F-35 Ops Cost Exceeds F-16 By 10%


The long and sometimes contentious wait for a cost-per-flying-hour for the new F-35 is over. 

 The single-engine F-35A is expected to cost about 10 percent more to operate than the F-16 it is intended to replace for the U.S. Air Force and other international military services, according to U.S. government officials.

USAF Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, program executive officer overseeing the F-35 program, told Dutch lawmakers that the cost-per-flying-hour for the F-35A, which The Netherlands intends to buy, is $24,000, according to an Air Force spokeswoman. He provided the data to Dutch legislators, including a “side-by-side comparison of flying hour costs between the F-16 and the F-35,” she says.

She says Bogdan characterized the figures as “preliminary.” Though flight training has begun on the F-35A and testing continues, the data gathered is fresh and does not reflect an entire life’s worth of use. Ongoing durability testing will help program officials determine whether any parts or systems will require support that is not built into this figure.

This cost-per-flying-hour figure has been long sought by international buyers of the Lockheed Martin aircraft as well as U.S. officials. As the price of the F-35 development has 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 price to buy the fighter, but also to operate it.

Lockheed Martin vowed at the onset of the program that the F-35 would cost less to operate than the aircraft it is replacing. Earlier this year, company officials said, "We agree the cost per flying hour will exceed that of the F-16 .” But Lockheed expects the anticipated total lifetime cost will be less than that of legacy aircraft, the source adds.

The Netherlands’ plans to buy 85 of the fighters are under review, and officials there said they may cut as many as 33 from their purchase last month.

U.S. Navy officials originally expected the F-35 total life-cycle price to exceed $1 trillion over 50 years of operations, but the U.S. services are looking for efficiencies.

The Pentagon’s Cost Analysis and Program Evaluation office estimates that the Pentagon will spend $18.2 billion annually supporting all three F-35 variants compared to the $11.1 billion it spent on legacy aircraft in 2010, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The F-35 Joint Program Office did not release the cost-per-flying-hour figures for the F-35B, designed for short-takeoff-and-vertical landings, or the F-35C, optimized for carrier-based use. Those are expected to be released in the annual selected acquisition report expected to go to Congress in May or June.

Foreign buyers – including 10 partner nations, Israel and Japan – are most likely to buy the F-35A, making this cost-per-flying-hour projection of most interest to the widest pool of customers. Italy and the United Kingdom have expressed interest in the B version.

The Air Force has worked for months to refine this cost-per-flying-hour figure. In January, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said his staff and Lockheed Martin were trying to reconcile two different numbers for a cost per flying hour. 

The company's view of ownership cost is lower than that of the service. "It was characterized in a different way, a different format," Welsh said. Of interest to Welsh and other customers is an "apples to apples" comparison to the F-16 and A-10 that F-35 will replace. 

Company officials had argued the cost of some subsystems, such as the electro-optical target system, or information technology systems used to support the aircraft, should not be included in the F-35 lifecycle estimate because they are not calculated in the price of operating legacy aircraft. 

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