Affordability Still A Major Issue for the F-35 Program

 - November 23, 2015, 1:57 PM
F-35 program chief Gen. Chris Bogdan is pressing for a multi-year buy, to reduce the production cost. (Photo: Chris Pocock)

Affordability remains a major concern for most of 13 nations that have invested in the Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter. The Pentagon is pressing the case for a multi-year buy to reduce unit costs, while also exploring delayed procurement. The UK is the latest country to defer buying F-35s.

A senior U.S. Air Force officer told The Fighter Conference in London last week (organized by IQPC) that the service “is trying to buy 1,700 F-35As, at a rate of 60 to 80 aircraft per year, but they’re expensive.” A recent study had examined whether to buy an additional wing of F-15s or F-16s to maintain the force structure, he added. The service is also considering a significant upgrade to its F-15C/Ds, and trying to find the money to revive the F-16V upgrade, which is currently programmed only for some overseas operators of the Fighting Falcon. US Navy officials have examined whether to slow down procurement of their planned 250 F-35Cs on affordability grounds.

According to Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, the unit cost of the F-35A is currently $108 million, and the Pentagon hopes that sum can be reduced to $80 million by 2019. According to Forecast International, Pentagon documents show a unit recurring flyaway cost in Fiscal Year 2015 of $112.5 million for the F-35A; $139.9 million for the F-35B; and $136 million for the F-35C.

The head of the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO), Gen. Chris Bogdan, said recently that “the F-35 program is at a pivot point, with production rapidly accelerating.” A total of 45 is being delivered this calendar year, with 63 due next year and 93 in 2017. “The number of hours required to build the aircraft is declining, and the quality of each delivered aircraft is improving,” Bogdan told the U.S. Congress recently. But, he added, “critical part shortages continue to cause out-of-sequence work and production inefficiencies.” Bogdan is pushing for a Block Buy Contract of 465 jets for all three U.S. services, plus international partners, that “could save billions of dollars.” It would be placed during Fiscal Year 2018 and replace the planned buys under Lots 12-14. 

There are eight international partners and three foreign military sale (FMS) customers. Of the former, six (Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey and the UK) have already ordered aircraft in small quantities. Canada’s new Liberal government will formally evaluate alternatives before buying any F-35s, having declared its lack of enthusiasm for the stealth jet during the election campaign. Denmark has been evaluating alternatives, but is expected to confirm its choice of the F-35 next month. Israel is the first of the FMS customers and will receive its initial aircraft next year. Japan and Korea are the other two. Singapore is a likely fourth FMS customer.

In its latest Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR), published today, the UK government said it would buy another 16 F-35s, bringing its total on order to 24. They will equip two squadrons, and the review confirmed that no more aircraft would be required before 2025. Surprisingly, the document claimed that “over the life of the program” the UK would still acquire the 138 aircraft that it originally planned. British defense policy is reviewed every five years, so the strength of that commitment may be questioned.

The Netherlands has already said that it will procure less than half of the F-35s that it originally intended (37 instead of 80). The Norwegian government has so far committed to buying only 22 of its planned total of 52. Italy is currently planning to buy 90 instead of 131 aircraft, a mix of F-35As and F-35Bs. A Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) officer told The Fighter Conference that his country is currently committed to only 72 of the 100 jets that it originally planned to buy, with a decision on the other 28 to be made around 2020.

Belgium is not one of the F-35 partners, and is planning to hold a competition next year, among the Eurofighter, F-35, F/A-18 Super Hornet, Gripen and Rafale, to replace its F-16s. A Belgian officer told The Fighter Conference in London last week that the country would not include a requirement that its new fighter be capable of carrying a nuclear weapon. Belgium is one of five European NATO nations that have agreed to deliver the U.S. B61 nuclear bomb, if released by NATO. Of the candidates under consideration, only the F-35 would enable Belgium to maintain that commitment. Bogdan told AIN recently that he didn’t envision the B61 or a replacement nuclear weapon being cleared for carriage on the F-35 until “the mid-2020s.”  

Life-cycle costs have also been a concern. Two Pentagon entities—the JPO and the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office—have issued differing estimates for F-35 operations and support (O&S) costs. In September last year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that O&S costs for the F-35 would be considerably higher than for the aircraft that it replaces. Lockheed Martin said recently that the operating cost of the F-35 will be about one-third lower than the original government estimates.