AIR POWER

JUST IN: Program Leader Says High Costs Pose ‘Existential Threat’ to F-35

5/13/2021
By Jon Harper

Air Force photo by Senior Airman Codie Trimble

High costs and concerns about affordability threaten the future of the F-35 joint strike fighter, the program executive officer for the aircraft warned May 13.

The jet is the most expensive acquisition effort in the history of the Defense Department. Current Pentagon plans call for procuring more than 2,400 of the platforms — including the A, B and C variants operated by the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy, respectively — at a cost of about $400 billion. The price tag for operations and sustainment is expected to top $1 trillion during the lifecycle of the aircraft.

“I see cost as the program's greatest enemy,” said Lt. Gen. Eric Fick, PEO for the F-35, at the McAleese and Associates annual defense programs conference. “I see high costs as an existential threat to the F-35 as an enterprise. And that cost happens not just in development, not just in production, but in sustainment as well.”

Problems associated with technology refresh 3, or TR3, are impacting the move to Block 4 capabilities which are needed for the jet to be effective in a future high-end fight against advanced adversaries, Fick noted. While a handful of the new capabilities have already been delivered, the tech refresh is needed to enable the remainder of the 70 or so upgrades planned for Block 4, which includes 14 new weapons and a number of software-enabled systems.

“Now we have a cost overrun and we've got some schedule slips on TR3,” Fick said. “As a result of the cost overrun driven by TR3, we've had to slow development and, in some cases, stopped development on some of those Block 4 capabilities.”

Fick did not provide a dollar figure for the cost overruns, which he said are related to the integrated core processor. He noted that the Joint Program Office is working with F-35 prime contractor Lockheed Martin and subcontractor L3Harris to address the issues and try to keep the initiative on track.

The new hardware was slated to be added during Lot 15 production beginning in 2023. The Pentagon and Lockheed are currently in negotiations for Lots 15, 16 and 17, Fick said.

The procurement cost for the F-35A have come down, and are now under $80 million per plane, which is on par with some legacy fighters. However, high sustainment costs continue to plague the program.

The cost per flying hour for the A variant has come down to $33,300 (in base year 2012 dollars), Fick said. The goal is to lower that to $25,000 by 2025.

“Eighty percent of the program costs [over the life of the program] … are in that sustainment place. So, that really presents to me both the greatest challenge and the greatest opportunity for us to reduce overall program costs,” Fick said. “That's where we really have the biggest mandate … when we look at the services’ affordability targets.”

There are several ways to potentially reduce the total price tag for operations and sustainment. One is to leverage simulation tools, Fick said.

“I can fly less, maybe offload some of that work to our full mission simulators, our advanced simulators, which is something we're considering and working with the services on,” he said. While that would reduce total O&S costs, it would also lead to an increase in cost per flight hour because fixed costs would be divided by fewer flight hours, he noted.

Another potential cost saver would be to reduce the number of contractors supporting the aircraft on the flight lines, he said.

“They are great Americans doing great work but they're very expensive. So targeting the sustaining support that we have on the flight lines today, looking at ways to reduce that” is a priority, he said.

Reducing the number of servicemembers required for maintenance could also drive down costs, he added.

“The next biggest piece has to do with the spares and the parts we buy and the parts that we repair,” Fick said. “Driving cost out of that piece is really the next lever” for making sustainment more affordable.

That goal “is really kind of at the heart of the conversation that we've had about a performance-based logistics contract with Lockheed Martin,” he added.

Fick’s comments came at a time when the program is under fire from key lawmakers and other observers for cost overruns and technology problems, and the Air Force is conducting a tac-air study of its fighter portfolio.

Air Force leaders are considering what mix of platforms will be needed to compete against advanced adversaries such as China in the 2030s. The study will inform funding requests for the future years defense program.

“It is helping shape some of the ‘22 [budget blueprint], but it’s really designed to help me build out ’23,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown Jr. said May 12 at the McAleese conference.

The Air Force is working with the Joint Staff and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, he noted. “We’re looking across the board at all of our combat aircraft.”

The Air Force currently has seven fighter fleets, but Brown wants to set the service on a path to reduce that to four — a future Next-Generation Air Dominance platform, F-15EX, F-16 and F-35 — plus the A-10 Thunderbolt II which is being re-winged. Notably, Brown did not include the stealthy F-22 Raptor in his long-term vision of the tactical aircraft fleet.

The F-35 will be the “cornerstone” of the future force, he said, although it’s unclear what the exact mix will be.

“We have to work the long-term sustainment costs,” Brown said. “I’ve been engaging with the leadership at Lockheed Martin as well as my staff and the Joint Program Office, and we’ve got to really work this together.”

Topics: Air Force News, Air Power

Comments (7)

Re: Program Leader Says High Costs Pose ‘Existential Threat’ to F-35

The F35 is a failure becasue its still not finished - its still not able to fight on a contested mission.

Here's the worst part - its never going to be finished we wont get the version promised in the (current) block 4 maybe ever. Maybe by 2030?

By the time the F35 is ready to fight its going to be ready for retirement. That's the hard truth and it really sucks.

(That's not to say that country's like Israel who have no other stealth aircraft cannot use them successfully for specifically tailored missions.)

