More Projected Cost Hikes for the F-35, Now What?

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.


  • Black Owl

    More Super Hornets!

    The jet is as cheap as oats and cookies and with the international road map upgrades you get nearly the same performance as the JSF at about one third of the cost.

    • seeker6079

      Exactly why the Pentagon hates it.

  • @ohfuckinreally

    I’m okay with building a couple as a finished proof of concept, but why do we need squadrons of fighter planes anyway? It seems the only time they are used is when america needs to bomb defenseless third world countries like Libya, Iran and Iraq.

    The Libyan invasion was planned years ahead of time. expect excuses to invade nkorea, syria and china next. It’s all in the plan.

  • jamesb

    This is turning out to be the F-22 all over again….

    I agree with Black Owl….

    The international customers should cancel..and go with the F-18….
    The Navy and Air Force are stuck …
    But the buy should be cut by 50%

  • Dfens

    Sucker Hornets? Yeah, right. We’d be a hell of a lot better off to haul the F-14s out of the desert and stick a couple GE F135s in them. That way half the airplanes on the carrier deck wouldn’t just be there to refuel the other half, and we’d have some airplanes that could actually carry some ordinance to the party.

  • Weaponhead

    This unlimited funding unlmited schedule program has to come to an end. It is on the path of destroying our military preparedness and bankrupting the DoD. Now the support costs bring the total program to $1.3T and still increasing. The light at the end of the tunnel is now clearly a train coming right at us.

  • ew-3

    The F-35 seems to suffer the too many cooks in the kitchen problem.

    After 35 years in engineering, I’ve seen more projects fail due to design by committee. Usually the successful ones are driven by single individuals with a real vision of what the outcome will be. Kelly Johnson is great example of this kind of dedicated vision.
    Including half the world into the project is so politically correct but from an engineering viewpoint really incorrect.

  • Tony C

    The costs analysis for the F-14, F15, and early F-16’s was regarded as state secrets during the cold war. None of these airframes had the costs scrutiny that is being done on the F-35. The fact is each one of those airframes was over budget, but as long as we could best the Soviet Air Force nothing was ever publicly stated about the costs. Now we have no high tech enemy to out perform, so costs is a big issue. I wouldn’t put a generation 4.5 in the same league as a generation 5 fighter. The generation 5 is much more survivable in todays integrated air defense environment.

  • Tyler

    Buy less F-35s and more F-15SEs. Boeing has some international interest for them and they are a heck of a lot less expensive than the F-35. Boeing says they can even make a stealthier super hornet, though for now i’d just stick with the hornet we’ve got. Both are a good stop gap until we start over clean slate for the 6th gen (As long as we can do that program right). Though I know this is an extremely long shot, maybe the acquisition folks will have learned something by the time the 6th gen race really kicks off in earnest.

    • seeker6079

      “maybe the acquisition folks will have learned something by the time the 6th gen race really kicks off in earnest”

      They will have learned that they can suck a trillion out of the US taxpayers without actually producing a plane that can be fielded and fight. Not a great lesson.

  • Byron Skinner

    Good Morning Folks,

    What does it take to convince reasonable adults that the F-35 is is the wrong platform, costing to much money (note this will not be the last surprise cost increase) and cut our loses and out right cancel the whole program.

    That’s a lot of money for an airplane whos F-35B STOVL version can’t be used of CVN’s because they melt the deck.

    Like its stable mate the F-22, it is unlikely that the F-35 will never see combat, the country just is not going to send $200 million fighter into harms way. These puppies will never go below 40,000 feet and the current and foreseeable technologies in weapons is not going to provide weapons that can be released for up there that can engage a ground target.

    We already have a 187 no show F-22’s, we certainly don’t need another 3.500 F-35’s that say the same thing.

    For the kind of war that are likely in the US’s future the F-18, F-16 and F-15 platforms are more then adequate to meet the demands of combat engagements. There is quite simple no operational need for any new manned aircraft right now especially one that will bust through the $2 trillion life time costs.

    The money saved by dumping the F-35 could give the Navy the funds they need to beef up their surface combat ships. The Army is saying no to new tanks and APC’s the AF, Marines and Navy can say no to the F-35.

    Byron Skinner

  • imustbet

    good sales, F- 22 we save the peaceful world, many fallen space sattelites, we must be broken down, fallen out of humanbeings inhabitats areas. Russians national securities ned made in USA. Against invasion, the constitution of U.S. America, this is from space, past days humanbeings products that is many space satelites in spaces.

