Warplanes: What Is Real (about the F-35)?


May 30, 2010: The U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy are having a major disagreement over how much it will cost to operate the new F-35 fighter. It comes down to this. Currently, it costs the navy, on average, $19,000 an hour to operate its AV-8 vertical takeoff aircraft, or an F-18C fighter aircraft. These two aircraft are being replaced, on carriers, with the F-35. It costs 63 percent more to operate the F-35C (480 will be bought to replace navy F-18Cs) and the F-35B (340 will replace marine F-18s and AV-8s). These costs include buying the aircraft, training and maintaining the pilots, the aircraft and purchasing expendable items (fuel, spare parts, munitions.) Like the F-22, which recently had production capped at less than 200 aircraft, the capabilities, as superior as they were, are not believed, by many admirals, to justify the much higher costs of the F-35. The navy believes it has the option to just buy more F-18Es, and keep refurbishing, or even building more of, the AV-8. Politics, and lobbying by the F-35 manufacturer, will probably keep the F-35 headed for fleet service, no matter what the cost. But the navy has some real budget problems, with there being insufficient cash to build needed ships.

The navy is sufficiently concerned about the operating costs, to go public with their complaints. The air force responded, both privately (using classified operating data) and publicly (not saying much at all, other than that the navy position was incorrect.) The navy has history on its side, as the real costs are generally higher than the original estimates. The navy is seriously considering fewer F-35s, with the earlier introduction of jet propelled combat UAVs. The air force is not amused.

The 27 ton F-35 is armed with an internal 25mm cannon and four internal air-to-air missiles (or two missiles and two smart bombs). Plus four external smart bombs and two missiles. All sensors are carried internally, and max weapon load is 6.8 tons. The aircraft is very stealthy when just carrying internal weapons.

Development costs for the new U.S. F-35 fighter-bomber has grown by a third, to $60 billion, over the last few years. That means the average development cost of the estimated 5,000 F-35s to be built, will be about $12 million each. This overhead share will increase as the number of F-35s bought declines. The air force wants to buy 1,763, to mainly replace aging F-16s and F-15s. But now air force generals are talking about just buying "more than 1,500" F-35As.

The additional development costs are accompanied by additional delays before the aircraft enters service. Production costs will average at least $84 million. With a share of development costs, that makes the per aircraft cost $96 million. This cost estimate continues to rise, and is expected to eventually exceed $130 million per aircraft, or more (probably more).

Like the F-22 fighter, the F-35 is stealthy, and is stuffed with lots of new technology. Most (about 60 percent) of the F-35s built will be used by foreign nations. The rising cost of the F-35 brings with it reluctance to buy as many aircraft currently planned. The success of smart bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan has also made it clear that fewer aircraft will be needed in the future. In any event, it's likely that F-35s will end up costing about $150 million each.





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