After months of contentious disagreement, the U.S. Air Force is coming around to agreeing with U.S. Navy claims that the F-35 will cost much more to maintain, rather than (as the F-35 promoters assert) less. It was a year ago that the U.S. Navy, after nervously watching as the manufacturing costs of the new F-35C and F-35B carrier aircraft increase, concluded that these aircraft would also be a lot more expensive to maintain. It comes down to this. Currently, it costs the navy, on average, $19,000 an hour to operate its AV-8 vertical takeoff or F-18C fighter aircraft. The navy calculated that it would cost 63 percent more to operate the F-35C (which will replace the F-18C) and the F-35B (which will replace the AV-8). These costs include buying the aircraft, training and maintaining the pilots, the aircraft and purchasing expendable items (fuel, spare parts, munitions.) The navy concluded that maintenance alone would be about a third more.
The differences between air force and navy cost estimates came down to different methods of doing maintenance and calculating costs. The two services have, over the decades, developed different ways to use civilian maintenance services and stockpiling spare parts. Most navy warplanes operate from carriers, which is more difficult, and expensive than from a land base. In effect, the navy was forced to become more efficient in order to afford operating expensive warplanes at all. But now the air force and navy have resolved a lot of these differences, and agreed that the costs of the "cheaper" F-35 are actually higher.
Like the F-22, which had production capped at less than 200 aircraft, the capabilities, as superior as they were, did not justify the much higher costs. The F-35, at least for the navy, is headed in the same direction. The navy can go ahead with the more recent F-18E, and keep refurbishing, or even building, 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.
The 31 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. The additional development costs are accompanied by an additional delays before the aircraft enters service. Production costs will average about $84 million. With a share of development costs, that makes the per aircraft cost $96 million. This cost estimate continues to rise, as orders fall.
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 as 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 more than $100 million each.