  • imustbe terrorist

    maybe big inret air intakes, good design, F-35, more successful. Dual air intakes need better changed enogh .

  • Roland

    How about 1000’s F-23?

  • STemplar

    We are going to buy the F35. I agree this thing is too far along for anyone to have the stones to just cancel it. There is going to be a reduced buy and some sort of legacy purchase that saves some money. That’s how they’ll all justify it in DC.

    I also agree we are blowing way too much cash on too much tacair we will never come anywhere near using, and are not spending enough on the things we really do need. I can’t believe there is even a debate that we need to be pouring oodles into the Navy.

    We are spending way too much on the scenarios that are never going to happen and not nearly enough on the ones that are or are going to happen.

  • Oblat

    What 1 trillion gets is a half baked aircraft that will need several decades of fixes and patches all at additional expense, before it is even usable.

    Two decades from now the F15 and F16 will still be the aircraft doing all the work.

  • Justin H

    Too late to cancel. Not too late to cut the number of F-35s.

  • superraptor

    what a mindless comment by defensetech. They are ruminating about a 6th generation fighter which actually an upgraded F-22 could be. In all their suggested scenarios they don’t even mention cancelling the F-35 and restarting production of the F-22. Whar are they afraid of? Offending our dear leader? With China rising we need a premier air superiorty fighter mainly as deterrence. Byron Skinner, how many J-20s will China have in 10 years? 2000?3000?. Remember, it took Nazi Germany with a population of only 80 million people just 6 years to be become the world’s preeminent military power. Well, China has 1.3 billion people and one day when America has shredded all its military hardware and Australia refuses further deliveries of its natural resources, China’s expeditonary forces may decide to take over the Pacific including Australia. Where is Ronald Reagan when you need him?

  • superraptor

    Restart production of an upgraded F-22. There you have your 6th generation fighter with deterrence build in, no F-35 needed.

  • roland

    I do think we need this things for defense. A crises in Korena peninsula or a conflict between Taiwan and China could bring about the needs for defense. If we cannot see that, I dont know what.

  • SMSgt Mac

    Well I waded through all 42 comments at the time of my typing this response, just to see if anyone bothered understanding the numbers given in this supposed ‘cost increase’. Only one guy came close to mentioning one of the two key relevant factors in play with this latest ‘estimate’ , and he asked the question as to why the F-35 would be more expensive than legacy systems? Answer. It won’t be. that is just a ground rule to ensure a conservative estimate is produced and not an optimistic one. Second relevant fact: the estimate includes inflation. Anyone notice what real inflation has done under the Marxist-in-Chief’s regime? Even the ‘gamed’ numbers are up. I’d suggest that if you don’t know how the estimate was produced then shut yer yaps, but I’m afraid the mouth-breathers would die. I’m merciful — Keep yapping.

  • elportonative77

    We won the Cold War because the other guy spent himself into a hole he couldn’t get out off, internal unrest and good fortune. We did not win because of our excellent military procurement scheme. Also you do know times change and we can change things with it. I personally disagree with capitalism. Our procurement system is broken and needs to be fixed. I would rather trust the government in fixing and then controlling it rather than corporations, capitalism or whatever the hell else you can think of.

  • Dfens

    No, we did NOT win the Cold War with the current system of procurement. We won the Cold War with the very system of procurement I advocate we go back to, which is the system where the contractor covers weapon development costs and only makes that money back by selling good weapons at a good price to the DoD. Which also means companies that do not produce good weapons for a good price go out of business.

    In those days an engineer was the chief designer of every weapon. We did not have this design by committee crap. We went to the current way of paying profit on development in the early 1990s. It was part of the “peace dividend” the defense contractors wanted and got from President Clinton’s government.

  • tracker

    Take the avionics and sensor tech from the f-35 and integrate it into new build Super Hornets, new build F-15s (C and E), F-16s, and Harriers. With the new upgrades Boeing’s coming out with on the Super Hornet, and with the new AESA Radars coming out, capabilities for all the mentioned aircraft should be on par with the JSF. And for once our F-a6s maybe as good or better than the ones we sell overseas… Ditch the JSF!

