Procurement: The Shrinking Demand for F-35s

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October 14, 2005: The F-35 (formerly JSF, or Joint Strike Fighter) has seen it's development costs go from $19 billion to $26 billion in the last five years. That's not as disastrous as it sounds, for there are still plans to produce some 1800 F-35s (for American and allied air forces.) Back in 2001, there were plans to produce close to 3,000 F-35s, but times have changed, and not as many are needed. For a modern, stealthy aircraft, the F-35 is not all that expensive. Not counting the development costs, each aircraft will cost between $35 million and $50 million. That's pretty reasonable these days. Back in 2001, the development costs would add maybe $7 million to the cost of each aircraft. But now, that "R&D" (research and development) surcharge has doubled.

A major reason for the decline in demand for the F-35 is not rising costs, but smart bombs. It's easier to deliver the new generation of satellite guided smart bombs via a heavy bomber (like the half century old B-52), than via the latest fighter-bomber. However, in the opening stages of a war, when the enemy still has some effective air defense weapons, sending in stealthy F-35s is a much safer, and certain, way to go. But even that appears to be old-school, with more capable UAVs entering service. Why risk an F-35 and a pilot, when you can send in unmanned aircraft. Then you can bring in the "bomb trucks" (B-52, B-1, B-2) to deliver the smart bombs. For these reasons, many believe the F-35 will be the last manned combat aircraft. Not because of the high cost, but because robots do it better.

 


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