Currently, Lockheed Martin has more than 10,000 employees working on the F-35 program, including about 1,600 production workers involved in building the jet fighter at the company's Fort Worth plant.
In six years, the company expects that the program's "ramped-up rate" will require an additional 2,417 workers to manufacture more than 150 fighters a year. That's four times the current rate of production of three aircraft per month.
"We're going to almost 200 airplanes a year," said Steve O'Bryan, Lockheed's vice president of program development and business integration for the F-35 program. "When you talk about what the effect is going to be in Texas, it's going to be significant."
O'Bryan offered the jobs forecast in an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram after last week's news that Pentagon leaders had agreed to terms for the purchase of 71 additional F-35s. In the deal, the government negotiated a lower cost for the planes, a signal that the F-35 program is stabilizing after years of cost overruns and delays, aerospace analysts said.
The deal has brought a new cautious optimism to the program, which has suffered through years of cost overruns and technical problems since Lockheed Martin was awarded the F-35 contract in 2001.
Just last fall, Pentagon leaders were moaning publicly about the program's costs and Lockheed's inability to solve problems. Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the top Pentagon official over the F-35, called the relationship between Lockheed and the military "the worst I've seen."
But since that time, Lockheed has come under new leadership, both at its corporate headquarters in Bethesda, Md., and in Fort Worth, with the appointment of Orlando P. Carvalho as the head of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics. In June, Bogdan and other officials signaled their intention to increase production during a visit to Fort Worth, where they publicly lauded the company for improvements.
One big unknown is the future of political and budgetary pressures in Washington, which could affect future orders. Some observers have speculated that while the F-35 program is safe now, tighter military spending could result in fewer plane orders down the road, given its status as the nation's biggest weapons program. And some foreign buyers have said they would reassess their commitment to the F-35 because of its rising costs.
But in announcing the new contracts last week, leaders said the reduced price for Lots 6 and 7 will allow the U.S. to ultimately buy more than 2,000 F-35s.
"This brings confidence (to the program) going forward," O'Bryan said.
In the past six years, only 95 aircraft - of 3,100 expected to be ordered - have hit the production line, resulting in a decreased need for manpower.