  • Taxandrian

    The way I see it, there’s nothing wrong with having a superfantastic god-like jet fighter in your inventory. As a proof of concept and weapon of choice for say, two elite squadrons. Fifty planes. Bloody expensive but perhaps worth it. Like Sun-Tzu said: “Having large club beats not having large club.”

    However, for the bulk of the air force the F-14 (hate ’15s), F-16, F-18, A-10 and eh, F-111 should suffice. All updated ofcourse. You’ll still beat the crap out of anyone.


    The Obama approach would be to put off bringing the F-35 program for as long as possible and try coming up with a Sixth Generation fighter while buying more older F-15 and F-18s; but with the radar cross section for both F-15 and F-18 not being much different than a few years ago, they will still standout like a sore thumb. And since development hasn’t even started on a 6th Generational fighter, it will take 5-6 years for the first prototype to fly and maybe as many as 15-20 years before they go into production. Then again, with the National Debt problem being what it is; it is highly unlikely that the US will be able to afford any 6th Generation fighter and the US will go from being a superpower to a country like the UK who is building carriers and not have money for fighters.

  • Formula

    Thje DoD and Mr Gates had a PERFECT opportunity to keep COSTS under control………THAT WAS THE F136 COMPETITIVE ENGINE. The GAO did a report not once, but twice on the benefits of the alternate engine. Now you have Canada’s PBO coming in with their analysis that indicates the potential for severe cost increases with the elimination of the F136. I guess ALL of these “experts” in cost analysis are wrong. Our very own GAO told Mr. Gates several times about the cost increase projections and it seems Mr. Gates never really believed them; he would just fire people thinking that would take care of the problem. Mr. Gates still thinks the F35 will be 77M a copy.

  • Formula

    With the elimination of the F136 it’s guaranteed the F135 acquisition and sustainment costs will sky rocket. Also, with the elimination of the F136 each customer will be forced to buy ONE engine that has plenty of commonality with its derivative sister the F119. What this means is this, if there is an engine issue involving the modification and/or replacement of hardware that are common for both engines, the U.S engines for the F22 and F35 will have precedence over ALL FMS customers. This will set up the potential for ALL F35 FMS customers to have a decreased Combat Readiness Rate.

  • Sanem

    an interesting post; one point I’d like to go into is the suposedly lack of alternatives for the F-35, said to be limited to 4.5 gen and 6th gen jets

    but this sum up misses the obvious alternative: UAVs and UCAVs

    UAVs are on the top of every general’s wish list, ground troops never get enough of them, and even with the recent surge in UAVs the US military is still short on them. add to this their proven ability against a more “serious” opponent like Lybia, and UAVs have proven their value (at only a PROVEN $10 million, versus $100+ million for the F-35)

    and then there is the UCAV: the majority of the world’s leading are not developing 6th gen fighters, no, they’ve put their money on UCAVs. cheap, numberous, optionally stealthy and expendable, these are truely the next evolutionary step in combat aircraft. why buy the $100+ million F-35 for air space defence, when you can build $25 million UCAVs to do the same job better? or $50 million stealthy recon/bombers UCAVs with greater range?

  • seeker6079

    “…the Pentagon is going to fight like mad to get F-35 costs under control …”


    Oh man…. (wipes away tears pouring from his eyes) you are wildly funny man.
    (Commences to laugh again… falls away from keyboard.)

  • Dfens

    Lockheed took you for $10.6 billion this quarter. That’s up from $10.3 billion in the first quarter of 2010 (

    “We had a solid operating and financial start to 2011,” said Bob Stevens, Chairman and CEO. “We focused on executing on our programs while continuing to find affordable solutions, because we and our customers need to make every dollar count. In this new reality shaped by an increasingly complex global security environment and an uncertain economy, we remain committed to providing value to our customers while achieving strong financial results for our shareholders.”

    • anon

      Strong financial results for our shareholders.

      Maybe government should buy Lockheed shares. An investment that would keep on giving.

  • gt350

    the f-35 is out of control. we need to take the loss as it will still save us money.

  • eegle51

    If potential enemies start mitigating our stealth capability, is the F-35 nothing more than an F-16? Also, if there are no plans for a carrier F-22 counterpart, than why are we investing in future supercarriers with no upgraded “super fighters” on them? The F-35 STOVL seems like a good idea in combination with A-10’s (and upgraded A-10’s) for close air support and the next level up for ground operations and “close quarter” naval situations. The Marines and the ARMY would have theses. The Air Force can focus and space and upgrading the rest of its fleet.