The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II arguably remains the most capable warplane in service anywhere in the world. The fifth-generation multirole stealth fighter is now in service with militaries around the world, and it has been tested in combat. Not a single aircraft has been lost to date in combat.
Yet, this week, the upcoming, upgraded models of F-35 may have met an unexpected match – namely suppliers.
As a result, the F-35 Joint Program Office and aircraft maker Lockheed Martin announced on Wednesday that the first fighters upgraded with new capabilities may not be delivered until at least April of next year, and possibly even as late as June. The defense and aerospace giant cut its full-year delivery forecast after supplier L3Harris Technologies held up development of the upgrades.
The Tech Refresh 3 (TR-3) equipped aircraft were expected to be delivered to the United States Air Force by the end of this year. The TR-3 is intended to provide the aircraft with improved displays and computer memory, as well as greater processing power. It is a necessary step before the more expansive modernization effort, dubbed the Block 4, could be added to the jet fighter.
Not a Crash and Burn – Yet
The problem with TR-3’s hardware and software have been ongoing and caused the development to slip. Earlier this year, the F-35 Joint Program Office said the hardware issues had been addressed, but software problems remained.
“Since our testimony to Congress in March 2023, we have made significant progress in the TR-3 program, but have also experienced challenges with TR-3 software maturity during flight test,” JPO spokesperson Russ Goemaere told Defense News on Wednesday. “Given remaining risk in the TR-3 program, we have updated our forecast for the first delivery of a TR-3 configured F-35 to the time frame between April 2024 through June 2024. We continue to work very closely with industry partners, particularly Lockheed Martin, to address program risk and deliver TR-3 to warfighters.”
The delays of what is Lockheed Martin’s largest program pushed its shares down 4.7 percent at Wednesday’s close, while L3Harris also saw its stock price fall 1.3 percent lower, Reuters reported.
“We have updated our F-35 TR-3 schedule projections with a first TR-3 aircraft delivery between April and June 2024,” Lockheed said via a statement. “The development of the Integrated Core Processor(ICP) by L3 Harris has driven delays due to unexpected challenges associated with hardware and software development, component and system integration testing and system qualification testing.”
F-35 Lightning IIs Will Strike
Lockheed Martin has said it expects to deliver 97 aircraft that run on the current TR-2 configuration by the end of 2023. Those aircraft are earmarked for new F-35 bases, including Tyndall Air Force Base (AFB), Florida.
It further noted in an SEC filing that it is “producing F-35s at a rate of 156 per year and expect to continue at that pace while simultaneously working to finalize TR-3 software development and testing. Additionally, we remain focused on receiving the necessary hardware from our suppliers to deliver this critical combat capability for the F-35. The number of 2024 F-35 deliveries will depend on when the first TR-3 aircraft is delivered and the time needed to complete the customer’s acceptance process. We continue to assess impacts to 2024 and will have updates as the test plan continues.”
According to the aerospace firm, it has “parachuted employees to L3Harris” to expedite hardware delivery, while Lockheed Martin is also working with RTX on the delivery of the F-35’s Next Gen Electro Optical Digital Aperture System.
Block 4 – an Even More Powerful Warbird
As noted, the TR-3 upgrades will pave the way to the F-35 Block 4, which will feature a number of significant updates, including modifications to the weapons bay as well as the cooling system. The TR-3 provides the computational horsepower to support modernized Block 4 capabilities for the F-35 including new sensor suites, more long-range precision weapons, improved electronic warfare features, more powerful data fusion, and increased cross-platform interoperability. The enhancements are further meant to provide the warfighter with a combat edge to identify, track, engage, and survive against advanced air, ground, and cyber threats.
On January 6 of this year, the developmental test team from the 461st Flight Test Squadron conducted the first flight of an F-35 Lightning II utilizing the Tech Refresh 3 (TR-3) package, which also included a new integrated processor, a panoramic instrument panel and a more capable aircraft memory system.
This will make the F-35 an even more capable and deadly warbird. However, the aircraft’s manufacturer and supplies must overcome glitches first. Those remain the most serious threat to the Lightning II.
Author Experience and Expertise
A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.