It’s interesting that Loren Thompson’s op-ed focuses on the cost difference between the F-35C and the F/A-18E/F. It makes you wonder whether the Navy's “ambivalence” - with the F-35C yet to land on a carrier after 12 years in full-scale development - is causing some nervousness in Fort Worth.
As Thompson says, “these numbers can be verified easily by perusing the Pentagon’s Selective Acquisition Reports.” The latest SARs for the F/A-18 and F-35 can be found here and here.
So let’s look at the key claims.
“Even if we include the electronic defenses and targeting systems not usually subsumed in a Super Hornet price tag, the unit recurring flyaway cost of a single-seat F/A‑18 is about $80 million in today’s dollars. The corresponding cost for an F-35C is $130 million.”
The URFC of the F-35C is about right. But in then-year dollars, the URFC of the Super Hornet over 2011-13 averages $60 million (page 18 of the Hornet SAR). So what are the "electronic defenses and targeting systems” that would raise that number by $20 million? Targeting pods run about $2 million, and the ALQ-214 jamming system has been under $1 million per aircraft historically. (The SAR is not very clear as to whether those are included in the URFC.) The new Block 4 version of the jammer is higher, but any identifiable mods to the Super Hornet are still a fraction of the $20 million that Thompson is adding. Today, the F-35C costs more than two Super Hornets.
Next: “When 100 single-seat Super Hornets had been produced, the unit recurring flyaway cost—with all necessary electronics included—was about $110 million in today’s dollars, which is where F-35C is likely to stand at the 100th airplane.”
The 100th Super Hornet was delivered in the Fiscal 2001 batch. According to the SAR, the then-year URFC was $61 million. A standard Pentagon inflation calculator raises that to $77 million in 2012 - $33 million less than Thompson’s figure. The F-35 is 43 percent more expensive if it is indeed $110 million.
The comparison between the 100th Super Hornet and the 100th F-35C is heavily loaded in the JSF’s favor in any event. By the time the 100th F-35C is delivered in 2021, according to current plans 600 F-35s will have been delivered and production will be running at 100 aircraft a year for the U.S. alone. Indeed, Lockheed Martin is telling Canadian industry – according to an October brief by business development executive Keith Knotts – that more than 200 F-35s will be delivered in that year.
The fact is that the F-35C will – if everything goes right – cost significantly more than the F/A-18 to acquire, according to every budget document out there. In FY13, according to the Navy's detailed budget documents (which include the ATFLIR and ALQ-214, according to Boeing) the total flyaway cost (including recurring cost) of the F-35C is $199 million, more than three times the Super Hornet price. Even at full rate (20 per year) it is 70 per cent more costly. And according, once again, to the current SARs, the cost per flight hour of operating the F-35A (not the bigger and more expensive F-35C) is projected at $31,900 in 2012 dollars. The Super Hornet SAR figure (based on an annual cost in 2000 dollars, divided by flying time and converted to 2012) is $15,600 per hour. It’s going to take a lot of work by operating cost “war rooms” to start to close that gap.