F-35 Costs Skyrocket: Program Now Expected to Top $2 Trillion

The F-35 program costs balloon past $2 trillion due to software glitches, low jet availability, and soaring maintenance. The Pentagon freezes deliveries while Congress stalls efforts to control costs.

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

Around ten years ago, it was estimated that the “Joint Strike Fighter” program, also known as the F-35 Lightning II, would cost one trillion dollars over its entire existence. Many of its detractors called it the “trillion program” because of this fact. The cost components include the amount that was invested in research and development, the acquisition of 2,471 aircraft (1,763 F-35As for the United States Air Force, 368 F-35B/Cs for the United States Marine Corps, and 340 F-35Cs for the United States Navy), and the costs associated with operational sustainment were taken into consideration.

The persistent challenges this program encounters are predominantly attributable to the unstable software update referred to as TR3. The Pentagon has decided to suspend Lockheed Martin F-35 deliveries until the matter is resolved. This impacts the development of the Block 4 variant of the fighter bomber, which necessitates the integration of a more potent engine than the current F-135 supplied by Pratt & Whitney to accommodate the 66 additional features enumerated in its specifications.

The Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) of the Pentagon recently brought up another issue: the poor availability of F-35s already in service compared to the initial targets. “The operational readiness of the F-35 fleet falls short of expectations and requirements, with an overall availability rate of only 51% while the target is 65%,” he noted before recommending, once again, measures aimed at improving spare parts supply.

The overall program cost has been increased again by the Government Accountability Office, a branch of the United States Congress responsible for overseeing the finance department. For this reason, the Government Accountability Office recently released a report specifying a staggering amount of $2 trillion, mainly attributable to the operational sustainment of the F-35.

The Government Accountability Office writes, “Maintenance costs have increased by 44%, from $1.1 trillion in 2018 to $1.58 trillion in 2023.” However, the Pentagon’s decision to keep the F-35 in service until 2088 (instead of 2077) partly explains this upward revision of the program’s cost.

However, the amount of time that these aircraft can fly will be reduced. Actually, it has already done so. Improvements have been made in terms of financial accessibility by the United States Air Force, United States Navy, and United States Marine Corps. This refers to the annual amount they believe they can afford to spend on aircraft maintenance. The Government Accountability Office asserts that this is partially attributable to the reduction in projected flight hours and the fact that the Air Force has increased its budget cap on operational sustainment.

Thus, the US Air Force’s maintenance of an F-35A costs $6.6 million, significantly higher than the initial target of $4.1 million. “In June 2023, it raised the amount it can afford to spend per aircraft to $6.8 million per year.”

Regarding the F-35’s “overall” availability, the Government Accountability Office noted, like the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation before it, that it has “significantly decreased over the past five years” and that none of the three variants of the aircraft meet the set objectives.

Also, while the F-35 program office or the Joint Program office projected in 2020 that the F-35 fleet would fly more than 382,000 hours per year by the mid-2030s, the discussion is now about 300,000 hours per year, even as the number of aircraft in service will have increased.

Despite this, the spare parts supply remains a point of contention. The F-35’s economic model is comparable to that of printer makers, which means that it is relatively affordable to purchase, but it is expensive to use in terms of ink cartridge pricing. The F-35 has a vast and complex supply chain, with millions of individual parts. Maintaining an adequate supply of spare parts and managing this intricate supply chain contributes to high sustainment costs.

The Pentagon had contemplated informing Lockheed Martin of a performance-based logistics contract to solve this issue. This would have resulted in cost savings, enhanced the availability of spare parts, and sped up the process of repairing aircraft. But in the end, it was necessary to put the negotiations on hold; in an interview with Breaking Defense, a senior Pentagon official noted that Congress has mandated stringent standards that must be met before performance-based logistics can be considered for award.

In a recent book, Topgun co-founder Captain Dan Pedersen summarized the situation: “The lucrative subcontracting contracts around the F-35 strategically extend to virtually every constituency in the United States. With so many members of the House of Representatives having an interest in the program, it is assured of enjoying broad political support regardless of its actual capabilities or cost.”


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