 18 general election has been called.

In order to secure block buy commitments, the JSF program may have to define what customers will actually get in those delivery years. Some capabilities that had been planned for Block 3F – the software and hardware standard that is the end point of the F-35’s system development and demonstration phase – are at risk of slipping into Block 4, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, director of the Air Force’s F-35 Integration Office, said in Washington last month. “Goal 1 would be to keep [capabilities] in 3F and understand what we can do now to drive the risk down, versus sliding them to Block 4. We are working really hard with the JSFPO and industry to understand why we can’t fix this now,” he remarked.

The content and schedule of Block 4, which includes weapons and capabilities that some partners consider crucial, is also under review. Early last year Bogdan said Block 4 would be split into Block 4A and 4B, reaching initial operational capability in 2022 and 2024. But a new plan was unveiled this spring, dividing Block 4 into four segments, 4.1 through 4.4. Block 4.1, mostly software, arrives in late 2019. Block 4.4 is due for IOC in mid-2025.

The U.S. Navy is demanding better anti-shipping capability in Block 4 and the Pentagon’s other priorities include nuclear-weapon integration and weapons and sensors to engage moving surface targets. U.S. officials have also said that they want to make progress toward an open-architecture avionics system that would let other companies compete with Lockheed Martin for upgrade and support work.