Photographer: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

F-35's $1 Trillion Support Cost Ticks Up as More Flights Seen

  • New estimate assumes jets fly 60 years, a six-year increase
  • Pentagon also cites soaring cost of Raytheon GPS stations

The trillion-dollar cost to operate and support Lockheed Martin Corp.’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 Lieutenant General 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.

Cracks, Software

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

Of more immediate impact, 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.

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.

Raytheon GPS Stations

The cost of Raytheon Co.’s troubled ground station for new GPS III satellites has increased $586 million to $4.19 billion to cover new overruns caused by shortcomings that have delayed fielding the system’s full capability by five years, to July 2021. The Air Force must pay for the overrun under the program’s “cost-plus” contract.

The costs could increase more under an Air Force review that’s now under way.

The new report disclosed that the Navy plans to cancel buying 40 additional underwater drones built by Lockheed for the Littoral Combat Ship because of persistent reliability problems, saving $700 million. The drones were supposed to hunt mines, one of the ship’s key capabilities.

Costs for the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship program increased by $7 billion to $29 billion after the service adjusted the program to 38 vessels from 30. Still, the Defense Department has truncated what was originally planned to be a 52-ship program.

The Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, the U.S. program for launching military satellites, decreased in cost by $2.3 billion to $62.4 billion due to revised launch price estimates in contract negotiations. The United Launch Alliance LLC, a joint venture of Lockheed and Boeing Co., and Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. are competing for launches.