F-35 Jet: Air Force Could Lose 590 Fighters If It Can’t Cut $14.5 Billion in Support Costs

The U.S. Air Force may have to cancel orders of 590 F-35 jets if it cannot cut the operation and support costs of the warplanes over the coming decade, an internal analysis has shown.

The Air Force will have to scrap a third of its Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters if it cannot bring the program’s costs down by around 38 percent, Bloomberg News reported.

The December 2017 analysis is another blow to Lockheed and the Pentagon, which have both been working hard to bring the costs of the project down. The Department of Defense claims to have reigned in the seemingly ever-inflating expense of the F-35 platform, projected to total $406 billion by the time all 2,456 jets are delivered to the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy. The Pentagon believes it will cost over $1 trillion to keep the planes flying until 2070.

The Air Force has ordered 1,763 F-35s. The additional operation and support costs for the fleet are estimated to be $3.8 billion per year out to 2028; a total of $38 billion. This price tag will need to be reduced by $14.5 billion if the Air Force wants to keep its full complement of jets.

F-35 An F-35B Lightning II aircraft pictured on March 8, 2016 in Beaufort, South Carolina. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanik said the service is working with the Pentagon to reach the target, noting that the analysis document does not represent a final decision, but rather a “staff assessment on aircraft affordability. It’s premature for the Air Force to consider buying fewer aircraft at this time.”

The F-35 program is in the final year of its development phase, with 270 planes currently flying. In September, the F-35 platform will begin combat testing that could last for up to a year. Assuming this is successful, full production roll-out could begin in 2019.

The $38 billion costs are split between Lockheed and the Air Force. Lockheed is responsible for program management, depot maintenance, part repair, software maintenance and engineering, while the Air Force must cover costs associated with military personnel and fuel.

Stefanik said Air Force expenditure is “growing with the increase in flight hours. The Air Force is working to gather visibility into cost data to better understand the rationale for the growth.”

F-35A A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II aircraft arrives at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, on April 24, 2013. Daniel Hughes/U.S. Air Force/Handout via Reuters

The U.S. Government Accountability Office said in an October report that “without revising sustainment plans,” the Pentagon “is at risk of being unable to leverage the capabilities of the aircraft it has recently purchased.”

Undersecretary Ellen Lord, who heads up the buying process for the U.S. military, told reporters in January that “right now, we can’t afford the sustainment costs we have on the F-35. And we’re committed to changing that.”

The F-35 will be fielded in three different configurations. The F-35A is the conventional model designed for Air Force use. The F-35B variant has vertical take-off and landing capabilities, intended for Marine Corps use on amphibious warships. The F-35C is the variant produced for Navy use on its aircraft carriers.