Costs to operate and support Lockheed Martin’s F-35 will balloon unless the deteriorating reliability of the Pentagon’s costliest program improves, according to an assessment from the Defense Department’s own testing office.
The aircraft and its parts aren’t as reliable as expected, and it’s taking longer to repair the planes than planned, according to the presentation by the director of operational testing for defense officials and congressional aides. About 20 percent of the jets must await spares in depots because suppliers can’t keep up with expanding production while fixing returned parts.
Past attention focused on costs and delays in what’s now projected to be a $379 billion program to acquire 2,443 fighters for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps being built at Lockheed’s complex in Fort Worth. But operating and maintaining the advanced jets for decades to come present another set of challenges that may strain Pentagon budgets.
The availability of spare parts for the 203 F-35s already assigned to bases “is getting worse, affecting fly rates” and pilot training, according to the presentation dated May 8 and obtained by Bloomberg News. Reliability metrics linked to “critical failures have worsened over the last year,” as improvement “has stagnated.”
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These trends mean long-term “lifecycle costs” of the aircraft are “likely to increase significantly” over the current $1.2 trillion estimate and affect budgets of the services, according to the presentation, which updated the testing office’s annual report released in January.
Joe DellaVedova, spokesman for the Defense Department’s F-35 program office, said in an email that since 2015 the office’s estimate of annual operating expenses, including flying-hour costs, have decreased 2.2 percent for the Air Force version, 3.3 percent for the Marine Corps jet and 4.2 percent for the Navy model.
“These reductions were the result of improved maintainability and sustainability as the weapons system matures, the design stabilizes and maintenance” becomes more efficient and effective, he said.
President Trump has requested 70 F-35s in his fiscal 2018 budget request, up from 63 last year. The two primary House defense committees signaled this week that they want to add as many as 17 more. Negotiations between Lockheed and the Pentagon are also underway for a “block buy” of 445 of the aircraft for the U.S. and allies.
In January, Lockheed CEO Marillyn Hewson said the company plans to add 1,800 workers at its Fort Worth plant by the end of this decade to handle increased production of the aircraft. Lockheed employs about 14,000 people at its aeronautics complex in Fort Worth.
The testing office presentation provides a snapshot of the reliability, maintenance and availability trends that will in large part determine whether the services and allies can afford to buy all the planned aircraft because most costs are absorbed by long-term operations and support.
This article includes material from Star-Telegram archives.