Pentagon Struggles To Pin Down F-35 Ops Cost

By Amy Butler
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology
May 06, 2013
Credit: U.S. Air Force Samuel King Jr.

An usually public disagreement between senior Pentagon officials on the per-hour flying cost of the F-35 underscores the continuing uncertainty in the U.S., by far the largest F-35 customer, about total ownership price tag of the stealthy fighter.

The debate only reinforces the concerns of international customers who have opted to delay their purchase of the Lockheed Martin fighter until they better understand the operating cost, which dwarfs development and purchase prices that have skyrocketed.

Pentagon officials have said for months that they want an “apples-to-apples” comparison between the F-35's cost per flying hour (CPFH) and the price to operate legacy fighters it will replace. But the different figures recently put forth by the F-35 program executive officer, U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, and Pentagon procurement chief Frank Kendall, who expects a higher CPFH, show that comparing prices is not simple. An agreed-upon number, however, is much needed in Washington and abroad, as customers prepare to outline their F-35 commitments, decisions that will have financial repercussions for decades to come.

After months of studying the issue, Bogdan told Dutch lawmakers late last month that the single-engine, stealthy fighter would cost about 10% more to operate than the F-16, one of the workhorse aircraft it will replace.

The CPFH for the F-35A, which the Netherlands intends to buy, is $24,000, according to a U.S. military official. Bogdan provided the data to Dutch legislators, including a “side-by-side comparison of flying-hour costs between the F-16 and the F-35,” the official notes.

These figures are “preliminary,” program officials say. Though F-35A flight training has begun and testing continues, the data gathered do not reflect an entire life's worth of use. Ongoing durability testing will help determine if any parts or systems will require support that is not built into the CPFH.

As the price of F-35 development has spiked and unit cost doubled since the contract to Lockheed Martin was issued in 2001, and in-service dates have slipped dramatically, would-be customers have grown increasingly cautious about not only the fighter's purchase price but also the cost to operate it.

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