October 26 marks the 20th anniversary of the day in 2001 when contracts to develop the F-35 fighter were awarded to aircraft maker Lockheed Martin
The program has surmounted numerous challenges to produce the most versatile and survivable tactical aircraft ever built, which is why countries as diverse as Australia, Israel, South Korea and Switzerland all want to buy it.
With over 700 fighters now delivered in Air Force, Navy and Marine variants, F-35 is well on its way to becoming the global standard for cutting-edge air power.
However, having worked with Lockheed Martin throughout the program’s development, I have noticed a curious dynamic: no matter how successful the program is at meeting price and performance objectives, critics always manage to find something new to complain about.
The latest tempest concerns sustainment, meaning the cost of operating and supporting the fighter once it is built.
Having abandoned their claims that F-35 costs too much to manufacture and can’t execute all the tasks it was designed to accomplish, the critics now say it is too expensive to operate.
To cite a typical formulation from a supposedly neutral source, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) stated in a July sustainment report that “DOD plans to procure nearly 2,500 F-35s at an estimated life cycle costs of the program exceeding $1.7 trillion—with $1.3 trillion of those costs being associated with operating and sustaining the aircraft.”
Setting aside the odd syntax of that sentence—which appeared on the first page of the report—the government’s preeminent accounting agency thus set the stage for a series of worrisome findings concerning the Pentagon’s ability to keep the F-35 fleet flying.
F-35 critics on Capitol Hill were predictably outraged, and issued scathing denunciations of a program that has been supported for 20 years by five presidents.
Perhaps some context, dare I say balance, is needed here.
Let’s step back and consider the most important facts about sustaining what is fast becoming the world’s most ubiquitous tactical aircraft.
F-35 sustainment estimates cover all operating costs for half a century. The government’s estimates of F-35 sustainment outlays assume a 66-year life cycle, during most of which time F-35 will comprise a majority of the tactical aircraft operated by three U.S. military services.
Sustainment covers everything from fuel to spare parts to maintenance to training, so we’re talking about a lot of different activities spread over a very long period of time—longer, in fact, than the calculations applied to previous aircraft programs.
When you estimate costs this way, it’s inevitable that you will arrive at an astronomical number.
Just think about what it has cost you to operate your car this year, and then multiply by 50. Suddenly your SUV looks like it costs over a quarter million dollars. Except nobody expects your SUV to last for half a century, so don’t forget to include the cost of replacing it four or five times.
Future cost projections are unprovable guesses. There’s an easy-to-miss footnote at the bottom of page one in the GAO sustainment report that states, “The $1.7 trillion reflects then-year dollars. Then-year dollars include the effects of inflation or escalation.”
That’s right: the Pentagon actually includes what it believes the rate of inflation will be 20 or 30 years from today in its program estimates. So, the totals bear no resemblance to what the final cost would be in today’s dollars.
Even if you think estimators have a crystal ball for seeing our economic future, they make little allowance for how program changes might impact costs—for example, by finally stocking enough spare parts, or applying artificial intelligence to predictive maintenance, or embracing performance-based logistics.
Bottom line: long-term sustainment cost estimates for F-35 should not be taken at face value.
F-35 is more sustainable than other fighters. F-35 is the only fighter in the joint fleet that was designed from its inception to be easily maintainable. Over 90% of parts used on the fighter are exceeding reliability expectations, and when a box needs to be fixed, you don’t remove the box—you pull out one electric card and insert another.
All three variants of F-35 are exhibiting more hours of flight time between failures than the official requirement. They also need fewer hours of maintenance for each flight hour than the requirement.
The performance of F-35 on both of these measures significantly surpasses that of legacy fighters in the fleet. It takes less time to repair an F-35 than other fighters, and the repairs are less likely to be needed in the first place because F-35 is more likely to return from missions ready for new tasks.
The bottom line here is that even before it reaches the maturity of other tactical aircraft, F-35 is already the most reliable and easily maintained fighter in the joint fleet.
Legacy fighters are more costly to sustain than they seem. The F-35’s edge over other fighters in sustainment is even greater than it seems, because more tasks associated with upkeep are assessed against the F-35 than other fighters.
When an F-15 or F-16 has trouble with its targeting pods and other external equipment, the equipment typically is removed and sent to a depot. The cost of repair is not aggregated to reflect the full expense of keeping the legacy fighter mission-capable.
F-35, on the other hand, is an integrated design in which all equipment is carried internally in order to minimize radar returns. So, all the costs of maintaining F-35 accrue to the aircraft. Even with this apples-to-oranges bias built into comparisons, the F-35 still looks cheaper to sustain.
F-35 is a bargain when performance differentials are included. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that F-35 costs more to sustain than other fighters, rather than less. How valuable is it to have a fighter ten times better than legacy fighters at electronic attack, six times better at aerial combat, five times better at striking ground targets, and four times better at surviving in hostile airspace?
No kidding, when F-35s participate in military exercises, they often defeat adversary aircraft at a rate of better than 20-to-1. That’s because they are nearly invisible to enemy radar and provide pilots with vastly superior situational awareness.
So even if a case could plausibly be made that older fighters are more sustainable, their combat performance would be grossly inferior and the cumulative cost to the joint force would be far greater.
To summarize, concerns about F-35 sustainment are just the latest contrived crisis that will fail to slow the program’s progress. Whatever problems exist will be resolved, and in fact a close look at the data suggests that some of the supposed problems don’t exist at all.