Rolls-Royce late with key part for F-35 fighter

Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc was an average of 160 days late last year in delivering equipment needed for the U.S. Marine Corps version of the F-35 fighter to hover and land like a helicopter, according to the Pentagon.

The delays for “lift fans” installed on the F-35B, the most complex model of the Joint Strike Fighter made by Lockheed Martin Corp., stemmed from flaws in parts provided by subcontractors, the Defense Contract Management Agency said in an e-mailed statement.

The lift fans are assembled at a Rolls-Royce facility outside of Indianapolis.

“There have been issues such as corrosion on some of the gears and some undersized holes,” Jacqueline Noble, a spokeswoman for the defense agency, said in the statement. While London-based Rolls-Royce and its subcontractors have made progress, the need to fix fan parts that don’t meet specifications “is still a concern,” she said.

The estimated cost for a fleet of 2,443 F-35 fighters has climbed to $395.7 billion, a 70-percent increase since 2001. The F-35B, the model designed for the Marines and for purchase by countries including the United Kingdom and Italy, has been the most trouble-plagued version of the jet, which is being produced even as it’s still in development.

The F-35B is designed for short takeoffs and landings on carriers and amphibious-warfare vessels. The Marine Corps plans to buy about 340 of the fighters.

Rolls-Royce, Europe’s largest maker of commercial aircraft engines, provides major components for the F-35B’s propulsion system to United Technologies Corp.’s Pratt and Whitney unit. Pentagon pressure on both companies to improve deliveries and subcontractor quality may increase in advance of planned funding increases after 2015.

Spending increase

Navy spending on engines for its carrier-based version of the F-35 and for the Marine Corps model is estimated to increase to $1.4 billion by fiscal 2018 from $519 million this fiscal year, according to internal Pentagon budget data.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates put the F-35B on “probation” in January 2011 until it could demonstrate greater reliability for the propulsion system’s driveshaft, clutch and auxiliary air-inlet door used in hovering. His successor, Leon Panetta, lifted the probation a year later, citing progress in finding solutions.

The co-chairmen of President Barack Obama’s deficit-reduction panel, former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson, suggested in 2010 that the F-35B be canceled. Dropping that version would save $17.6 billion through fiscal year 2015, with $3.9 billion in 2015, alone, according to a commission estimate.

'Consistently late’

Rolls-Royce lift-fan deliveries “have been consistently late,” because time was needed to correct quality issues, Joe DellaVedova, a spokesman for the Pentagon’s F-35 program office, said in an email. “They have taken numerous steps to improve quality.”

Even with the delays, the lift fans have been provided to Lockheed Martin in time to prevent late delivery of aircraft, he said.

Rolls-Royce spokesman George McLaren said in an e-mail the company “has worked hard to get back on track. Recovery plans have been executed and will be back on contract by the first quarter of 2013.”

“We will continue to work closely with our suppliers to ensure all components meet quality standards,” he said.

Temporary grounding

Disclosure of the lift-fan delays follow trouble with improperly crimped hoses manufactured by Stratoflex, a Pratt & Whitney subcontractor, that caused the temporary grounding Jan. 18 of the F-35B fleet for 26 days.

The Naval Air Systems Command told Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in a Feb. 12 memo that an investigation “determined that the majority of hoses” installed on 25 F-35Bs “were outside manufacturing limits.”

The Pentagon inspector general is conducting a review of how well quality is managed by F-35 contractors.

“We’ve been to several contractor and subcontracting sites” and “looked at whether the government’s getting what they paid for,” acting Inspector General Lynne Halbrooks told a House panel March 19.

“We’ve issued notices of concern with respect to the quality management and oversight at each of those plants,” she said without disclosing names.

The delayed lift fan deliveries affected the third and fourth production contracts for engines.

With improvements made by Rolls-Royce, the Pentagon estimates that lift-fan deliveries for the fifth production batch of engines will start out an average of 15 days late before exceeding the schedule by three days, according to Noble of the Defense Contract Management Agency.

Pratt cited

Separately, the agency cited Pratt & Whitney in January 2012 for “consistently missing” engine contract delivery dates in 2011. The late deliveries “were paced by final engine assembly rework due to engine vibration” and late hardware, DellaVedova said.

Pratt & Whitney was given a report requiring “corrective action” that “has the appropriate attention of senior management,” the agency said. The company submitted a “comprehensive corrective action plan to address” specific quality issues “that prevented on-time delivery,” according to the agency.

The report hasn’t yet been resolved as the agency continues to review the company’s plan, Noble said.

Pratt & Whitney spokesman Shawn Watson said in an e-mail that the company has a system to manage and measure the improvements needed “to ensure continued improvements and overall quality systems excellence.”

Noble and DellaVedova said Pratt & Whitney engine delivery performance improved last year, meeting its contractual rate of four per month.

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