May 20 (UPI) -- Lockheed Martin, citing supply chain delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, said it will slow production of F-35 fighter planes and not fulfill deliveries.
Production at its Fort Worth, Texas, facility will be reduced beginning next week, and its planned delivery target of 141 planes in 2020 will likely be 18 to 24 planes short.
The company will move to an adjusted production schedule in which its 2,500 Forth Worth employees will be divided into three groups, with each group at work for two weeks, followed by one week off the job, the company said in a statement on Tuesday
After one three-week rotation, Lockheed plans to evaluate and make adjustments to its new schedule. The production line will move more slowly, a work rhythm will be established and shop floor capabilities will be preserved, the statement added.
"These are challenging times, but managing tough challenges is when the F-35 program performs at its best," said Michele Evans of Lockheed Martin. "The alternate work schedule maintains the specialized skillset of the employees and provides opportunities for us to adjust our workflow to account for supplier delays due to COVID-19."
The company first disclosed the possible delay of F-35 deliveries in April, citing component suppliers slowed by government orders to suspend operations because of the pandemic.
Greg Ulmer, Lockheed Martin's F-35 program vice president, this week told a conference call of investors that production line workers do as much work as possible on each sub-section of the plane, then wait for parts to arrive from all over the world.
Italy, for example, has had a high number of COVID-19 cases, and is the site of an F-35 assembly plant operated by defense firm Leonardo. The facility closed for several days in March for cleaning.
"Leonardo today is north of 90 percent manned, fully operating. They're pretty much back to normal operations," Ulmer said. He added that it will take the Fort Worth plant two to three months to adjust after supply chain issues have been resolved.
The announcement of Lockheed Martin's schedule change came after President Donald Trump's complaints last week that more of the F-35's parts production should be within the United States.
Allied countries that helped fund the plane's development can compete for work on it, a process that officials say reduces the cost of each aircraft and supplies foreign buyers with an incentive to support the program.
"The problem is if we have a problem with a country, you can't make the jet. We get parts from all over the place. It's so crazy. We should make everything in the United States," Trump said on May 14 in an interview with the Fox Business Network.