The massive government and industry lobbying and PR efforts behind the troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter are starting to pay off for JSF-maker Lockheed Martin and the military users of the radar-evading jet.
In recent weeks several news outlets have repeated the pro-JSF camp’s assertion that the F-35—planned to be the main warplane for the Air Force and Marines and half the Navy’s future fighter fleet—will soon cost just $85 million a copy or less in near-future dollars, thanks to an increasingly efficient production line.
The “good news” helps bolster the $400-billion weapons program, the most expensive ever.
But it’s not true. Not by a long shot. The much-maligned, single-engine F-35—which suffers from a complex design and a lack of maneuverability—currently costs twice what its proponents are projecting. And don’t buy the argument that the jet’s sticker price will substantially drop in coming years. Lockheed’s been making that claim for a long time now, and it hasn’t happened yet.
Trade publications Defense News and Breaking Defense and wire service Reuters all published stories in mid-December quoting Pentagon and Lockheed executives saying the cost of an F-35 is declining. The execs claimed the JSF, which has been in development for 12 years, could wind up being cheaper than competing planes.
Lockheed manager Lorraine Martin made the most outrageous assertion, insisting to Breaking Defense that the F-35 would cost “less than any fourth-generation fighter in the world” by 2019.
A factory-fresh “fourth-generation” Lockheed F-16 or Boeing F/A-18 set an air arm back just $50 million or so in 2013. It’s unlikely either plane will suddenly become more expensive, as both have been in production for decades and are the products of highly efficient assembly lines.
To be cheaper, an F-35 six years from now will need to cost less than $60 million in then-year dollars, assuming a modest rate of inflation. That kind of price slash would be unprecedented in the rarefied world of jet fighter-manufacturing.
To put the F-35-boosters’ claims in context, Winslow Wheeler, an analyst at the Project on Government Oversight in Washington, D.C., has calculated the true current cost of an F-35. It’s way more than anyone in official circles likes to admit.
Forget the $85-million or $60-million figure being bandied about in the press. Each of the 29 F-35s the Pentagon is purchasing from Lockheed in 2014 costs between $182 million and $299 million. And that’s leaving out research and development spending since the late 1990s, which could soon exceed $50 billion and add $16 million to true long-term acquisition cost of each F-35.
No, Wheeler calculated only the per-plane production cost, which includes advance funding for long-lead parts, the main funding in the year of authorization plus modification funds to fix design flaws on the planes shortly after they roll out of the factory.
By that measure, one Air Force F-35A—the simplest of the three JSF models—currently costs $182 million. A vertical-landing Marine F-35B sets taxpayers back $252 million. The Navy’s carrier-compatible F-35C, still mired in serious development problems, comes in at a whopping $299 million per plane.
Bear in mind that in 2010, Lockheed predicted an F-35 would soon cost just $60 million. “Actual F-35 unit costs are today multiples of what Lockheed says they will be,” Wheeler points out.
Realistically, the Air Force and Marines are destined to acquire most if not all of the combined 2,200 F-35s they have long planned for, as neither military branch has prepared any backup to the pricey stealth jet. In the absence of alternatives, the F-35's high cost will likely force both services to cut other forces and development programs.
Only the Navy has a viable plan B in case it can’t afford its nearly 300 F-35Cs. The sailing branch is still purchasing upgraded F/A-18s and also has a new, jet-powered armed drone in development. Together, these two planes could replace the F-35C’s capabilities—and probably at much lower cost.