House Armed Services Committee chairman Adam Smith made headlines earlier this month over his criticisms of the F-35 program. “What does the F-35 give us? And is there a way to cut our losses? Is there a way to not keep spending that much money for such a low capability because, as you know, the sustainment costs are brutal,” he said at a Brookings Institution virtual event on Friday, adding that he wants to “stop throwing money down that particular rathole.”
Chairman Smith’s remarks reflect a familiar view, but one that is increasingly out of step with both the technical and financial realities of the F-35 program as it stands today.
Far from a “rathole,” the F-35 is among the world’s most sophisticated air power platforms. Consider the fighter’s unique sensor fusion capability. With its diverse suite of onboard sensors, the F-35 is able to generate a dynamic picture of the battlefield that can be fed to nearby friendly units. This allows it to act as a kind of quarterback in the sky; a force multiplier that enhances airborne, surface, and ground-based units through a real-time, shared data network generated from first-hand information.
Equipped with a bevy of best-in-class stealth features, the F-35 is also one of the world’s most survivable military aircraft. The fighter offers a frontal radar cross-section comparable to that of a metal golf ball, making it an apt choice for spearheading high-intensity penetration missions deep into enemy airspace. The F-35 is a remarkably versatile machine, boasting dedicated configurations for air-to-air, air-to-ground, and a wide range of support missions. Its internal bays can carry over 5,000 pounds of munitions while maximizing stealth performance, or as much as 22,000 pounds in a “third day of war” layout that makes full use of its external hardpoints.
But, both in 2021 just as in the mid-2010s, the core objections to the F-35 program continue to center around its purported cost-ineffectiveness. Here, it is important to highlight the latest figures and projections. The costs of building the fighter have steadily fallen with every subsequent production lot. According to fresh data from fiscal year 2021, the F-35A costs $79.2M and is expected to fall below the $78M mark in 2022. That makes the F-35 significantly cheaper than the less advanced F-15EX, which is typically quoted at $87.7M. The F-35’s current cost exceeds even the most optimistic federal estimates, boding well for the fighter’s long-term financial sustainability. But the good news doesn’t end here. The Air Force seeks to reduce the F-35’s cost per flying hour from $44,000 to $34,000 by 2024, with the goal of slashing it all the way down to $25,000 by 2025. That is an ambitious target, but one to which Lockheed Martin remains committed. “Over the last five years, we’ve reduced the operating costs by 40%,” Lockheed’s F-35 sustainment vice-president Ken Merchant said in a recent interview. “We’re predicting that we can take another 40% out of that Lockheed-controlled cost, which is about 39% of the cost per flying hour.”
Then there is the export angle. The F-35 has been or is being purchased by over a dozen U.S. allies, with many more countries currently engaged in procurement talks. The F-35’s continued export success has secured a firm U.S. foothold in a highly competitive market that may otherwise be dominated by European offerings like the Eurofighter, its upcoming Future Combat Air System (FCAS) successor, and Britain’s homegrown Tempest fighter.
The debate over the future makeup of the U.S. Air Force comes amid an unprecedented period of geopolitical volatility. The United States is not only locked in great power competition with a rising China and resurgent Russia, but faces mounting challenges from powerful regional actors including North Korea and Iran. With Washington’s regional and global competitors relentlessly investing into next-generation fighter projects and increasingly sophisticated air defense systems, now is the time to guarantee the viability of American air power into the coming decades. That is precisely the task that the F-35 platform, if given the time to come into its own, stands to accomplish.
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.