The first of the UK's F-35Bs arrived at RAF Marham today to much fanfare. It was a big, long-awaited milestone not only for the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, but also for the F-35 program. Meanwhile the U.S. Government Accountability Office, better known as the GAO, has released a new report on the status of the F-35 program overall. One of the most interesting tidbits in the report was metrics on how many man hours of labor it takes to manufacture each type of F-35 and how those numbers have changed over time.
The chart below shows exactly how many labor hours are poured into constructing each F-35 variant on average. With the A model unsurprisingly being the lowest at 41,541 hours in 2017, the more complex B model taking 57,152 hours, and the carrier-capable C model coming in at 60,121 hours.
These numbers generally vibe with the differential in cost of each type as well. But what's most intriguing is just how much these metrics have decreased over time, underlining that Lockheed has found meaningful efficiencies on the F-35 production line in recent years.
Over a five year period of time, the labor it took to assemble a single F-35A dropped by a whopping 62 percent. This is skewed somewhat due to the number of airframes ordered in 2012 compared to 2017, but the between 2016 and 2017 alone the same metric dropped an impressive 12 percent. This is a considerable change for just one year and tells an important story when it comes to the maturity of the F-35's design compared to 2012.
The GAO report states:
The average hours needed for rework and repair of aircraft already delivered is still a major issue, but it is also receding, with a change of 70 percent between 2012 and 2017, and 20 percent between 2016 and 2017. Once again, it's still taking a whopping 6,237 hours of labor to correct production mistakes on each brand new jet. In many cases, this means those aircraft are being pulled from the fleet to receive corrective measures, and at great cost, but at least that number seems to be heading somewhat in the right direction.
The report described the drop as a good thing, but it notes that it doesn't take into account another looming issue that could drastically impact these metrics:
The F-35 has been flying for over 11 years and has been a constant source of delays and weakening requirements, but these figures do indicate a design whose production process is finally maturing. This reality is also reflected in unit price declines, which is a good thing. Yet at the same time, it also underscores just how ridiculously far-fetched Lockheed's original timelines and fiscal goals were for the program.
As far as the question of how the F-35's labor hours for production compares to other aircraft, we are having a tough time answering it definitively at this time, at least with fresh data. But according to an archived POGO report, an F-16A took 29,000 man hours to produce in 1984, and the more complex and relatively new F-16C took 45,000 man hours to build in 1989. That same source noted that just the F-22's center fuselage section took 60,000 man hours to assemble when the program was in its pre-production state in the late 1990s. This was mainly due to the 60,000 fasteners that were used on the section, each of which was installed by hand taking roughly 30 minutes to an hour.
So with just these metrics in hand, the F-35 program doesn't seem to be gobbling up labor at an astronomical rate, especially considering its low-observable design, which are historically very expensive to produce. The fact of the matter is that all aircraft take a lot of time to build. Even during World War II, when the fate of Britain hung in the balance, it took a whopping 13,000 man hours to build a single Spitfire Mk V. In contrast, it took the Germans 4,000 hours to build a Me109G.
We found the chart below in the forums at WW2Aircraft.net and we can't confirm its accuracy, but it seems to be a good comparative snapshot of the time it took to build other WWII aircraft. You will notice the massive delta in efficiency just over a single war year for all the types stated:
The real question is how many man hours does it take to produce a competing modern fighter, in particular, the F/A-18 Super Hornet. We reached out to Boeing this morning for that data, but have yet to hear back. We will update the post if and when we get those numbers.
But the GAO report is not all good news. The F-35 still has a massive number of unresolved issues that have no sign of being fixed before the decision to enter into full-rate production is made.
The report states:
- To complete the F-35 development program without further delays, the program office plans to defer resolving—to fix or have an approved work around—a portion of the known deficiencies to post-development efforts. During testing, issues identified with the aircraft’s performance are reported to the program office as deficiencies, which are then categorized based on how severely the deficiency impacts the aircraft’s performance.
- Category 1 deficiencies are those that could jeopardize safety, security, or another critical requirement.
- Category 2 deficiencies are those that could impede or constrain successful mission accomplishment.
The report went on to discuss a variety of other issues and topics, including the pitfalls of the F-35's proposed Block 4 enhancements, as well as the fact that the F-35 has seen little to no improvement in its fairly dismal reliability and maintainability and that it will likely miss a number of threshold requirements relating to those issues before the decision to enter into full-rate production is made.
In the end the GAO recommended the following:
Whether the Pentagon will end up actually keeping the F-35 in 'purgatory' low-rate initial production status until its bevy of critical issues is fixed, we will have to wait and see, especially considering the White House has had a heavy sway over the program since President Trump took office 501 days ago.