One key to driving down the cost is to drive up production. Canada was originally going to buy 65 F-35s, but new Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau has reopened the competition after complaints about the jet's high price.
Lockheed's Mike Rein said whatever decision Canada makes should have "minimal" impact in bringing down the cost of the aircraft. He said original Canadian purchases would have amounted to 10 percent of all F-35s manufactured by the end of the decade, and even if those sales are lost, Lockheed is currently competing to provide fighters to three European nations. "The F-35 has never been in a competition and lost," he said.
Worldwide, 115 of the aircraft are currently in assembly, but the focus this year is to deliver the first combat-ready F-35 for its largest buyer, the U.S. Air Force. Much has been modified on the jet after several setbacks. Program manager Jeff Babione said the final version of the all-important software will be ready this summer, and the fuel system is being modified to handle maneuvering as the jet pulls several G's.
Then there's the ejection seat, which currently is deemed unsafe for pilots under 136 pounds. Babione said Lockheed is modifying the seat and the helmet, and those changes should roll out by early 2017. The new seat will have a "weight switch" that the pilot would move to "heavy" or "light" based on his or her weight. The helmet will be a half pound lighter with changes like having one visor instead of two. (The pilot would change out the visor based on time of day.)
Even as the ramp-up of the F-35 hasn't even peaked, there's already discussion of what a next generation aircraft might look like. Rob Weiss from Lockheed's Skunk Works said such a plane probably won't fly for 30 years, but the technologies need to be tested and "matured" now.
What kind of plane will protect America in 2046? "I can't reveal much," said Weiss, but he did say the next aircraft would need to be "revolutionary" in its looks, propulsion system and sensors, and whether it even has a pilot. Will it even be an airplane? "We do think there will be a new airplane out there eventually," he said.