What You Should Know: The F-35 is the world's most expensive defense program ever. With time and experience can some of the costs come down?
In addition to being one of the most expensive military hardware platforms ever developed, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter is also extremely expensive to operate. A year ago it was estimated that the fifth-generation advanced stealth aircraft cost around $44,000 an hour to fly—or put another way $44 million to fly 1,000 hours. That could be $352 million over the 8,000-hour lifespan of the jet, which is more than twice as much as every other fighter aircraft in the U.S. military’s arsenal.
Given those figures, the Pentagon has called upon the aircraft’s maker to reduce the operating costs; yet even the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) own cost assessment office has suggested that the goal of getting the F-35A variant to $25,000 per hour by fiscal year 2025 would be unattainable.
However, Lockheed Martin has reportedly stepped up to the challenge, and at this year’s vIITSEC virtual event, hosted by the National Training and Simulation Association (NTSA), the company has made reducing the costs a goal. According to a report from Shephard Media, Lockheed Martin “aims to reduce the F-35’s cost per flight hour (CPFH) to $25,000 by 2025,” said Jim Cody, F-35 training sustainment operations program manager.
The defense contractor has already reduced the sustainment CPFH for its Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS) and Distributed Aperture System (DAS) Window Panels for the F-35 by 25 percent. The company has said that the reduction is part of the overall initiative to improve F-35 mission capable rates and reduce sustainment costs, and is part of a multi-year Performance Based Logistics (PBL) contract that was introduced in mid-2019.
EOTS is the first sensor to combine forward-looking infrared and infrared search and track functionality to provide F-35 pilots with precise air-to-air and air-to-ground targeting capability. EOTS enhances F-35 pilots’ situational awareness and allows aircrews to identify areas of interest, perform reconnaissance, and precisely deliver laser and GPS-guided weapons.
Advanced EOTS, an evolutionary electro-optical targeting system, is now available for the F-35’s Block 4 development. It was designed to replace the original EOTS; and the Advanced EOTS incorporates a wide range of enhancements and upgrades, including short-wave infrared, high-definition television, an infrared marker, and improved image detector resolution.
Those enhancements are meant to increase an F-35 pilots’ recognition and detection ranges, enabling greater overall targeting performance. According to Lockheed Martin, Advanced EOTS will provide more than $1 billion in life cycle cost savings.
The DAS Window Panel, which consists of six low-observable, infrared transparent windows for Electro-Optical (EO) DAS sensors on the F-35, enables the EODAS sensor to provide threat detection and 360-degree situational awareness to the pilot.
Lockheed Martin is also working to integrate the F-35 with additional elements of the United States Air Force’s Distributed Mission Operations (DMO) network in 2021. It will provide the network infrastructure that can allow Distributed Mission Training (DMT) to take place and links a variety of different simulators including the F-15, F-16, F-22, and E-3.
Over the summer Lockheed Martin, working with the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) and the Air Force, completed the final DMT tests. The goal is to expand the network capability in 2021, with Nellis Air Force Base (AFB) being the home to the Air Force’s new Joint Simulation Environment (JSE) test facility. Additional plans are now also underway to develop an F-35 Full Mission Simulators (FMS) that can connect United States Navy and Marine Corps pilots together, as well as those of the UK’s Royal Air Force.
This would be used for mission rehearsal and continuation training—and it isn’t just for pilots that could benefit from the technological advancements. Lockheed Martin also recently revealed that it was developing an augmented reality (AR) maintenance trainer. While this will all require an upfront investment, it could certainly help further reduce the operational costs of what has proven to be a truly expensive aircraft to keep flying.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.
This piece first appeared earlier this month and is being republished due to reader interest.