An essential part of the question about F-35 costs is whether it makes sense to buy a large block of aircraft and worry about the costs to fix their yet-to-be-discovered problems later. It is certainly a good way to add to the cost but hide it in the interim.
And there still remains the cost of actually operating the F-35 fleet. DoD has estimated that all training and operational operations over the 50-year life of the program (assuming a 30-year life for each aircraft) will be $1 trillion, making the cost to buy and operate the F-35 at least $1.4 trillion.
The cost just to operate the F-35 is so high because the aircraft is so complex compared to other aircraft. Based on the Air Force’s own numbers, in FY 2016 each F-35 flew an average of 163 hours at $44,026 per flying hour. For comparison purposes, in the same year, each F-16 in the fleet flew an average of 258 hours at $20,398 per flying hour. A-10s flew 358 hours on average at $17,227 per hour. While these hours have never been independently audited, and it is it is impossible to know if they are complete, the available data indicates that the F-35 is more than twice as expensive to fly as the aircraft it is to replace.
One of the more significant ways the Pentagon is hiding the true costs of the F-35 is that it has put off until Block 4 the development and delivery of many key capabilities that should have been delivered in Block 3. Currently planned, but not included in the official cost estimate of the F-35—or even as a complete separate acquisition program—is a four-part Block 4 upgrade costing at least $3 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office . In addition, DOT&E reports that there are “17 documented failures to meet specification requirements for which the program acknowledges and intends to seek contract specification changes in order to close out SDD [System Development and Demonstration].” That means there are 17 key combat capabilities the F-35 program can’t yet deliver and that the program office is attempting to give Lockheed Martin a pass on delivery until the later in the advanced development process .
Although no one has publicly stated which 17 combat capabilities won’t be included now, they were all functions the F-35 was supposed to have, and for which the American people are paying full price. So we will be paying more money in the future to upgrade F-35s purchased now so they can perform the functions we already paid for.
The $119.6 million unit cost for the F-35A in 2016 is a gross underestimate, and the additional costs will not be fully known for years. Those who pretend the cost in 2016 is somewhere below $100 million each are simply deceiving the public.
Combat Effectiveness at Risk
In every first-rate air force, turning out superior fighter pilots requires them to fly at least 30 hours a month to hone and improve their combat skills. Here lies the single largest cause of the F-35’s lack of combat effectiveness: because of the plane’s unprecedented complexity and the corresponding reliability and maintenance burdens, pilots simply cannot fly them often enough to get enough real flying hours to develop the combat skills they need.
Pilot skills atrophy if the pilots can’t get enough flight hours. Even with superior technology, less skilled pilots could be outmatched in the sky by highly trained pilots flying less sophisticated aircraft. Inadequate flight time also creates a dangerous safety situation that threatens pilots’ lives in training. The Marine Corps suffered 9 serious aircraft crashes in the past year, with 14 people killed. The Corps’ top aviator recently said the spike in crashes is mainly due to pilots not having enough flying hours .
This trend will worsen with the F-35. Given its inherent complexity and the associated cost, it is highly unlikely the F-35 will ever be able to fly often enough to turn out winning pilots.
Can the F-35 Be Where It’s Needed, When It’s Needed?:
Even if, and this is a big IF, the F-35 could perform in combat the way Lockheed Martin says it can (to say nothing of how a competent replacement for the F-16, A-10, and F-18 should perform), the program is still next to worthless if the jets can’t be where they need to be when they are needed.
Several factors contribute to the difficulty in deploying an F-35 squadron in a timely fashion. One is the F-35’s mission planning system, a part of the ALIS network. After the details of a combat mission (such as targets, predicted enemy radar locations, the routes to be flown, and weapon load) are worked out, the data needs to be programed into the aircraft. This information is loaded onto cartridges which are then plugged into the jet. F-35 pilots program these cartridges on the Offboard Mission Support (OMS) system.