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F-16 production takes off at Greenville facility with finalized contracts

Aerospace
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This rendering of an F-16 Fighting Falcon flying over Manama, Bahrain, was posted when Lockheed was awarded a $1.12 billion contract from the U.S. government to build 16 new Bahraini aircraft. (Photo/Provided)

A little over a year since Greenville’s Lockheed Martin Corp. facility welcomed its first production line, the aerospace manufacturer remains on track to introduce South Carolina’s first F-16 Fighting Falcon within two years — with some potential new customers in the works.

The newest item on Lockheed’s to-do list, eight jets for the Bulgarian Air Force procured through a $5.1 billion contract finalized in April, will boost Lockheed’s production by 50%, setting precedents for future growth as prospective customers in Africa and Southeast Asia eye the F-16.

“Certainly, from a business standpoint, we are continuing to see a lot of interest from the global community for F-16s, all which will be built in Greenville. There’s definitely a lot of excitement around that,” said Leslie Farmer, communications director for the Greenville facility.

Once destined for retirement, the F-16 was thrust back into the international spotlight when the company moved the jet’s production line from Fort Worth, Texas, to Greenville. Currently, 29 countries have purchased the jet over the years, impacting the U.S. economy by $1.4 billion, according to a Lockheed news release.

“Many countries are looking to bolster their national defense and strengthen security ties with the United States,” John Losinger, the communications representative for Lockheed’s F-16 line, said in an email. “The F-16 Block 70/72 is a natural choice for many customers around the world seeking advanced, affordable fourth generation fighter aircraft abilities. The F-16 is the world’s most successful, combat-proven fourth-generation fighter. There are approximately 3,000 operational F-16s in service today in 25 countries and we are continuing to see significant international demand for new production F-16s and F-16V upgrades.”

He added that both Block 70 and 72 models share Active Electronically Scanned Array radar, a modernized cockpit, conformal fuel tanks, an improved performance engine, advanced weapons and a structural service life of 12,000 hours, boosting the line’s international popularity.

Greenville’s Lockheed facility has been used to maintain a variety of aircraft over the years, but it commenced its first production line in 2019 and is bound to complete its first F-19 in two years. (Photo/Provided)In 2018, the United States finalized a $1.12 billion contract with Lockheed to make 16 of the Fighting Falcons for Bahrain’s air force. The Greenville production line’s first aircraft will go toward fulfilling this order, along with 14 jets, negotiated through a September deal last year, bound for Slovakia.

The acquisition of the F-16V Block 70 fighter jets is not just a purchase, but a long-term partnership that enables the Bulgarian Air Force to successfully meet the new challenges in the sector, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said in a news release after the Bulgarian government agreed to the purchase of eight Fighting Falcons in July 2019.

Pegged as the “benchmark NATO fighter,” the fourth-generation jet will replace Soviet-era Mikoyan MiG-29 fighter jets to become the first “Western” aircraft to be maintained in Bulgaria. The order is expected by the U.S. Department of Defense to reach completion by Jan. 31, 2027.

The original plan called for two years of developing a blueprint and then producing the first jet, with an additional aircraft to be completed in Greenville each month after that until the first order was completed.

“That takes into account learning curve, setting up the new line and things like that,” Farmer said.

Now, with two additional orders, the Greenville plant will be able to crank out three aircraft a month, according to Farmer, while continuing sustainment and repair work.

Butch Kirven, chairman of Greenville County Council, praised the finalization of the Bulgarian contract as “a bright spot” during the economic slowdown initiated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lockheed renovated one of its 16 hangars for F-16 production. (Photo/Provided)“It’s good news for the Upstate, for Greenville, for Lockheed and for our local economy,” Kirven said. He added that he had first heard of additional deals coming down the pipeline for the aeronautics company through open sources in the defense industry.

“They’ve had their ups and downs over the years, and we’ve been there to support them when they really needed it, and so, it’s a team effort,” Kirven said. “A lot of people have been involved in that, but we have seen over the years the strength and the benefits of having Lockheed in our community, and the wonderful asset we’re fortunate to have out at the Donaldson Center and SC-TAC.

Lockheed Martin is located at the S.C. Technology and Aviation Center, formerly known as the Donaldson Center.

For the time being, subcomponents of the first aircraft, including frames, bulkheads and skins, are being assembled in Greenville or shipped in from other suppliers to form the structural skeleton of the airframe, according to Losinger. Then, the aircraft will earn its wings, stabilizers will be added and electronic systems installed in the final assembly and checkout period before the jet is tested, painted and ready to take flight.

“This brings the F-16 to life, so to speak,” Losinger said in an email.

According to Farmer, COVID-19 has not stalled procurement of the supplies needed for the fighter jet. Modifications to one of Lockheed’s existing 16 hangars has allowed the facility to expand production without constructing additional hangars.

Even if extensive construction projects are not underway, new opportunities are there for the Upstate’s aerospace professionals.

Last year, an S.C. Senate resolution championing “the critical importance of the F-35 Lightning II and F-16 Fighting Falcon to America’s security and to South Carolina” affirmed the new line would bring about 150 new jobs to Greenville. With additional contracts, the expected hire count mushroomed to 400 in less than a year, as Lockheed launched a hiring campaign for new projects last year.

Many of these aspiring Lockheed technicians are now honing their craft at Greenville Technical College’s Aircraft Maintenance Technology program, hosted on-site at SC-TAC or at other technical schools across the state, she said. Earlier this year, Lockheed approved a pre-apprenticeship program with the college to mentor the next generation of technicians.

“That’s to get students involved even earlier and potentially becoming a part of that aircraft maintenance training program,” Farmer said. “And providing some specific Lockheed Martin training and curriculum, so that when they do start, they’re ready come day one.”

A few of the 400 existing suppliers who served the Fort Worth facility have moved to Greenville, including a company providing cranes for the production line, and the aeronautics company continues to look into new opportunities provided by supply chain shifts.

A rendering of an F-16 over Bahrain. (Photo/Provided)“The global F-16 supply chain is extensive and robust and we continuously evaluate opportunities for competitive regional suppliers,” Losinger said in an email.

If finalized, a contract in the works with Taiwan would bring the full-rate production number up to at least 48 aircraft a year using the current production model, the company says.

The Taiwanese contract, a proposed $8 billion deal for 66 Fighting Falcon aircraft, engines, weapons and computers, was approved by the U.S. State Department in August 2019. According to an original report, the decision faced strong opposition from China during an escalating trade war with the country, which sees Taiwan as an extension of the mainland government and not a separate political entity.

“Our partner nation has a limited window of opportunity to move this U.S. arms transfer through their budget process prior to their next election,” said an Aug. 13 letter signed by members of the S.C. federal delegation. “Thus, we believe the time is now to move forward with the sale before this window of opportunity closes. There is no better way to support (the) U.S. defense industrial base and our partner than to move forward with the sale of the F-16 Block 70 to Taiwan.”

Four months later, on Dec. 13, Taiwan and the U.S. signed a Letter of Acceptance for the sale of F-16 aircraft, 104 M1A2 Abrams tanks and 1,240 anti-tank missiles. The U.S. is expected to deliver two F-16 Block 70 aircraft to Taiwan in 2023, with deliveries of four or five aircraft being sent the following year, according to a Focus Taiwan CNA English News report.

This story originally appeared in the May 18, 2020, print edition of the GSA Business Report.

Reach Molly Hulsey at 864-720-1223.

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