The F-35 program has been an expensive boondoggle for years, despite repeated efforts to bring program costs under control and deliver a functional aircraft. Current program costs are estimated at $406.5 billion, and that’s before you factor in repair and maintenance over the lifetime of the fighters. The all-in price is expected to break $1.1 trillion over the coming decades, high enough that the Air Force could be forced to slash its aircraft orders by a full third. That’s according to an internal Air Force assessment on the ongoing status of the F-35, Bloomberg reports.
The Air Force estimates that it must either cut the operation and support costs of the F-35 by 38 percent over the next decade or slash nearly 600 aircraft from its fleet. The current plan is to order 1,763 aircraft in total, but if support costs don’t come down the Air Force may reduce its order by 590 aircraft. The report also notes that the Air Force has “very limited visibility” into how the increasing funds it pays to Lockheed for “contractor support” are spent.
The Pentagon expects to spend roughly $38B on F-35 support and maintenance through 2028 and is seeking to cut that by 38 percent. In his most recent report, the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, Robert Behler, wrote:
Reliability growth has stagnated. It is unlikely that the program will achieve the JSF ORD (Operational Requirements Document) threshold requirements at maturity for the majority of reliability metrics. Most notably, the program is not likely to achieve the Mean Flight Hours Between Critical Failures threshold without redesigning aircraft components.
The same report noted that overall fleet-wide availability rates remain at roughly 50 percent, the same level achieved in October 2014, despite a significant increase in the number of aircraft. Parts shortages have actually become more common, not less, over the same period of time. The same report documented substantial ongoing problems with Block 3F fighters.
The growth in cost is on the Lockheed side of the equation and is tied to program management, maintenance, repairs, software development, and overall engineering. The Air Force is reportedly attempting to gain better visibility into why these costs are increasing at a time when the program should be in full swing. The US Government Accountability Office stated last October that while the F-35 brought unprecedented and unique capabilities to the US military, the out-of-control sustainment costs put the Pentagon at risk “of being unable to leverage the capabilities of the aircraft it has recently purchased.”
The F-35 Is Already Obsolete
A great deal of ink has been spilled on whether the F-35 delivers enough improvements and advantages over fighters like the F-16 or F-22 to justify its cost. While that’s absolutely a valid question, I think it misses a larger point: Drones have already rendered the F-35 obsolete.
You could argue I’m jumping the gun, since we don’t yet have a drone capable of flying literally every mission the F-35 is expected to perform (at least, we don’t know that we have one). But this is arguing the problem from the wrong way around. The F-35 has been in development for 16 years already; the $1.1 trillion program costs we discussed above contemplate a program that operates through 2070. When the first fragile wooden biplanes flew over the battlefields of Europe, only a handful of mavericks thought the airplane or the aircraft carrier would supplant the battleship. But it happened. Similarly, the German V-1 and V-2 weren’t initially seen as being the forerunners of technology developments that would render entire fleets of nuclear bombers irrelevant. In each case, rapid technological development resulted in significant shifts in military strategy and left older hardware — which was often incredibly impressive in its own right — largely obsolete.
I don’t know when we’ll have a drone capable of flying every single mission the F-35 can handle, but I’d wager it’ll be long before 2070 rolls around. It may happen before we’ve even finished debugging the plane, judging by how well that’s going.
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