After a lengthy negotiation, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) signed a deal with Lockheed Martin to manufacture the wings for the future F-35 fighter jet. The contract spans a duration of 10-15 years and entails $2.5 billion in potential sales. IAI is expected to start providing the wings to Lockheed Martin by 2015.
IAI’s Lahav Division has already begun installing the production line needed to assemble the wings, and is investing in the necessary technology and systems.
"Since we are talking about a jet with stealth capability, the assembly process will have to be much more accurate," Lahav General Manager Yossi Melamed told IsraelDefense. "This line will have many robotic features, with an automated tool-flow throughout the line. I estimate that the production of one wing should take nearly six months. We are supposed to manufacture 800 wings over the course of the next 15 years. We will ship the wings from Israel to the US, and there it will be assembled and mounted on site."
"We are digging the foundations (for the facility) and we are still studying the production process. Some of our people have gone to Lockheed Martin (for training) and there is an exchange of information," he said.
IAI is expected to finish installing the necessary ground-level infrastructure by the end of the year, and expects to have the infrastructure for the manufacturing tools in place in the first half of 2014.
"We are going to produce approximately one-third of the wings needed by the US Air Force,” Melamed said. "Some of the wings will be made by Lockheed Martin in the US, and some will be manufactured by an Italian company.”
The F-35 is a fifth generation fighter jet, with stealth capability obtained through the use of a special combination of materials that creates a low radar cross section (RCS) reading. It also features two internal weapons bays alongside the two near its wingtip, for a total of four weapons stations. Israel joined the F-35 program in 2003, after paying $20 million dollars, which allowed it to become a defense partner and review the F-35's blueprints, without being able to weigh in on the aircraft’s course of development. Nevertheless, Lockheed Martin has heeded some of Israel's requests to change the aircraft’s capacity.
The IAI’s Lahav Division, which employs 900 workers, has been operating for over 50 years. It began its operations by constructing the fuselage for the Kfir jets and later the ones for the Lavi jets. Today, the division focuses on the improvement of existing airplanes among other things, the manufacturing of various aviation component and systems, including the wings for F-16 jets.
"We manufacture both sides of the F-15’s cockpit, the conformal fuel tanks and almost every hatch door on that jet," Melamed said. "With the F-16, we make the wings, the stabilizers and the conformal fuel tanks, the design and production of which are ours. Since we developed the new fuel tank design, sales of F-16s have significantly increased – the amount of fuel they carry has nearly doubled the jet's flight time.
Lahav, he said, "Was recently awarded a contract to replace the wings on the US Air Force’s T-38 Talon jet trainers with a slightly bigger wing, which will be built using similar, though not identical, technology. We were also involved in the recent improvement of 24 Kfir jets sold to Colombia."
According to Melamed, the division also delves in robotics, both civilian and military in nature. "Over the past five years, we have been involved in the development of the REX unmanned vehicle, as part of the Guardium project we share with Elbit. We have also been involved in the TaxiBot project – a towbar-less tractor that tows an aircraft from the airport gate to the take-off point, allowing for significant jet fuel savings.”
Lahav, he added, is also involved in a 'smart port' project, which uses robotic systems to manage and operate containers