Another problem uncovered during the trials on the George Washington involved the transmission of the massive data files the F-35C’s computers produce. The F-35 program relies on the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), the enormous and complex computer system all F-35s use for mission planning, maintenance diagnosis, maintenance scheduling, parts ordering, and more. To work properly, the system has to move large volumes of data across the network on and off the ship.
During the Washington trials, the crew had to transmit a moderately sized 200 MB ALIS file over the ship’s satellite network. It took two days. Bandwidth limitations and spotty connectivity had drastically impeded the transmission of the data. Many such transmissions—and even larger ones—will be required to support an entire air wing. Additionally, the fleet often operates in periods of “emissions control,” or radio silence, to avoid giving away its position to the enemy, further bottlenecking the transfer of the data necessary to keep the F-35s flying.
The George Washington trials generated plenty of fawning press coverage. And publicly at least, the Navy claimed success. However, there is evidence that the Navy is not too excited with the program because of the kind of problems discussed above and, of course, the cost: the Service has been slow to purchase the F-35Cs. While the Air Force is set to buy 44 new F-35s in 2017, the Navy will only buy 2. The Navy also requested 14 additional F/A-18s in its 2017 Unfunded Priorities (“Wish”) List and only 2 more F-35Cs. Moreover, this is the only variant the Services have not rushed to prematurely declare combat ready.
Some Pentagon leaders have said the Navy variant is the only one threatened by a review that was ordered by the Trump administration and that Secretary of Defense James Mattis is currently conducting. This may prove to be one part of the program where a viable alternative to the F-35 is sought.
Price Tag Is the Only Thing Stealthy about the F-35
Much has been said since the election about further F-35 purchases and affordability. President Trump questioned the program’s value in a series of tweets before the inauguration, but hopes that the program would be dramatically altered were dashed when he declared he had convinced Lockheed Martin to shave $600 million from the price of the latest batch of F-35s. Lockheed Martin and their partners within the JPO had already stated the price would be lower, largely due to improved efficiencies in manufacturing. On the surface, this seems like a great development for the American taxpayers, but any money “saved” now will end up costing far more in the future because we are buying a bunch of untested prototypes that will require extensive and expensive retrofits later. And this problem will only be compounded if Lockheed Martin and the Joint Program Office get their way and Congress approves a three year “block buy” of 400 F-35s before the program completes the testing and evaluation process.
The prices quoted in the press are usually based on the cost of an Air Force conventional take-off variant, the F-35A—the least expensive of the three variants. In addition, that cost figure is only an estimate of future costs, one that assumes everything will proceed perfectly for the F-35 from here on out—which is unlikely as the program enters its most technologically challenging test phase. As this latest DOT&E report shows, the program has a long way to go before the F-35 will be ready for combat.
The Joint Program Office recently claimed that the price for an F-35A went below $100 million each in the FY 2016 contract. Yet in its FY 2016 legislation, Congress appropriated $119.6 million per F-35A.
Even this amount doesn’t tell the whole story: it only covers the procurement cost, not what it will cost to bring F-35As up to the latest approved configuration, nor the additional Military Construction costs to house and operate F-35As. And of course, the $119.6 million price tag does not include any of the research and development costs to develop and test the F-35A. The 2016 production-only cost for the Marine Corps’ F-35B and the Navy’s F-35C is $166.4 million and $185.2 million per plane, respectively.
First, they don’t include how much it will cost to fix design flaws discovered in recent, current, and future testing—a not insubstantial amount of money. Nor do they include the costs of planned modernization efforts, such as for Block 4 of the aircraft, which will be incorporated into all F-35As in the future. The Government Accountability Office estimates the program will spend at least $3 billion on the modernization effort in the next six years. For example, modifications to fix just some of the problems identified up to now cost $426.7 million, according to the GAO. Each of these aircraft were already modified and they will require more in the future. The Air Force has already acknowledged it must retrofit all 108 of the F-35As delivered to it and in the operational fleet. These costs will continue to grow as known problems are fixed and new ones are discovered, and they are an integral part of the cost per airplane.
As the program moves out of the easy part of the testing—the development or laboratory testing—and into the critical combat (operational) testing period in the next few years, even more problems will be uncovered. A good example occurred in late 2016 when engineers discovered debris inside the fuel tank of an F-35. Upon closer inspection, they found that the insulation wrapped around coolant lines had disintegrated because a subcontractor failed to use the proper sealant. And, when the GAO estimated it would cost $426.7 million to fix some of the known problems in the F-35As already in depot, the coolant line insulation problem had not been discovered. Fixes to this and other problems will all have to be devised, tested, and implemented throughout the fleet of aircraft already produced and purchased.
Second, the incomplete unit cost estimates used by the JPO, Lockheed Martin, and the Pentagon in general—their so called “flyaway” unit costs—do not include the purchase of support equipment (tools, computers for ALIS, simulators for training, initial spare parts, and more) needed to enable the F-35A fleet to operate. Quite literally, the DoD’s “flyaway” cost does not buy a system capable of flight operations.
The Pentagon has already committed to purchasing 346 F-35s since the program entered into what DoD euphemistically calls “Low Rate Initial Production.” The 798 jets the services would have at the end of the block buy of about 450 from 2018 to 2021 would be nearly 33 percent of the total procurement…all before the program completes initial operational testing and has discovered what works as intended and what doesn’t. It is important to note that the real problem-discovery process will only begin when operational testing starts in 2019, as scheduled, or more likely in 2020 or 2021 when operational representative aircraft are actually ready to be tested. The 108 aircraft the Air Force has begun to modify are only the tip of the iceberg, and that number does not include the hundreds of Marine Corps and Navy aircraft to be similarly modified.
Would the Block Buy be consistent with the “fly before you buy” approach to acquisition advocated by the Administration, as well as with the rationale for the operational testing requirements specified in title 10, U.S. Code, or would it be considered a “full rate” decision before IOT&E is completed and reported to Congress, not consistent with the law?
Federal law allows multiple-year contracts to purchase government property so long as certain criteria have been met. Congress typically authorizes most weapons buying programs on a year-by-year basis to ensure proper oversight of the program and to maintain incentives for the contractor to satisfactorily perform. According to Title 10 U.S.C., Section 2306b, for a program to be eligible for multiyear procurement, the contract must promote national security, should result in substantial savings, have little chance of being reduced, and have a stable design. The F-35 seems to be failing at least two of the first three criteria and is most certainly failing the fourth.
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.