Support cost for F-35 ticks up as Pentagon projects more flights, longer life

A F-35 is masked for the final finish coatings at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Fort Worth.
A F-35 is masked for the final finish coatings at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Fort Worth. Star-Telegram

The trillion-dollar cost to operate and support Lockheed Martin’s F-35 jet through decades of flight has increased by about $107 billion from last year, according to Pentagon officials.

The latest estimate — $1.12 trillion in inflation-adjusted dollars — reflects new assumptions by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps that their versions of the fighter will fly more and last longer, according to Air Force Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, the F-35 program’s manager. The cost was originally estimated at $900 million in 2009.

The services expect the costliest U.S. weapons system will fly 1.6 million hours more than anticipated when the program started and will stay in operation until at least 2070, or six more years than previously planned.

“We will all be dead when that assumption plays out,” said Bogdan. What matters now, he said, is that “every penny we save on the airplane today turns into millions and millions dollars” saved in 2070.

The revised estimate was included Friday in the Pentagon’s annual report on costs of major weapons systems.

Pentagon officials confirmed the program’s projected cost for development and acquisition of 2,443 U.S. jets has dropped by $12.1 billion to $379 billion. That’s because of improved estimates for spare parts, costs to deploy and base aircraft and savings associated with a “block buy” of more than 400 aircraft after fiscal 2019. About $110 billion has been authorized to date by Congress for the F-35.

The Air Force, which is buying the biggest share of planes, has reduced how often the aircraft will be flown in a year to about 250 hours from 300 hours based on new concepts of operation and training techniques, Bogdan said. That has the cumulative effect of extending the number of years it can be flown.

The estimate for operating the fighters already built actually decreased by billions of dollars, Bogdan told reporters. “We had real decreases in real costs this year,” including procurement and support costs, he said. “For a program that has had a tragic past, that is not a bad report card,” he said.

Still, problems persist. F-35s continue to experience cracks of varying severity in ground-based stress testing and are hobbled by unstable mission systems software. Even as the planes continue to be built, they are at least two years away from the start of year-long combat tests to assess whether they’ll deliver their full promised capability.

The F-35 is being built at Lockheed Martin’s aeronautics complex in west Fort Worth, which is undergoing a $1.2 billion renovation to prepare for increased production. Lockheed expects to produce 53 F-35s this year, up from 45 last year, then about 60 in 2017 and as many as 100 in 2018.

Overall, the 79 major programs included in the Pentagon’s annual report increased by $7 billion to $1.6 trillion, primarily because of increased quantities of missiles, submarines and jets.