Questions About Costs, Force Mix Could Spell Trouble for F-35A
Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jensen Stidham
Following years of ups and downs, the Air Force’s F-35A joint strike fighter is once again embroiled in controversy as questions emerge about costs, the future employment of the aircraft and how many the service needs for high-end fights.
The Pentagon, lawmakers and some of the nation’s top defense contractors appear to be at odds over how best to move forward with the fifth-generation aircraft, which has been dogged by a number of issues throughout its history.
Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the sentiment around the program has started to shift both within the Defense Department and in Congress.
“For the past seven years, the F-35 program has kind of been riding high, especially in Congress,” he said in an interview. “What has held back the F-35 program in the more recent years is just the availability of funding within DoD, but now I think the sentiment is starting to shift, because folks are starting to question the operation and sustainment costs of the platform.”
The Pentagon and lawmakers are closely examining the aircraft’s costs because of overall budget constraints, he said.
“They’re also starting to look at alternatives, [such as] remotely piloted systems and sixth-gen concepts for fighter jets,” he said. “Members in Congress are looking at costs and looking at the sacrifices [and] the cuts that will have to be made to existing legacy aircraft in order to accommodate buying the full planned number of F-35s.”
Currently, the Air Force plans to procure 1,763 F-35As over the course of the program.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, urged his fellow committee members in March to find a way to “cut our losses” on the F-35 program.
“I want to stop throwing money down that particular rathole,” he said at a Brookings Institution event.
Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J., chairman of the House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee, declared in April during a joint hearing on the F-35 program that he would not support plussing up joint strike fighter procurement in the upcoming fiscal year 2022 budget — as Congress has done in recent years — unless a number of issues with the aircraft are addressed.
“The tactical air and land subcommittee has been supportive of this program in the past, but as we’ve said many times, we don’t have unlimited resources,” he said. “If this program continues to fail to significantly control and reduce actual and projected sustainment costs, we may need to invest in other, more affordable programs.”
Operations and maintenance costs for the F-35A are currently about $36,000 per flight hour. Program officials aim to reduce it to $25,000 by 2025. The procurement cost for the fighter jet is currently just under $80 million per plane.
Given the overall affordability issues that exist with the aircraft, “I would not support any requests for additional aircraft beyond what is contained in this year’s president’s budget request,” Norcross added.
Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., chairman of HASC’s readiness subcommittee, also criticized the initiative.
“The F-35 is the most expensive program in the history of the Department of Defense and the sustainment costs are expected to exceed $1.2 trillion over the life of the program,” Garamendi said. “The program is over budget. It fails to deliver on its promised capabilities and its mission capability rates do not even begin to make the service thresholds.”
Industry’s solution to these problems often include asking for additional funding, he said.
“Don’t expect more money,” he said. “Do not expect to have more planes purchased than authorized in the president’s budget.”
As of press time, President Joe Biden had not released his formal budget request for fiscal year 2022.
Republican lawmakers also voiced their concerns about the program facing cuts if officials are unable to drive down sustainment costs.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., said the Pentagon and stakeholders must work together quickly to address affordability concerns.
“The F-35 is a vital national security investment with a planned lifecycle of 66 years, [however], I am concerned that estimated life cycle sustainment costs continue to increase,” he said during the hearing. “While procuring the F-35 capability is vital to national security, we need to make sure we can afford to employ it well into the future.”
Time is of the essence and it will be more difficult to reduce sustainment costs as the fleet grows, he added.
According to an April report from the Government Accountability Office titled, “F-35 Sustainment: Enhanced Attention to and Oversight of F-35 Affordability Are Needed,” the Air Force needs to reduce estimated costs per tail per year by $3.7 million by 2036 or it will incur $4.4 billion in costs beyond what it currently projects it could afford in that year alone.
“Air Force officials told us that the Air Force will not be able to afford the cost of sustaining the 1,763 aircraft it plans to purchase without dramatic cuts to sustainment costs of the F-35A,” the GAO report says.
Reducing lifecycle costs is an issue prime contractor Lockheed Martin has invested nearly $400 million dollars to address, said Greg Ulmer, the company’s executive vice president for aeronautics.
The firm is working on an operations and support affordability effort which will focus on reducing manpower and material costs, he said during the hearing.
“We are decreasing the people required to support and maintain the F-35 by digitally transforming through robotic process automation, streamlining flight-line operations, and establishing a financial structure to decrease sustainment labor rates by more than 20 percent,” Ulmer said.
The company is using analytics and prognostics to improve maintenance predictability, which will facilitate cutting costs, he said.
However, Ulmer stressed that Lockheed Martin cannot accomplish the program’s affordability goals without efforts from its partners and customers.
Lockheed’s portions of the sustainment enterprise accounts for approximately 39 percent of the total O&S cost of the F-35, with the government and Pratt & Whitney — the aircraft’s engine manufacturer — accounting for the remainder, he said.
“Lockheed Martin stands ready to partner with our service customers to drive enterprise-wide affordability while scaling the fleet,” he said.
“We believe the most effective way to achieve these results is to establish long-term sustainment partnerships that eliminate the cumbersome annual contracting process and provide more stability for long-term investment.”
