CPFH: The Next Big F-35 Debate?

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Last year, one of the big JSF debates was over the “true” cost of sustaining the single-engine, stealthy F-35. Navy officials arrived at a $1 trillion figure to operate the aircraft for 50 years. To say it caused sticker shock in the Pentagon would be a massive understatement, and officials in militaries abroad eyeing F-35 purchases have spent countless hours since trying to get a better grip on the cost to operate this jet.

Though there has been no definitive figure released to that point, the debate about F-35 sustainment has taken a new turn. 

It seems now that the focus is all about the cost per flying hour (CPFH) of the aircraft. This is how the U.S. services account for the cost of operating their aircraft. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said last week that he has been briefed – not surprisingly – on two CPFH figures. One, from prime contractor Lockheed Martin, was lower that that provided by the Air Force, he said. Welsh says he directed the procurement corps to “put these numbers side by side and figure out exactly what the differences were between the number we had and the number [Lockheed Martin] had [and] to try and get at that problem.” These numbers have not been released.

But, this CPFH issue could easily take on the same tenor as that of the unit recurring flyaway debate of earlier years, where Lockheed Martin insisted the per-unit cost of the jet was far lower than the Pentagon. But, Lockheed’s URF was based on the most optimistic production rate and lacked additional costs, such as spares and engines, needed to operate the aircraft. The Pentagon’s accounting method took those costs into account but also presented an inflated figure to the world that made company officials bent on garnering international orders cringe.

Pentagon officials have been quick to admit last year’s $1 trillion figure was based on assumptions, some of which are hardly rooted in actual data. The program has only completed just more than 1/3 of its flight-testing hours. And only one lifetime of durability testing has been done on the conventional F-35A. The Joint Program Office has yet to test additional life cycles of use and complete the first round of testing of on the Marine Corps F-35B and Navy F-35C to understand and predict the expected life of parts and needed repairs. 

Since last year, program officials have been on a quest to better understand what they refer to as the "true cost" to operate the aircraft. And this is no trivial question. It is one thing to expect a would-be customer to swallow a one-time, higher-than-expected procurement price as is the case with the F-35. It is entirely another to ask them to take on a sustainment price far higher than expected with the F-35 or the F-16s or F/A-18s they operate today -- especially when the program was originally advertised as easy on the sustainment pocket book.

I think this will be a key issue to watch in 2013 … so stay tuned.

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