All hail king Dave at 1:00 AM
Re: Program Leader Says High Costs Pose ‘Existential Threat’ to F-35

F-35 is dropping each year. It is expected to be under $80 Mil in the next couple of years. I don't understand the contradictory tone as the pilots love the F-22 and F-35...but then they say in these damn briefings they are always down, always have issues and not combat ready. Then they flip and say they have used them already combat, similar mission ready as legacy. The coatings are an issue like all stealth, but they clean it up and it's back in action.

Bill at 11:33 PM
Re: Program Leader Says High Costs Pose ‘Existential Threat’ to F-35

Somebody is outright lying to us. One source claims the high costs of the F-35 are an existential threat to the program. Another source tells us the costs of the F-35 are relatively inline with the costs of planes like the Eurofighter Typhoon or Dassault Rafale. In competitive acquisition programs the F-35 has done well even with countries not in the "supply chain" groups. As it stands, the F-35 is a very popular aircraft flown by fourteen different nations with more than 625 aircraft already built. The Su-57 has a total of 12 aircraft built, the Eurofighter has 571 and the Rafale has 200. Yet we hear repeated stories about how poorly the F-35 does in performance (untrue) and in competitive costs (not sure about that either). We hear constantly about all of the problems with the F-35, yet the Israelis seem to be able to use them very well and somehow seem able to afford them and keep them flying...so where's the problem. Obviously it's with the Americans whom seem to be unable to do anything right. The Americans for some reason can't seem to build aircraft carriers, though they possess eleven of them. The Americans can't build Littoral Combat Ships, though they have 22 or so of those. So either somebody is trying to sabotage American enterprises or somebody is blowing smoke up our skirts.

Brian Foley at 9:20 AM
Re: Program Leader Says High Costs Pose ‘Existential Threat’ to F-35

You are right about the F-35. Really a much bigger disaster than the F-111. Regarding multirole stuff, it is ALWAYS better to design for performance and let the ground attack capability come as a natural fallout of the process. P-47 anyone? I am NOT saying that you can't design aircraft specifically for ground attack, especially for low-risk environments (however I think the wars the Portuguese undertook in the 1960s/70s show that props were vulnerable way back then in Mozambique and Angola) but if you want the multirole to include air combat, that has to be the basis of the requirement. About building old planes to new plans....I feel that the new ways of designing and building things could easily lead to more efficient aircraft that are both modern and cheap. Not sure you could use 70-year-old plans as a basis. Just make it the new way and change the wings etc. if that is what is best. Building methods have changed since the F-35 first hit the factory floor and we can take advantage of these for better but cheaper designs. The above statement is also a well-deserved embarrassment for the F-35!

Dave Ujike at 12:32 AM
Re: Program Leader Says High Costs Pose ‘Existential Threat’ to F-35

I think it’s time to put a for in the bloated F35 program. This reminds me of when the Army was testing the new Bradley fighting vehicle and they fudged the results. Never trust the DoD fat cats and defense industry. They will milk this country dry.

gabesdadd at 6:23 PM
Re: Program Leader Says High Costs Pose ‘Existential Threat’ to F-35

the F-22 is a better platform- faster, stealthier, more survivable due to twin engines. it can be fitted out with all the gee-whiz electronics the f35 can carry.

Better still, lets unroll and dust off some of the blueprints for the A-10. Tell the generals and consultants to back the hell off and keep out of it. build a prototype of the same airframe using modern composites, improved materials technology, better engines and enhanced electronics. Then fly it, demonstrate its performance and cost history and let the general drool over its capabilities. You can get one hundred percent state of the art for about 150 million. you can get 90 to 95 percent state of the art for about 20 million. The A10 is to support ground pounders and kill tanks, not fight space aliens.

Once you figure out the process on the A-10, rinse and repeat with most of your fleet overhauls.

There's a hell of a lot of waste and cost over-runs that can be wrung out of the budget.
Some of the best, longest lived and most effective (and cost effective) designs came out of the skunk works because you didn’t have a bunch of generals, consultants and wanna-bes mucking up the works. All those dilatants who keep adding things on to overcome for not getting an electric train set as a kid.

Ditto for the B-52 and B-1. dust off the plans, use modern computer design techniques to clean up the old designs and build the same aircraft. a brand new B52 built according to 70 year old plans has got to be better than a 70 year old B52 built to 70 year old plans. Seriously, how many of those generals are still driving around in a 70 year old family station wagon.

Its like any other project management program. examine the whole project as sub-elements. which break down the most, are most expensive to build, replace, how often. How can the replacement process be made modular to drop the failing part out and quick mount a fully functioning and restored piece of gear. Same for the electronics and weapons loads - mount them on pods which can be quickly swapped out. do the minimum of fuss and fiddling with the airframe and engines, leave the platform alone, just make the add on bits easy to swap out amongst your fleet and you have all the multi-role functionality you can dream of. And you can do that for way less money, getting reliability and mission availability, and timely responsiveness to a changing threat environment.

You don't redesign the postman to deliver a letter versus a daily newspaper. It's the deliverables that count, not the postman. He just needs to be quick, reliable, survivable and consistent. Give our boys modern equipment that works and they can trust. They'll deliver the messages for us, and make it back home to tell us how they did it.

joseph obyrne at 3:34 PM
Re: Program Leader Says High Costs Pose ‘Existential Threat’ to F-35

Anyone still believe the F-35 aircraft is a viable program is just plain wrong. It is and always was a "jobs program" and a pork barrel for L&M

Mike Watson at 6:24 PM
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