So, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is now projected to cost $1 trillion dollars to operate and maintain over its 30-year lifetime, this is a bump of $85 billion over the Pentagon’s 2009, estimates for the cost of the jet.
However, the JSF, which has yet to enter service, features a computerized supply chain and maintenance system along with an engine based on an already proven design is being compared with the F-16 Falcon, F/A-18 Hornet and AV-8B Harrier which were designed in the 1970s; oh, and it’s assumed the JSF’s parts will break down more often than the legacy planes’ parts.
Yes, those jets have had numerous upgrades in the nearly three decades they’ve been in service but still, is comparing them to the F-35 really all that accurate? And yes, I get the Pentagon’s argument that these estimates are just that, estimates. Even better, they’re estimates that, in some cases, are only estimated to be 50-percent accurate, as Pentagon acquisition czar Ashton Carter has pointed out before (how do you like that for over-use of the word estimate).
Some argue it would be better to compare the F-35 to newer aircraft such as the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the F-22 Raptor? Both were designed in the 1990s and feature numerous technology advances that would serve as a better benchmark. I mean, the F-35s engines and radar are based on those found on the Raptor, two of its most reliable parts. (Although, the F-35’s F135 engine is seeing some development problems.) The problem with comparing the JSF’s lifecycle costs to the newer planes that is the fact that the Super Hornet and Raptor have only been in service for a fraction of their lifetimes and, in the case of the F-22, are still working out their maintenance kinks.
At the end of the day, we’ll know the true costs for operating the F-35 when the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps actually have some solid flight hours under their belts. At this point, we may, emphasis on may, see the Marines’ B-model disappear depending on how well it performs during its two year probation (or if the Pentagon decides to scrap it as part of its upcoming budget review).
Still, the military has put all of its early 21st Century tactical fighter eggs in the JSF basket, as service brass love to remind us. What other options does the Pentagon have but to make the program work? Not many. It can buy more 4.5-generation fighters such as Super Hornets or F-15SE Silent Eagles which would serve until a sixth-gen fighter arrives or it can double down on the F-35.
I expect the latter, the Pentagon is going to fight like mad to get F-35 costs under control both on the development and procurement side of things and on the overall ownership side. With early production model jets already coming off the assembly line, pilots being trained and international partners waiting for deliveries, it’s just too late in the game to see the whole program go. The real question is how will the Pentagon keep costs down in such circumstances? We’ve seen some success on the purchasing end of this equation but now, as Carter and JSF program manager Vice Adm. David Venlet have said, it’s time to start wrestling with the operating costs of the F-35.