PARIS — Delivery disruptions for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter are creating a headache for European buyers, as some countries face a potential capacity gap and delays in training pilots and maintenance engineers.

Denmark is exploring how to deal with a slipping delivery schedule, including possibly borrowing or buying aircraft from other F-35 users. Norway said there’s a risk full operational capacity of its F-35 fleet will be pushed back.

F-35 deliveries are on hold as Lockheed Martin wrestles to complete an upgrade known as Technology Refresh 3, initially planned for summer 2023. While the company still aims for the second quarter for TR-3 software acceptance, the third quarter is a more likely scenario, Lockheed Martin CEO Jim Taiclet said in January.

The delays threaten to frustrate plans by Denmark and Belgium to replace their fleets of more than 40-year old F-16 fighters. Denmark has four F-35s in country, of 27 ordered, while Belgium is scheduled to receive the first of 34 stealth fighters in 2024, a milestone already delayed from last year.

“We are making progress toward delivering the first TR-3 configured aircraft,” Lockheed Martin said in a statement, declining to say when European buyers will get their next planes. “Customer deliveries will be informed based on the remaining TR-3 test schedule.”

Denmark said last week that Lockheed Martin targets TR-3 for around July, but risks delays. It’s too early to say what delays would mean, the country’s defense minister said.

For now, Denmark still conducts operational tasks with F-16 aircraft, “but if the delay in F-35 delivery continues, there can be consequences,” said Hans Peter Michaelsen, an independent military analyst and former Royal Danish Air Force major.

The snag comes at a time of high tension in Europe, following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. NATO fighter jets scrambled more than 300 times last year to intercept Russian military flights, mostly over the Baltic Sea, after 570 intercepts in 2022. The U.K., Norway, the Netherlands and Italy have deployed their F-35s for air-policing missions over the Baltic and the northern Atlantic.

The Danish Ministry of Defence has asked the joint military command and its procurement organization “to explore a number of options that could mitigate the implications to the Danish F-35 implementation timeline in case a delay should occur,” it said in a statement.

Options include repatriating some of Denmark’s six F-35s now stationed at Luke Air Force Base in the U.S. for training, possibly with support from other nations so Danish pilot instruction can continue. Another would be buying or borrowing aircraft from other F-35 operators.

“If the planned F-35 deliveries slip to 2025 and Danish F-35s cannot be temporarily withdrawn from Luke AFB, I foresee operational and training consequences,” Michaelsen said. While he doesn’t expect Quick Reaction Alert tasks to be affected, having only four aircraft in Denmark could complicate maintaining operational status for pilots and technicians.

The defense ministry has investigated whether the U.S. can provide additional F-35s for training, which would allow Denmark to withdraw planes from Luke AFB to avoid a delay building up its F-35 capacity, according to the analyst.

Norway and the Netherlands face less urgency, as they already operate most of their F-35 fleet. The Royal Norwegian Air Force retired its F-16s in 2022, and the Royal Dutch Air Force plans to do the same by October.

Norway has “enough aircraft available to meet current operational and training requirements,” said Endre Lunde, an adviser at the Norwegian Defense Materiel Agency. “Like the U.S. and other partners in the JSF program we will not be taking delivery of any further aircraft until a solution has been found to current issues related to the TR-3 upgrades.”

Norway has 34 F-35s in country and six in the U.S. for training, of a total 52 planes ordered. Delivery of the remaining aircraft, originally scheduled for 2023 and 2024, remains to be confirmed.

The Netherlands meanwhile has received 39 of its 52 F-35s, with eight aircraft in the U.S. for training. The Dutch Ministry of Defence declined to comment ahead of a progress report to parliament toward the end of this month.

“For Norway and Netherlands I do not foresee large consequences, as both countries have already achieved limited operational status with their F-35s, but the full operational date will probably slip to the right,” Michaelsen said. “A delay in delivery for other European customers – Belgium, Finland, Poland and Germany – will probably mean that these countries will have to operate their legacy fighters for a prolonged time.”

The U.S. Air Force conducted the first flight of an F-35 in TR-3 configuration in January 2023. The upgrade provides the F-35 with more computing power as the basis for modernized Block 4 capabilities, including new sensors and improved electronic warfare capabilities.

“Even after TR-3 completion we expect that it will take some time to clear the backlog of undelivered aircraft,” Lunde said. “Our current expectation however is that we will be able to take delivery of all Norwegian aircraft by the end of this year, or during the first half of 2025 at the very latest.”

There’s a knock-on effect on planned upgrades of Norway’s TR-2 configuration aircraft, with the impact on the schedule still unclear, Lunde said. The delays pose a risk to reaching full operational capability in 2025, though the main risk to that milestone is a lack of trained maintenance personnel, he said.

To reach full operational capability, Norway requires both a sufficient number of air frames, as well as the capabilities of TR-3, including integration of the Joint Strike Missile, according to Lunde. The JSM is a cruise missile being developed by Kongsberg and RTX, designed to be launched from the F-35′s internal weapons bay.

Belgium, which had expected to receive its first two F-35s in 2023, said in December it now counts on eight jets to be delivered for training of Belgian pilots and engineers starting this summer. Poland is also scheduled to receive its first F-35 this year, after ordering 32 planes in 2020.

The U.K. has received 35 aircraft of 48 expected by the end of 2025, and in December formed its second squadron to operate the F-35 Lightning II. The 13 aircraft due by the end of next year are in the TR-3 configuration, and the U.K. is working with the F-35 joint program office to understand the impact of the delay.

“We do not currently anticipate a shortfall in the ability to build the U.K. Lightning force to full operational capability,” the Ministry of Defence said.

The Danish defense ministry has said it doesn’t expect the issues to affect the planned donation of F-16 aircraft to Ukraine, while Norway said F-35 delays won’t impact delivery of F-16s to international partners, either through sale or donation.

F-35 customersDelivered as of March 18, 2024
(source: Lockheed Martin)
Program of record

Andrew Chuter in London contributed to this story.

Rudy Ruitenberg is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. He started his career at Bloomberg News and has experience reporting on technology, commodity markets and politics.

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