The new, smaller line will better suit the dwindling orders for the venerable fighter jet, while freeing up space for F-35 production.
After building F-16 fighter jets for more than four decades in Texas, Lockheed Martin plans to move the production line to South Carolina, where it will build new versions of the venerable combat aircraft for U.S. allies.
Lockheed will deliver the last F-16 from its Fort Worth factory in September, then take a two-year break in production to move the line to Greenville, S.C., the head of the firm’s aeronautics sector said Tuesday. Dwindling orders make the break possible.
Back in Texas, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter assembly line will expand into the vacated space.
“Recognizing that we’re going to pretty much have a full facility at Fort Worth, we’ve been looking at other alternatives,” Orlando Carvalho, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin's Aeronautics business area, said in an interview Tuesday.
Economic factors led Lockheed executives to choose Greenville, a city where the firm already has facilities. Union workers currently build F-16s in Fort Worth, but South Carolina is a right-to-work state.
“When you restart a line, there’s going to be cost there to get it back up and running again,” Carvalho said. “With the cost structure that we have at Greenville, that’s an enabler for us being able to stand the line up there.”
F-16s have been built inside Air Force Plant 4, a mile-long factory in Fort Worth, since the 1970s. Even though the U.S. Air Force placed its last order for F-16s in 1999, production there has continued for American allies. But in recent years, the F-16 production line has shrunk as orders have dwindled.
Over the past decade, the F-35 assembly line has slowly taken over the space where the F-16s were once built. As F-35 production expanded, F-16 production contracted to a small section in the back of the massive factory. The only planes left on the assembly line are for the Iraqi Air Force.
“The challenge for us was: how do you slow the production rate down and still keep the airplane affordable,” Carvalho said.
Stopping and starting production usually comes at a cost. Suppliers could charge more for parts and workers could lose experience.
The F-16 production line in South Carolina will be small, but is still expected to create between 200 and 250 new jobs in Greenville.
“It’s not a huge footprint,” Carvalho said. “It’s not the mile-long factory you saw with the F-35.”
In its heyday, Lockheed’s Fort Worth plant was churning out one F-16 a day. Now only a few prospects remain. Bahrain is reported to want as many as 19 jets and additional orders are anticipated from Indonesia and Colombia. Those planes would all be built in Greenville. There’s also a potential order for India, which could lead to an additional F-16 factory overseas.
Lockheed and rival Boeing are each pitching fighter jets to India, a key U.S. ally that is calling for new fighters to be co-produced locally as part of its Make in India initiative. The Obama administration supported making the planes in India, but President Donald Trump has yet to weigh in.
Trump has threatened to punish American companies that move manufacturing and jobs from the U.S. to locations overseas. He has praised companies for canceling plans to move business overseas. But for defense firms who are targeting the foreign markets creating indigenous jobs overseas has become the price of doing business. India and Middle Eastern nations are more often calling for co-production as a price of doing business.
Building the F-16 outside of the U.S. is not a new concept; jets have been made in Europe and Asia over the years while simultaneously being built in Fort Worth.
“We certainly want the new administration to have an appreciation for how these co-production models work and then what those co-production models mean to an opportunity like the F-16 in India,” Carvalho said.
“I think right now the administration is taking the time to understand, taking the time to learn, taking the time to get an appreciation of all of this to ultimately arrive at a policy decision,” he said.
If Lockheed wins the India fighter deal, its first jets would likely be built in Greenville while a factory is stood up in India.
Lockheed has had a presence in Greenville for more than three decades, performing maintenance work on the P-3 Orion, C-130 cargo planes, KC-10 tankers and the C-9 medical transports.
Last year, Lockheed announced it would assemble T-50 pilot training jets in Greenville if it wins a multibillion U.S. Air Force deal for 350 planes later this year. The firm is already flight testing two T-50s and is assembling two additional jets in Greenville.
Shifting F-16 production to Greenville would not eliminate any jobs in Fort Worth as workers are being offered new F-35 manufacturing positions, Carvalho said. In addition to the workers that transition, Lockheed also expects to hire about 1,000 new F-35 workers in Fort Worth.