The $1 Trillion Fighter-Jet Fleet

Sticker Shock Hits Washington as Pentagon Estimates Lifetime Cost of F-35s

A new Pentagon forecast showing the total cost of owning and operating a fleet of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters topping $1 trillion over more than 50 years has caused a case of sticker shock in Washington.

And that price tag doesn’t even include the $385 billion the Defense Department will spend to purchase 2,500 of the stealthy planes through 2035.

During a Senate hearing this month, Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) called the $1 trillion figure “jaw-dropping,” particularly when compared with the costs of operating other aircraft.

“I appreciate this estimate is still early and subject to change, but we need to know that the program is going to bring that number down,” he said.

Tom Burbage, who leads the program for manufacturer Lockheed Martin Corp., acknowledged that the ‘t’ word “causes a lot of the sensational reaction to it, because no one’s ever dealt with ‘t’s before in a program.”

The long-range estimate is, by its nature, imprecise because it attempts to forecast factors including inflation and fuel costs decades into the future. And the Pentagon says it will be adjusted as the planes enter operation.

But the figure is bringing new scrutiny to what is already the Pentagon’s largest-ever weapon-buying project as its budget comes under pressure. Already, Lockheed Martin has said it was looking for ways to bring down the long-term cost.

Christine Fox, head of the Pentagon’s cost-assessment office, said in Senate testimony that the F-35 would likely cost about 33% more per flight hour to operate than two of the aircraft it will replace, the F-16 and F-18. But the new aircraft will be much more sophisticated, will be far less visible to enemy radar and will have sensors that allow a single jet to take on missions that now require several aircraft.

The Marine Corps version of the F-35 will be able to hover and land vertically. The Navy model will operate from aircraft carriers, while the Air Force version will be based on land. Developmental aircraft are flying, and the first F-35s—which cost about $113 million each—are slated to enter service later in the decade.

The Pentagon’s forecast includes all the possible costs the military might incur over the lifetime of the program, including everything from housing the aircraft to installing replacement parts.
Add all those together, and factor in inflation, Mr. Burbage said, and “you trip the trillion-dollar mark.”

But, he said, “The question to ask is, is that a relevant number?”

Retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Emerson Gardner, who previously oversaw cost assessment at the Pentagon, said it wasn’t “good analysis” to put that round dollar figure out without a point of comparison—for instance, the cost of sustaining the less-capable aircraft the new plane would replace.

“You can scare the children with lots of things by projecting out to what it’s going to cost in 2065,” he said. “It’s more useful to us if it’s [forecast] five to 10 years.”

A more near-term analysis, Gen. Gardner said, might add to a constructive debate about realistic costs and alternatives.

It is normal for sustainment costs to outstrip the basic drive-away cost of a piece of military hardware. But Pentagon procurement chief Ashton Carter said in a recent Senate hearing that the Joint Strike Fighter’s projected sustainment bill was on top of an “unacceptably large” bill for procurement.

Still, he said, the Pentagon sees no “better alternative” to the F-35.

“Sustainment seems like years away, but now is the time to face that bill and begin to get that under control,” he said.

The Joint Strike Fighter has long been a troubled program, with cost overruns, military management shake-ups and heightened political scrutiny, but Lockheed says the aircraft is now ahead of schedule on its test flights.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Lockheed Chairman and Chief Executive Robert Stevens said the trillion-dollar figure was derived from a new Pentagon “selected acquisition report” that wasn’t developed by the company, and said the company would work to find ways to bring down the aircraft’s long-term production and sustainment costs.

“As big as that number is, there are sufficiently large opportunities to reduce that number by making streamlining decisions along the way,” he said.

By Nathan Hodge

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