The F-35 Lightning II is a marvel of engineering and the most advanced aircraft in the U.S. arsenal. But throughout its history, the stealth fighter has been plagued with problems.
First, it was a plethora of technical issues that kept restricting the aircraft and its production. But now, as the F-35 is already operational in several air forces across the world, the issue is financial.
Indeed, the situation is so dire that the Pentagon might end up with brand new F-35s but with no money to fly them.
The F-35 is a stealth fighter in three flavors
F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a 5th generation multi-role fighter and arguably the world’s most advanced tactical jet. In total, 14 nations are or will be operating the aircraft and several more are eager or interested in purchasing it.
The aircraft comes in three variants.
The F-35A is the conventional take-off and landing version. The U.S. Air Force plans to buy more than 1,700 F-35As to replace its existing fleet of A-10 ground attack aircraft—although Congress keeps blocking the retirement of the platform—and F-16 Fighting Falcons.
The F-35B is the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) version of the aircraft. It can operate from aircraft carriers, helicopter carriers, and very small airfields, making it an ideal platform for expeditionary warfare. The main customer for the F-35B is the U.S. Marine Corps, which plans to purchase more than 350 aircraft to replace its AV-8B Harrier and F/A-18 fighter jets.
Finally, the F-35C is the carrier version of the aircraft. It has a sturdier frame, tail hook, and improved landing gear to withstand the tremendous forces caused when landing on an aircraft carrier. The Navy plans to buy about 270 F-35Cs and the Marine Corps an additional 67.
An aircraft that costs too much
In total, the Department of Defense is planning to acquire about 2,500 F-35s for approximately $400 billion. But to operate and maintain those aircraft over the 66 years it plans on using them, estimates suggest it would have to pay close to $1.3 trillion. To make matters worse, that latter estimate isn’t fixed and may go even higher—to be sure, it might also decrease, but if the past nine years can be considered historical precedent, an increase is more likely. In fact, some recent projections show the cost reaching as high as $1.7 trillion over the fighter’s lifetime.
As a result, some Air Force officials and lawmakers alike have said the program simply costs too much to sustain, regardless of drops in the acquisition price of each aircraft (which is now technically lower per plane than the Air Force paid for its first batch of new F-15EXs).
Last July, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that if the F-35 program continues at its projected rate, the Pentagon won’t be able to afford to fly the 2,300+ aircraft it’s planning on buying, at least not with anything close to modern (and in fact, record-breaking) defense budgets.
The GAO report found that the Air Force will need to reduce the estimated annual costs per aircraft by 47 percent ($3.7 million per jet), or otherwise it will overshoot its projected budget by close to $6 billion per year by 2037.
Every hour the F-35 is on the air, it costs around $36,000, which is almost 50 percent more than what an F-16 costs to fly. However, Lockheed Martin, the plane’s manufacturer, has claimed that it can drop the operating cost to $25,000 per hour within four years, but to do so demands an exclusive maintenance contract.
Moreover, the F-35 program is close to entering its “Milestone C” phase, which means that it will finally enter full rate production. The GAO report found that if the Pentagon doesn’t reassess cost-reduction efforts and the number of aircraft it is planning on buying, it “may continue to invest resources in a program it ultimately cannot afford.”
Related: HOW DID THE F-35 GET SO EXPENSIVE?
Wait, say that again?
When the F-35 program began, the Department of Defense was looking to replace several different aircraft that were aging out of service with just one new plane.
The rationale behind that decision was that by having one aircraft that could do the job of many, the Pentagon would shrink acquisition costs, make maintenance simpler and cheaper, make training easier, and overall have a more streamlined logistical line, especially with forward-deployed aircraft.
But not all went according to plan, and now the Pentagon is looking to buy new, older aircraft or upgrade its existing ones to preserve the F-35 for only the most essential missions.
General Charles Q. Brown, the Air Force Chief of Staff, has said that Air Force is looking to moderate the use of the F-35, rather than using America’s most expensive and advanced fighter jet on lesser missions.
“You don’t drive your Ferrari to work every day, you only drive it on Sundays. [The F-35 is] our ‘high end’ [fighter jet], we want to make sure we don’t use it all for the low-end fight,” the Air Force’s top general said, adding that the Air Force should preserve the capability for the possibility of a conflict with a near-peer adversary.
To minimize the F-35’s use to only the necessary training and missions, the Department of Defense has started looking for or has already bought less advanced aircraft, such as the F-15EX and F/A-18 Block III, as well as funding smaller efforts like the Special Operations Command’s Armed Overwatch Program. The rationale now is to have a fleet of 4th and “4.5” generation fighter jets to complement the F-35 and deal with less advanced threats, with the forthcoming NGAD fighter (or fighters) eventually replacing America’s F-15 and F-22 fleets.
So the Department of Defense might end up spending more money on older aircraft so it can afford to use its most advanced platform that was designed to replace all other aircraft in the fleet. Apparently, something went wrong in that calculation.