The F-35 Lightning II, conceived as a versatile, super stealthy next-generation fighter plane, is the most expensive weapon system ever built. Though the Joint Strike Fighter was conceived as a relatively affordable fifth-generation aircraft, flying the F-35 currently costs $36,000 per hour, and it has a projected lifetime cost of $1.7 trillion.
When the program began way back in 1992, the F-35 was supposed to be an affordable one-size-fits-all solution for the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy. It took until this February for the Air Force to publicly admit that the F-16 replacement failed the affordability test.
The House Armed Services Committee chairman railed at the expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter on Friday, saying he wants to “stop throwing money down that particular rathole,” ― just days after the Air Force said it too is looking at other options.
“What does the F-35 give us? And is there a way to cut our losses? Is there a way to not keep spending that much money for such a low capability because, as you know, the sustainment costs are brutal,” Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said a Brookings event.
Air Force officials recently said they are conducting a study to find the best mix of fighters including Lockheed Martin’s F-35, Boeing’s F-15EX and a replacement for the service’s oldest F-16s. Smith was thinking along similar lines.
“What I’m going to try to do is figure out how we can get a mix of fighter-attack aircraft that’s the most cost-effective. And I am telling you right now a big part of that is finding something that doesn’t make us have to rely on the F-35 for the next 35 years,” he said.
F-35 A Trillion-Dollar Mistake?
In 2011, the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program was close to being canceled. Then U.S. Defense Secretary Bob Gates put the bloated, over-budget and behind-schedule program on probation with two years to shape up before the U.S. government would cut its losses and it could have gone either way, according to the program manager for the F-35’s drag chute system, Arthur Sheridan.
The Lockheed Martin fighter jet is built around information. It’s supposed to give its team the upper hand by always having more information than the enemy thanks to its advanced sensor suite, ability to share information, low profile and ability to adapt to almost any situation with its three variants: the standard F-35A with conventional takeoff and landing capabilities, the F-35B with short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing capability and the F-35C, which has larger wings with foldable tips and improved low-speed control for landing on aircraft carriers.
None of that matters, though, if it’s too heavy to fly the way it needs to. Weight problems previously restricted fuel capacity and flight distance, speed and agility beyond what was acceptable, especially in the case of the F-35B. It also put too much stress on certain joints and rivets, which contributed to well-documented reliability issues. Fixing hardware and software problems and redesigning sent costs sky-rocketing.
Lockheed Martin spent two probationary years making more than 600 changes to optimize size, weight and power, resulting in the shedding of 2,600 lb and a 700-lb thrust increase. That got the JSF back on track and, ultimately, off probation — but not off the hot seat. Since then, Lockheed Martin and its myriad partners have been focused on keeping weight and costs down and quality up, and working toward that promise of a flying do-it-all sensor laboratory.
The F-35 currently costs between $94 million (F-35A) and $122 million (F-35B) for low-rate initial production run 10, though sustainment cost projections are as big a concern as production costs for a program that is expected to cost $1.5 trillion over its 55-year lifespan.
The unit prices are expected to continue to drop as the fighter enters full-rate production this year. Soon the unit price for all three versions of the jet is expected to drop below $100 million.
At the same time, Lockheed is shifting its focus from upfront development toward its continuous capability development and delivery (C2D2) strategy, which focuses on agile upgrades. That’s where things such as constant small software updates, additional capabilities like AGCAS, and long-term planning for things like full augmented vision fit in.
The F-35 program has no shortage of critics. But to be fair, it’s important to acknowledge that part of the F-35’s promise has been realized — the price of the variant of the F-35 used by the Air Force has fallen to below $80 million, cheaper than some advanced contemporary nonstealth fighter planes.
And while critics love to pile on the F-35 for being over budget and less agile than its predecessors, in fact not everything about the F-35 is a failure. Its stealth characteristics make it far better than an F-16 for penetrating airspace guarded by modern air defense missiles. The Lightning also has advanced sensors and communication systems it can network with friendly forces to enhance their effectiveness as well.
But there are also many missions, like routine patrols of U.S. airspace and bombing insurgents that pose no threat to a high-flying U.S. fighter jet — the kinds of combat missions flown by U.S. F-35s so far — that don’t require these premium capabilities. And the F-35 isn’t optimized for missions over long distances — important when confronting China’s military activities in the Pacific Ocean — and could be vulnerable if caught up in close-range air-to-air combat.
And even the relatively low $80 million-per-F-35 price tag is deceptive, because the F-35 has proven so expensive and challenging to maintain that every hour an F-35 is flown costs $36,000 on average, compared to $22,000 for an F-16. By an alternate metric, the F-35 is over three times more expensive per hour to fly.
Lockheed Martin, claims that it could reduce operating costs to $25,000 per hour by 2025 — but only if it’s awarded an exclusive maintenance contract. The Pentagon appears to be rightly skeptical.
The high operating costs are tied to a persistent shortage of spare parts and over 800 continuing defects that are still being corrected. At this very moment, F-35 fleets are receiving a projected $16 billion upgrade to software and other components that’s already two years behind schedule and $1.5 billion over budget.
All these developments apparently have the Air Force coming around to the idea that the bill for using the F-35 for routine tasks is just too high. The Navy has already reduced its F-35 buy and the Marine Corps is expected to as well (though, to be clear, even if the Air Force downsizes its order, as seems probable, hundreds more are still likely to enter U.S. military service and the jet will also remain in demand for export abroad.)