Procurement: F-35 Is Later, More Expensive And Fewer


January 19, 2011: The U.S. F-35 will be delayed yet again, and one of the three versions may be cancelled. The new service date for the F-35 appears to be a year later now, in 2015, although the U.S. Air Force is being a bit vague on this point. Not so vague is the Department of Defense, which has put the vertical takeoff (F-35B VTOL) version on two years probation. If a growing list of problems with the F-35B are not fixed by then, the VTOL version will be cancelled. Meanwhile, it looks like the F-35A (air force) and F-35C (navy carrier) versions will likely, maybe, perhaps, one hopes, ready to roll in 2015. 

Meanwhile, development costs for the new U.S. F-35 fighter-bomber has grown by a third, to over $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, and that is what happened. 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 total purchases may be way less than 3,000 aircraft (for the U.S. and foreign users).

The additional development costs are accompanied by additional delays before the aircraft enters service. Production costs will average over $100 million. Then you have a share of development costs, meaning that $130 million per aircraft, or more (probably more) is likely.

Like the F-22 fighter, the F-35 is stealthy, and is stuffed with lots of new technology. Originally, most  of the F-35s built were to 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. The constant delays and cost increases has turned off many foreign buyers.

U.S. Air Force simulations and studies have shown the F-35 to be four times as effective against any current fighter (the best of them known as "fourth generation" aircraft.) The major advantages of the F-35 are engine power (its one engine generates more power than the two engines used in the Eurofighter or F-18), stealth and the fact that it can fight "clean" (without any pods or missiles hung from its wings, and interfering with maximum maneuverability).

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. The first F-35s will probably enter service sometime this decade, but the exact year keeps moving.





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