JUST IN: Program Leader Says High Costs Pose ‘Existential Threat’ to F-35
Air Force photo by Senior Airman Codie TrimbleHigh 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.”