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Lockheed Sees F-35 Lifetime Operating Cost Below $1 Trillion

Lockheed Martin Corp. said the cost to operate and maintain the proposed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter fleet during its lifetime may be far lower than the Pentagon’s $1 trillion estimate.

“We believe we can beat that by a fairly substantial amount,” Tom Burbage, executive vice president of Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed said in an interview. He declined to specify a figure.

The $1 trillion estimate, sent to Congress April 15, is an inflation-adjusted figure for operating and maintaining the fleet of more than 2,400 airplanes through 2065, based on variables such as locations of the F-35 bases and the order of deployment. Changing the pace and order in which bases are activated, for example, may affect the estimate, Burbage said.

The Pentagon, in its 2010 Selected Acquisition Report to Congress, said the F-35 fleet may cost as much as $1 trillion to maintain, based on 8,000 hours of flying time for each of the 2,443 airplanes over a 30-year period. The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps are receiving their own variations of the aircraft, with the last in the fleet to be produced in 2035.

That estimate drew criticism from U.S. lawmakers last week including Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who’s the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services committee.

“This jaw-dropping amount may be about twice as much as the cost to maintain other roughly comparable aircraft,” McCain said at the May 19 hearing. “We need to know that the program is going to bring that number down.”

Pentagon officials including Ashton Carter, the top weapons buyer, and Vice Admiral David Venlet, the F-35 program manager, have said their highest priority is to prepare a more accurate estimate of the maintenance costs for the fleet.

Carter also has said the Pentagon is conducting a study of the production costs of the F-35 including costs incurred by Lockheed’s subcontractors such as Northrop Grumman Corp., which makes the plane’s radar, and BAE Systems Plc, which builds the aft fuselage, the tail and wing tips.

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