Loren Thompson is chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, which receives money from companies engaged in both the F-35 and F/A-18 programs.
Over the last several years, the tri-service F-35 fighter program has gradually retired risks and reduced costs, in the process acquiring broader political support. More than 50% of the program’s flight-testing schedule has been completed, and no major problems have been identified. The fighter’s F135 engine has seen similar progress. With 11 allies committed to buying the airplane, the program looks unstoppable.
Although the Pentagon has been deliberately vague about how the stealth, sensor fusion and other features of the F-35 make its performance far superior to that of last-generation fighters, it is rapidly emerging as the gold standard of tactical aviation in global markets. But what will matter in the political debate at home is the airplane’s price tag, because that is the one feature of F-35 that politicians and pundits think they understand. Chances are, though, they do not.
The apparent cost of a military aircraft varies wildly depending on where it is in its production run, what items are included and whether inflation is discounted. If you want to estimate costs, heroic assumptions (also known as guesses) are required to establish values for production rates, learning curves and other parameters essential in calculating cost.
For instance, prime contractor Lockheed Martin estimates that if the program of record for the Air Force variant of F-35 is executed as planned, an airplane ordered in 2018 and delivered in 2020 will cost $85 million in “then-year” dollars ($78 million in today’s dollars). That is in the same ballpark as the latest F-16—the legacy fighter that F-35 will replace in Air Force combat units. But you have to make a lot of assumptions to get to that number.
Whether those assumptions prove valid probably will not matter for the Air Force and Marine variants, because the Air Force version is well on its way to being the global standard for tactical airpower, and the Marines view the vertical-takeoff-and-landing version of the F-35 as their top modernization priority.
The service that sometimes sounds ambivalent is the Navy. Although its budget will fund development of the carrier-based F-35C through the end of the decade, its leaders say things and do things that make outsiders wonder. Studies have been commissioned to assess whether the Navy could make do with fewer F-35s, and senior leaders have raised doubts about the longevity of low-observables.
So naval aviation has become the main arena in which F-35 costs are still being debated. Boeing, the prime contractor for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and its electronic-warfare cousin, contends that the Navy could save billions by purchasing more of those aircraft rather than moving to the F-35C.