Procurement: Blowing Smoke For the F-35


February 2, 2014: The U.S. Department of Defense is being accused of deception for refusing to admit the true cost of the new F-35 in the face of growing cuts in the military budget. Despite these cuts the Department of Defense will not change the number of F-35s ordered nor the unit cost that should be increased becasue of these cuts. Something has to give. The U.S. Air Force still expects to get production models of its 31 ton F-35A in late 2016. This is the cheapest version, costing about $159 million each. The U.S. Navy version (the F-35C) will arrive in late 2019 and cost about $264 million each. This version has a stronger landing gear to handle carrier landings and components that are more resistant to corrosion from constant exposure to salt water. The vertical take-off version for the marines, the F-35B, will cost $214 million each. All of these prices are expected to be much higher (20 percent or more) in reality.

Meanwhile there are the seemingly endless delays. The manufacturer of the F-35 has assured the Department of Defense that the F-35 would begin entering service in 2015. At least the vertical take-off F-35B model will. The F-35B, which will replace the AV-8B, is a 27 ton aircraft that can carry six tons of weapons and is stealthy. In vertical takeoff mode the F-35B will carry about twice the weapons as the Harrier and have about twice the range (800 kilometers). The F-35 has been delayed many times in the last decade and there has even been talk of cancellation. Orders have already been cut and the manufacturer is under a lot of pressure to get the new stealth aircraft into service.

That solves the scheduling problems, at least on paper. But the increasing costs of theF-35 are scaring off foreign buyers. These users have noted that the F-35 costs 60 percent more (than the F-16, per flight hour) to operate. For European nations, with static or shrinking defense budgets and growing demands to help with peacekeeping operations, more expensive (to buy and operate) jet fighters just don’t fit in.

Initially the F-35 operating costs were supposed to be the same or lower than other fighters (like the F-16, F-15, or F-18). But then it was noted that those operating costs were creeping upwards. In 2011 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 insisted) less. In 2010 the navy, after nervously watching the manufacturing costs of the new F-35C and F-35B carrier aircraft increase, concluded that these aircraft would a lot more expensive to maintain. It comes down to this. At that time 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 and 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.

The Department of Defense and the air force have also had disputes over how much each new F-35 fighter will cost. The air force insists that it was lower than what the same numbers indicated to the Department of Defense. When all costs are included each F-35 is nearly twice as expensive as the air force estimate. 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 over $70 billion, which comes to over $22 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. 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.

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 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 stuffed with a lot 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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