Warplanes: F-35 Buyers Back Away

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March 29, 2010: Denmark has decided to wait, until 2014, to decide what to replace its elderly F-16 fleet with. Meanwhile, 18 of the F-16s will be retired. But the other 30 will be refurbished so that they can continue to operate for the rest of the decade. Denmark had wanted to replace the F-16s with F-35s. But the F-35 keeps getting delayed (now more than two years behind schedule), and is becoming more expensive (nearly a hundred percent over budget). The Danish F-35 buy is no longer a sure thing. The delays have lots of users concerned. The U.S. Navy has been nervously watching as the costs of the new F-35C and F-35B carrier aircraft versions go up.

It comes down to this. Currently, it costs the navy, on average, $19,000 an hour to operate its AV-8 vertical takeoff and F-18C fighter aircraft. It costs 63 percent more to operate the F-35C (which will replace the F-18C) and the F-35B (which will replace the AV-8). These costs include buying the aircraft, training and maintaining the pilots, the aircraft and purchasing expendable items (fuel, spare parts, munitions.) Like the F-22, which recently had production capped at less than 200 aircraft, the capabilities, as superior as they were, did not justify the much higher costs. The F-35, at least for the navy, is headed in the same direction. The navy can go ahead with the more recent F-18E, and keep refurbishing, or even building, the AV-8. Politics, and lobbying by the F-35 manufacturer, will probably keep the F-35 headed for fleet service, no matter what the cost.

The 27 ton F-35 is armed with an internal 25mm cannon and four internal air-to-air missiles (or two missiles and two smart bombs). Plus four external smart bombs and two missiles. All sensors are carried internally, and max weapon load is 6.8 tons. The aircraft is very stealthy when just carrying internal weapons.

Development costs for the new U.S. F-35 fighter-bomber has grown by a third, to $60 billion, over the last few years. That means the average development cost of the estimated 5,000 F-35s to be built, will be about $12 million each. The additional development costs are accompanied by additional delays before the aircraft enters service. Production costs will average about $84 million. With a share of development costs, that makes the per aircraft cost $96 million. This cost estimate continues to rise, and is expected to eventually exceed $130 million per aircraft.

Like the F-22 fighter, the F-35 is stealthy, and is stuffed with lots of new technology. Most (about 60 percent) of the F-35s built will be used by foreign nations. The rising cost of the F-35 brings with it reluctance to buy as many aircraft currently planned. The success of smart bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan has also made it clear that fewer aircraft will be needed in the future. In any event, it's likely that F-35s will end up costing more than $100 million each.

 

 


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