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National Security Desk / Mar. 29, 2018

Ballooning Costs May Force USAF to Cut F-35 Orders

The estimated cost of maintaining the top-of-the-line fighter jet may preclude its usefulness.

If the U.S. Air Force can’t figure out a way trim operational and support cost for its F-35 fighter jets by 38%, then it may have to cut the current order from Lockheed Martin by a third, or 590 aircraft. Bloomberg reports, “The long-term support concerns are on top of current F-35 challenges including parts shortages, unavailable aircraft and technical issues that must be solved as the program ends its 17-year development phase. In September, the F-35 is to begin as much as a year of rigorous combat testing that’s required by law. Successful testing would trigger full-rate production, the most profitable phase for Lockheed, as soon as late 2019.”

Half of the operations costs are due to support expenditures tied to Lockheed’s “program management, depot maintenance, part repair, software maintenance and engineering,” noted Air Force spokesman Ann Stefanek, and costs “are growing with the increase in flight hours.”

The Pentagon has plans to use the F-35 fighter through 2070, and it estimates that maintenance costs alone for the jet will top $1.1 trillion over that period. In other words, it’s expensive. The question is whether the F-35 is worth the ballooning cost. U.S. allies, who also have orders in for the fighter, are asking the same question. Stephen Lovegrove, Great Britain’s No. 2 civilian defense official, expressed his government’s frustration, telling reporters recently, “I am constantly being asked by parliamentarians in the UK what the total cost is going to be and they are sometimes, understandably, a bit frustrated when I have to tell them, ‘at the moment nobody is entirely sure.’”

It now appears that either the Air Force finds ways to significantly cut operational and support costs or the number of F-35s ordered will be cut. The same thing already happened to the F-22.

The real lesson here is that bureaucracy and cronyism don’t make for cost-effective measures. That’s true in health care, the financial sector, national security and pretty much everywhere else. The F-35 has been a two-decade boondoggle because it can’t be the jack-of-all-trades aircraft that Pentagon bureaucrats want it to be, and because Lockheed has no interest in providing a cheaper product when it can continue raking in government (read: taxpayer) dough.

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