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Lockheed Martin Forecasts 40% Reduction In F-35 Sustainment Costs Over Five Years

By News Creatives Authors , in Business , at September 17, 2021

On September 13th the Pentagon’s F-35 fighter Joint Program Office awarded prime contractor Lockheed Martin

its first multiyear contract to support operations of the F-35 fighter.

The contract, potentially worth $6.6 billion over the three-year period ending in 2023, covers maintenance, training, supply-chain management and fleet analytics for F-35 airframes.

The company’s press release states that it expects to reduce its portion of the fighter’s cost per flight hour by 40% over the next five years, which would be consistent with a similar reduction over the previous five years (Lockheed contributes to my think tank).

The F-35, formerly known as the Joint Strike Fighter, is by far the Pentagon’s biggest weapons program—a multi-decade effort to replace most of the aging tactical aircraft in the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps with a more survivable and versatile airframe.

Counting the aircraft sold to allies, the program will eventually field over 3,000 fighters in three versions, with the most common being the Air Force’s F-35A variant.

There isn’t much doubt about the military requirement for the F-35. Most of the tactical aircraft operated by the joint force are decades old, and were designed before the digital age.

However, the program is unusually complicated, and thus often misunderstood.

The misconceptions are especially prevalent in discussions of “sustainment”—the catchall term used to describe the tasks associated with keeping fielded fighters in a high state of readiness.

Even if key features of the F-35 weren’t secret, it would be hard for normal people to interpret details about how the program is supported.

For starters, the Joint Program Office insists on denominating sustainment costs in 2012 dollars.

2012 is the last time the program was re-baselined; using “base-year” dollars allows managers to understand underlying cost trends with the effects of inflation removed.

But the practice inevitably confuses outsiders.

Then there’s the fact that support activities are divided between the government, the aircraft integrator (Lockheed Martin) and the engine manufacturer (Pratt & Whitney).

The contract awarded on September 13th only includes those sustainment activities for which Lockheed Martin is responsible, which comprise less than half of overall sustainment costs.

In addition, most observers aren’t conversant with the metrics used to measure sustainability; phrases like “mean time between failure” and “break rate” can sound ominous to the uninitiated.

Beyond that, there’s a big difference between last-generation fighters such as the F-16 and today’s fifth-generation fighters when it comes to sustainment.

Much of the equipment carried on an F-16 consists of external pods that are removed for maintenance and sent to depots, so the full cost of sustainment isn’t charged to the aircraft.

On the F-35, everything is integrated internally; as a result, all sustainment costs accrue to the aircraft.

Thus, it is misleading to compare the support costs of an F-35 with those of last-generation fighters.

The cumulative effect of all these complexities is that much of what is reported in general media concerning the cost of keeping the F-35 fighter flying is incomplete or misleading.

Even the Government Accountability Office gets it wrong by using outdated data and omitting key measures of performance.

Nonetheless, it is possible to cut through all the arcana and come to a data-driven conclusion that the program is making steady progress in becoming an affordable force multiplier.

Here are a few examples.

Mean flight hours between failures are much better for all three variants of F-35 than the requirements set by the military services, and far superior to the corresponding numbers for last-generation aircraft. By this measure, the F-35 is already the most reliable tactical aircraft in the joint fleet.

Maintenance man hours per flight hour are much lower for F-35 than for last-generation aircraft. The stated requirement for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps is that maintenance time per flight hour should not exceed nine hours; at present, the Air Force only requires five hours and the sea services are averaging seven.

Break rate, the percentage of sorties (flights) that end with an aircraft no longer mission capable, is lower for the F-35A than for any other tactical aircraft in the Air Force fleet. For instance, on average 6% of F-35As will return from missions with an issue requiring repair; the corresponding numbers for the F-16 is 10% and the F-15 14%.

Single-shift fix rate, which tracks whether maintainers can return a fighter to service within eight hours, is another metric where F-35A has consistently outperformed other tactical aircraft. Over 70% of F-35As requiring repairs can be fixed during one maintenance shift; the corresponding percentages for other Air Force fighters fall in the 45-55% range.

There are some measures of sustainability where the results are less striking, mainly due to differences in the designs of old and new aircraft.

For example, F-35 contains more composite material than last-generation aircraft, and it is less time-consuming to drive rivets into metal than to cure composites.

But Lockheed has made steady progress in reducing cure times, and the end result is a far more resilient aircraft when the repairs are completed than the aluminum and steel airframes of the past.

The bottom line is that the F-35 program is well on its way to solving sustainment challenges, just as in the past it overcame challenges to meeting performance and price objectives.

The F-35 is already greatly out-performing legacy aircraft in lethality, survivability and versatility.

Based on its track record to date, there is every reason to assume it will soon out-perform legacy aircraft in all major measures of sustainability—including cost.


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