SAR Underscores F-35 Sustainment Cost Confusion

By Amy Butler
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology

The 50-year life-cycle cost of the F-35A is still more than $1.1 trillion, despite the kickoff of a series of F-35 sustainment “deep dive” reviews two years ago by then-Program Executive Officer (PEO) Vice Adm. David Venlet. He acknowledged that “the service chiefs look at the estimates of the maintenance and it makes their knees go weak” (AW&ST June 20, 2011, p. 116).

Recently, the U.S. Air Force, by far the largest F-35 operator with a planned buy of 1,763 F-35As, has focused on the CPFH. “We've normalized to a couple of numbers now, about $25,000 per flying hour for the F-16 C/D model and about $32,000 roughly for the F-35,” Welsh said last month. “That number may continue to adjust itself slightly, as we decide what factors are in or not, but that gives us an idea now” of comparing the two.

The SAR numbers do not, however, quell concerns that the F-35 may be unaffordable for some customers.

The current most forgiving estimate from PEO Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan on the new aircraft's CPFH is $24,000. Bogdan provided this figure to Dutch lawmakers in March based on assumptions of how the Dutch would operate and maintain the aircraft. His projection was not, however, backed by the SAR or by Pentagon procurement chief Frank Kendall, who said in April that the F-35A CPFH is “going to come down this year,” adding, “I don't think that it is going to come down as much as Chris Bogdan indicated.”

Neither Bogdan's nor Kendall's predictions have been accurate. Pentagon cost estimators opted to keep the F-35 CPFH steady at $31,923, the same value provided to Congress a year ago.

During his last planned press briefing as Air Force secretary, Michael Donley said last week, “We continue to work on [operating and sustainment] cost and efficiencies in the program. . . . It is an ongoing discussion inside the department.” But the service has yet to outline any changes it could make in its maintenance processes or training that could actually reduce its sustainment price.

The SAR to Congress reflects work of the Office of the Secretary of Defense's Cost Analysis and Program Evaluation (CAPE) group. The F-35 Joint Program Office plans to present its numbers—lower than those in the SAR—to Kendall in the fall, and it would like them to be adopted by the CAPE and codified in the next SAR that will go to Congress in the spring of 2014.

The total price to develop and buy the F-35 is estimated at $391 billion for the U.S., roughly the same as it was a year ago. The cost of designing and purchasing 2,443 platforms dropped by 1.5% since then, largely due to lower labor rates, the report says.

The price of the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine increased by about $442 million to $64,299 million because of adjustments in the inflation estimates (see article below).

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