Procurement: The F-35 Price Flies Too High

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September 19, 2011:  The U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Air Force are trying to agree on what the new F-35 fighter will cost. The air force insists that it is $65 million each, while the Department of Defense says when all costs are included; it will be more like $111 million each. Another number being debated is how many F-35s will actually be produced. The air force assumes 3,162, but the Department of Defense is not so sure that many will eventually be built. Total development cost is now put at $65 billion, which comes to over $20 million per aircraft if 3,162 are built. Development costs for the new U.S. F-35 fighter-bomber has grown by more than a third over the last few years. The additional development costs are accompanied by additional delays. Current estimates are that the F-35 will enter service in another 6-7 years. The Department of Defense believes production and development costs will continue to rise, and that the number to be built will decline. Both trends increase the average aircraft cost. Based on past experience, the higher Department of Defense estimates are more likely to be accurate.

And then there are operating costs. Earlier this year, after months of contentious disagreement, the U.S. Air Force came around to agreeing with U.S. Navy claims that the F-35 will cost much more to maintain, rather than (as the F-35 promoters assert) less. It was over a year ago that the U.S. Navy, after nervously watching as the manufacturing costs of the new F-35C and F-35B carrier aircraft increase, concluded that these aircraft would also be a lot more expensive to maintain. It comes down to this. Currently, it costs the navy, on average, $19,000 an hour to operate its AV-8 vertical takeoff or F-18C fighter aircraft. The navy calculated that it would cost 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.) The navy concluded that maintenance alone would be about a third more.

The differences between air force and navy cost estimates came down to different methods of doing maintenance and calculating costs. The two services have, over the decades, developed different ways to use civilian maintenance services and stockpiling spare parts. Most navy warplanes operate from carriers, which is more difficult and expensive than from a land base. In effect, the navy was forced to become more efficient in order to afford operating expensive warplanes at all. But now the air force and navy have resolved a lot of these differences, and agreed that the costs of the "cheaper" F-35 are actually higher.

Like the F-22, which had production capped at less than 200 aircraft, the capabilities, as superior as they are, may 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. The navy recently began examining the possibility of buying fewer F-35s, in the long run, and replacing them with combat UAVs, like the X-47B. Politics, and lobbying by the F-35 manufacturer, will probably keep the F-35 headed for fleet service, no matter what the cost.

The 31 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.

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 as 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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