High acquisition costs continue to afflict the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, but the recent revelation of high operating costs may present a new threat to the program’s sustainability. According to an internal study, the U.S. Air Force may need to reduce its overall purchases of the Stealth aircraft, unless it can reduce operating and maintenance costs by up to 38% over the next decade.
The USAF study was reported by Bloomberg, which claimed to have reviewed its contents.
Lockheed Martin Corp. is the primary contractor for the F-35, a single-engine, aircraft designed for ground attack and combat, and deployed by the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, and U.S. Marine Corps, and the defense forces of multiple allied nations.
To date, 270 F-35 aircraft have been deployed by the USAF, USN, and USMC, though the Pentagon. As of 2017, U.S. Dept. of Defense and Lockheed agreed to unit costs $94.6 million for the F-35A, the USAF’s conventional takeoff and landing variant; $122.8 million for the F-35B, the USMC’s short takeoff and landing variant; and $121.8 million for the F-35C, the carrier takeoff and landing variant, for the U.S. Navy.
Lockheed, as well as Northrop Grumman Corp, Pratt & Whitney, and BAE Systems plc, have worked for several years to make the F-35 program’s supply chain more cost-effective, and cut the delivery cost — and those efforts are ongoing.
Recently, the U.S. Dept. of Defense revealed that modernization costs for the F-35 jets it has already purchased and deployed will run to about $16 billion through 2024. Vice Admiral Mathias Winter, who heads the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Program Office, explained that “continuous enhancements and improvements will be made to increase capabilities that make the F-35 more lethal and survivable,” according to several reports.
The F-35 program is scheduled to deliver 90 new jets this year, building toward a peak production rate of 160 new jets per year by 2023.
Cutting the overall purchase by 38% would mean the program’s working project of 1,763 jets would be reduced by nearly one third, or 590 aircraft, according to the published analysis.
The new evaluation is likely to shape ongoing negotiations on unit costs toward the next round of purchases, Lot 11.
No contract for new F-35 fighter jets is expected soon, according to comments by Lockheed CEO Marilyn Hewson. "We have been open and collaborative throughout this process on this negotiation, but what I will tell you is it's a complex negotiation,” she told CNBC, “because, … when you consider 130 aircraft for this next lot, it's very important to understand the cost."