Matthew Bromberg, president of Pratt & Whitney’s military engines division, said the company recognizes affordability is the most pressing challenge the program is facing and is committed to reductions.
“Our successful war on costs program — which reduced engine cost by 50 percent — … will provide a blueprint to overcome the production headwinds,” he said during the hearing. “Sustainment cost reduction can be and will be achieved by leveraging our experience from other programs. … In particular, the F119 [engine] playbook will help us reduce engine maintenance costs by 50 percent through health monitoring, repair development and depot productivity tasks.”
Meanwhile, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown has begun looking at a variety of other procurement options for the service’s future tactical fleet, including less costly fourth-gen fighters, sixth-gen platforms that are expected to emerge for the service’s Next-Generation Air Dominance program, and drones. To aid in these decisions, Brown announced in February that the service would conduct a tactical air study to determine the proper mix of aircraft the service needs for future battles.
“That requires some modeling and simulation and analysis and that’s what I plan to do here over the upcoming months,” Brown told reporters in February.
Although the Air Force is exploring its options, the F-35 will still be the cornerstone of the service’s fighter fleet for decades to come, said Brig. Gen. David Abba, director of the Air Force’s F-35 Integration Office.
The jet ensures the service’s ability to operate in highly contested environments where peer competitors have already fielded advanced capabilities that are improving rapidly, he said in an interview with National Defense.
“We have to consider how the F-35 fits in with the rest of the fighter force structure to accomplish the missions that we need to accomplish,” he said.
Every decision the service makes is predicated on a series of facts and assumptions, and over time the Air Force has to revisit them to see if the ideas underpinning its decisions have changed, he said.
“That’s effectively what we’re doing within the fighter force study,” Abba added.
From an affordability perspective, the purchase price of the Air Force’s variant of the airplane is exactly where the service wants it to be, Abba said.
“We got down beneath $80 million a copy for the F-35A,” he noted.
Meanwhile, when it comes to sustainment costs, there is a disconnect between how much it costs the service to operate the aircraft and the funding Congress allots to the Air Force, he said. This gap impacts unit readiness, which translates into reduced flight hours and lower mission capability rates, he said.
In order to address this, the F-35 Integration Office is in regular talks with the Joint Program Office and other stakeholders, Abba said. The Navy, Marine Corps and international partners are also buying variants of the jet.
“At the end of the day, the airplane is not going to get more affordable to operate unless we can reduce the demand in the prices for [labor],” he said. “The program itself and Lockheed Martin are working on reliability and maintainability initiatives to try to increase the amount of time that parts on the airplane spend ... ‘on wing.’”
The concept revolves around the idea that the less often a part breaks, the fewer amount of times it needs to be removed from an aircraft, which equates to less time maintainers spend fixing the airplanes.
“It’s fewer spare parts that we have to buy [and] it’s fewer parts that we have to push through the repair network — whether that’s the Air Force or a contractor,” he said. “All of those things will work to drive down costs.”
Although there is growing momentum to drive down sustainment costs for the aircraft, Abba noted that as the program matures, that becomes more difficult.
“We’re at a level of maturity within the structural framework of the weapons system … [where] driving out a lot of costs from sustainment is really, really going to be challenging to do because we’re 20 years into the development process of this,” he said. “We will continue to make some progress on that, but I testified to the fact that cost reduction initiatives alone are going to be insufficient.”
Abba noted that an alternative to lowering operations costs would be for the Air Force to be allotted more funding.
“Another way that you could do this is to expand the amount of budget that is available,” he said.
Although there are differing opinions on how to best move forward with the F-35, it remains to be seen what is appropriated in the fiscal year 2022 budget, Harrison noted.
“Right now, we’re just hearing words, we’re hearing rhetoric. What ultimately matters at the end of the day is what Congress puts in the appropriations bill,” he said. “That’s going to be the real test of the program, is how many planes are appropriated and in FY ’22 does Congress continue to add more planes than requested, or do they only provide funding for the number of planes that were requested.”
Wargame Yields Lessons for F-35 Employment in 2030s
The F-35, a fifth-generation fighter jet, was incorporated into an Air Force “Futures Games” exercise that was set in an imagined 2038 scenario and designed to explore the mix of capabilities required to defeat near peer adversaries.
By that time, the stealthy platform will have reached the mid- to end-point of its lifecycle. That means the Air Force will have to employ different mixes of aircraft in future conflicts, a service spokesperson said during an interview.
During the tabletop exercise — which took place late last year — the service recognized that “with our adversaries growing their missile capabilities, for us to have a fighter fleet that accomplishes objectives, we need to invest more in base defense and agile combat employment,” he said.
The service experimented with Joint All-Domain Command and Control during the exercise. JADC2 is envisioned as a way to better link the armed forces’ sensors and shooters on the battlefield.
JADC2 insights gleaned during the experiment were marked for further study and will inform recommendations about how the joint strike fighter can be employed in the future, including how it can pass data back and forth between different platforms such as other fifth-generation aircraft or legacy fourth-generation systems. The Air Force sees “connectivity really making a difference in how we wage war in the future,” the spokesperson said.