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The F-35 hits more milestones but a software issue threatens the jet’s upcoming upgrade

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Norwegian F-35
A Norwegian F-35 taxis in after landing on the runway June 29, 2017, at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. This marks the seventh Norwegian F-35 to arrive at Luke. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexander Cook)

The F-35 Lighting II is the most advanced fighter jet in history. A 5th generation stealth aircraft, the fighter jet introduced much novel technology and capabilities. Every month, the F-35 Joint Program Office and Lockheed Martin release a series of fast facts about the progress of the aircraft’s production and other operational milestones.

The F-35 program is progressing well and more and more countries want to enter the elite F-35 family. However, Lockheed Martin is facing a significant production issue that threatens the smooth delivery of hundreds of new F-35s.

As of February, Lockheed Martin has delivered more than 990 F-35s of all versions and produced over 1,000; and those aircraft have clocked almost 800,000 flight hours. In terms of training, over 2,300 pilots have qualified to fly fighter jets, and more than 15,500 maintainers are eligible to support the F-35 fleet around the world.

Currently, the F-35 program is comprised of 18 countries that have ordered 3,497 aircraft of all versions. The largest customer by far is the U.S. military, with an order for 2,456 F-35s, or 62 percent of the total orders. In terms of aircraft, there are 2,582 orders for the F-35A, 575 orders for the F-35B, and 340 orders for the F-35C.

Moreover, 14 services are flying the fighter jet and 12 services have declared an initial operating capability, meaning that at least a minimum of their F-35 fleets are deployable. In terms of activity, there have been almost 500,000 training and operational sorties, over 500 detachments and deployments, and there have been eight unclassified operational missions. In addition, 12 warships (nine American, two British, and one Italian) are outfitted to carry F-35 fighter jets. (By 2028, the F-35 Joint Program Office expects an additional nine warships to be ready to carry F-35 fighter jets.)

However, despite significant progress on the F-35 program, there are some serious issues in the production process, especially around upgrades and the new version of the fighter jet.

Related: F-35 pilot explains how an F-117 was shot down in 1999

Production issues with F-35’s upgrade

British and American F-35s
A United Kingdom Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II flies alongside a U.S. Navy F-35C of Strike Fighter Squadron 101 (VFA-101), a U.S. Marine Corps F-35B of Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 (VMFAT-501), and a U.S. Air Force F-35A of the 58th Fighter Squadron, 33rd Fighter Wing, in the skies above Eglin Air Force Base, Florida (USA), on 21 May 2014. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Katerina Slivinske)

Although the F-35 Lighting II is the most advanced fighter jet in the skies today, that doesn’t mean that upgrading it isn’t necessary. With China close at the heels of the U.S. in terms of defense spending, the Pentagon is looking to stay ahead and ensure dominance in the event of a conflict.

Lockheed Martin is currently working on the TR-3 software upgrade for the F-35 Lighting II. However, manpower shortages and production issues have delayed the update, clogging the production process. In 2023, Lockheed Martin built approximately 158 F-35s of all versions, but it delivered only 98 of these aircraft and stored up to 60 jets until the TR-3 software update is ready.

According to Lockheed Martin, the TR-3 update will upgrade the F-35’s onboard digital infrastructure, improving its data storage and processing capabilities; and improve the user interface, thus making the pilot’s life easier. The new software will also enable the stealth fighter jet to carry new air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons, sensors, and cyber countermeasures.

Complicating matters even further is the fact that the upcoming Block 4 upgrade needs the TR-3 as a software upgrade as a base. So, until the TR-3 update is ready, Lockheed Martin can’t incorporate the Block 4 upgrade and further advance the stealth fighter jet.

Lockheed Martin expects the TR-3 issues to be resolved in the upcoming months, while the Pentagon is considering accepting TR-2 aircraft currently in storage and waiting for their updates.

The F-35 Lighting II

The F-35 Lighting II is a multi-role 5th generation fighter jet with three variants.

The F-35A is the conventional version that takes off and lands in runways; the F-35B is the Short Take-off, Vertical Landing (STOVL) iteration that can take off and land like a helicopter; the F-35C is the carrier version of the fighter jet that operates from aircraft carriers.

In terms of capabilities, all three variants share similar attributes but with some minor differences, such as the landing gear, fuel capacity, and structural robustness.

As a mutli-role fighter jet, the F-35 Lighting II specializes in Strategic Attack, Air Superiority, Close Air Support, Electronic Warfare, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD), and Destruction Enemy Air Defense (DEAD) mission sets.

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Stavros Atlamazoglou

Greek Army veteran (National service with 575th Marines Battalion and Army HQ). Johns Hopkins University. You will usually find him on the top of a mountain admiring the view and wondering how he got there.

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