Pentagon acquisition chief hopeful that F-35 deliveries can resume ‘pretty soon’

F-35 Night Flying

An F-35A Lightning II fighter jet takes off from Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., Oct. 11, 2018. Night flying training operations are conducted to ensure F-35 pilots can fully operate in a night time setting. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Airman 1st Class Jacob Wongwai)

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s acquisition chief is hopeful that deliveries of the F-35 can be resumed “pretty soon,” as long as an investigation proves a Chinese alloy used in the Lockheed Martin-made jet does not pose any safety or security risks, he said today.

The F-35 joint program office paused F-35 deliveries on Aug. 31, after Honeywell — which makes the F-35’s turbomachine, which helps provide the power needed to start the engine — disclosed that a supplier for the turbomachine’s lube pumps had used Chinese alloys in magnets. If a Defense Contracts Management Agency investigation finds that use of the alloy violates defense acquisition regulations, the top Pentagon acquisition official would be required to issue a waiver stating that resuming production is in the best interest of US national security.

Bill LaPlante, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, suggested he would do just that during a Friday briefing at the Pentagon.

“They’re moving pretty quickly,” LaPlante, said of the investigation. If DCMA finds that the Chinese alloy does not cause any impact on air worthiness or the security of the airplane, “we’ll be able to do a waiver and … get the production line moving again. So I’m hoping is going to be resolved pretty soon.”

Both the F-35 joint program office and F-35 prime contractor Lockheed Martin have said that the magnet does not present a risk to flight safety, nor does it provide a security risk that could be exploited by China to glean information about the F-35’s stealth capabilities.

Honeywell has stopped working with the supplier of the Chinese alloy, and has found an alternate US-based source that will be delivered next month, Lockheed spokeswoman Laura Siebert said in a statement. However, it is unclear when F-35s made with the new alloy would begin rolling off the production line.

LaPlante said the F-35 production problem is indicative of a larger issue among defense contractors called supply chain illumination, or the ability for a prime contractor to have insight into all of the parts that make up a large, complicated platform and where those materials are sourced.

“What this is becoming — and  it’s been recognized for some time — is almost a real-time issue of tracking and making sure that there’s integrity in your supply chain,” he said. “The good news is that there are tools coming out using artificial intelligence and open source [software] that can dive in and maybe find some of these things. But I think it’s going to be a constant a constant issue for us, is understanding our supply chain.”

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