The Defense Department is closing in on a deal with prime contractor Lockheed Martin [LMT] for the next two batches of joint strike fighters, according to the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO).

The department is “very close” to a contract for the ninth lot of low rate initial production (LRIP) jets and expects an LRIP 10 award by the end of April, JPO chief Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan said March 23. The two lots, totaling about 150 jets, would be worth about $15 billion total.

The Air Force's F-35A conventional variant. Photo: Air Force.
The Air Force’s F-35A variant. Photo: Air Force.

The joint program office is negotiating LRIP 9 and 10 together and may still award both contracts at the same time, he told reporters after a House Armed Services tactical air and land forces panel. However, the LRIP 10 award is dependent on Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James’s certification that the F-35As delivered in fiscal year 2018 will be fully equipped with the final block 3f software.

Before Bogdan is willing to recommend that James certify the aircraft, he wants to ensure that two problems with the software are resolved.

First, he wants to fix a “software stability” issue that causes the sensors to shut off because of communication delays between the sensors and the aircraft’s main computers (Defense Daily, March 23). It’s not uncommon for sensors to be restarted midflight, but the F-35s current rate of one shut off per four flight hours is unacceptable and needs to be improved so that they restart only once every eight or 10 hours, he said. Lockheed has since delivered a number of potential fixes to the problem that the program office will begin flight testing next week, and the JPO expects to know whether those work by mid-April.

The program office is also reworking its weapons test plan so that it does not delay the 3f software certification, said Bogdan, who expects to finalize a new test plan in April.

“If we do it the way we used to do it, it’s going to push out 3f in the weapons capability. So we’re coming up with a new way to test the weapons in sort of a surge mode where we’re going to deploy a team of testers and weapons experts … and just focus for a month or two on weapons testing,” he said. “When I see that plan, and I know what’s going on with the stability on the software, then I’ll be able to hand the secretary of the Air Force with confidence my recommendation that she can certify.”

On the contracting side, the JPO will carry on with negotiations with Lockheed and have as much as possible finalized on the LRIP 10 deal, he said. The hope is that when James makes her certification, the only step left to finalize the LRIP 10 award will be getting Bogdan’s signature.

“We can do everything we want right up until the minute I sign LRIP 10,” he said. “So I can have a handshake, we can have that deal done. Lockheed Martin can do their sweeps and get the contract ready. They can actually sign the contract. I just can’t sign it until she does.”