The Pentagonâs New Jet Fighter Costs Twice as Much as Youâre Being Told
Donât believe claims that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter
will cost $60 million a popâor even $85 million
David Axe in War is Boring
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 campâs assertion that the F-35âplanned to be the
main warplane for the Air Force and Marines and half the Navyâs future fighter
fleetâwill soon cost just $85 million a copy or less in near-future dollars,
thanks to an increasingly efficient production line.
The âgood newsâ
helps bolster the $400-billion weapons program, the most expensive
But itâs not true. Not by a long shot. The much-maligned,
single-engine F-35âwhich suffers from a complex design and a lack of
maneuverabilityâcurrently costs twice what its proponents are projecting.
And donât buy the argument that the jetâs sticker price will substantially drop
in coming years. Lockheedâs been making that claim for a long time now, and it
hasnât 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 âless than any fourth-generation fighter in the worldâ by
A factory-fresh âfourth-generationâ Lockheed F-16 or Boeing F/A-18
set an air arm back just $50 million or so in 2013. Itâs 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.
the F-35-boostersâ 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. Itâs way more than anyone in official circles likes to
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 thatâs 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.
measure, one Air Force F-35Aâthe simplest of the three JSF modelsâcurrently
costs $182 million. A vertical-landing Marine F-35B sets taxpayers back $252
million. The Navyâs 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.
âActual F-35 unit costs are today multiples of what Lockheed says they will be,â
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 canât 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-35Câs
capabilitiesâand probably at much lower cost.