One of the year’s worst-kept secrets received a little sunshine on Tuesday when Pentagon officials acknowledged that the Lockheed Martin Corp. (NYSE: LMT) F-35 joint strike fighter will not be ready for final testing until 2018 at the earliest. The previous target had been mid-2017.
The announced delay reflects an additional six-month period for initial operational testing and evaluation, the final stage before the aircraft is released for full-rate production.
Software delays get the blame for much of the delay, although the recently discovered software glitch that causes the plane’s systems to shut down has nothing to do with the announced delay. All 23 jets in the initial testing program need to be modified to a software and hardware level known as “3F” in order for the initial testing to represent accurately the airplane that will go into production.
Fixing the shut-down issue did delay the conclusion of software testing on the Air Force version of the F-35, which must declare its F-35A operational by the end of this year.
The F-35 program is expected to cost U.S. taxpayers more than $1.5 trillion over its expected life of 50 or more years. The plane, which comes in three variants for the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines, has been on the drawing board for more than 15 years and the cost has risen to around $400 billion for nearly 2,500 planes. The bulk of the cost goes to training and maintenance over the next several decades.
Lockheed’s stock traded down fractionally in the noon hour Wednesday, at $240.69 in a 52-week range of $181.91 to $245.37.