The U.S. Marine Corps is aggressively trying to lower the high estimated cost-per-flying-hour (CPFH) of the F-35B and the aircraft’s 50-year sustainment price. And in advance of operational capability (IOC) set for December 2015, the service is also using the system’s advanced simulators to develop tactics for capabilities not yet fielded owing to the sophistication of the F-35 simulators already in the field.

The Pentagon’s Cost Analysis and Program Evaluation (CAPE) team told Congress in a May 31 selected acquisition report that the F-35A’s CPFH would be about $32,000, while the F-16C/D it would be replacing was far lower, at nearly $25,000. The report did not include a figure for the F-35B. However, Lt. Gen. Robert Schmidle, Marine Corps commandant for aviation, says that both the F-35A and B are expected to ultimately cost about 10% more than the aircraft they are replacing per hour of operation.

The U.S. Marine Corps will be the first to field the stealthy, single-engine F-35. Potential foreign customers and partners in the development program will be watching closely to see if the aircraft is as expensive to operate as some fear.

The current CPFH for the B variant, which is slightly more than that of the F-35A as reported in the May acquisition report, is misrepresentative of how the Marine Corps will actually operate the aircraft, due to inaccurate assumptions behind the calculations, Schmidle tells Aviation Week, For example, the current figure assumes that the F-35B will be used in its short-takeoff-and-vertical landing mode, optimized for the Marine Corps’ use on small-deck amphibious ships, 80% of the time. Using the aircraft in this stressing mode prompts a fuel spike, adding cost to the figure.

In actuality, though, the F-35 B will operate in this mode “a small percentage of the time,” as aircraft will be rotated for use on land bases, for example, Schmidle says.

Also included in the CPFH is the price of ordnance projected to be dropped every year from the F-35B, which Schmidle says skews the resulting figure. Legacy figures do not include such a calculation, he adds.

However, the Marine Corps does not see the specialized engine being a reason that the F-35B should cost any more per flying hour to operate than the A model designed for Air Force use. “We are not convinced — in itself — that [the engine] will be a reason for a higher cost per flight hour,” Schmidle said. “We think, for example, that the cost per hour of the B variant will be in line with the other variants.”

Marine Corps officials are working with the CAPE and the F-35 Joint Program Office to revise the assumptions to more accurately reflect how they perceive normal operations will take place for the F-35B. A new CPFH figure could be decided as soon as this fall, when Pentagon procurement chief Frank Kendall reviews the program top-to-bottom in preparation for a decision on whether it is ready to move into full-rate production.

In addition, the service is working to refine how it will maintain the F-35B, which will likely bring the CPFH down. The current estimate presumes a large amount of work taking place at the depot that will actually be handled at F-35B operating locations, potentially biasing the cost figure. The substantial reduction in operating cost for the MV-22 tiltrotor — 19% over time —is a model for the F-35 flying hour reduction effort, which has gained steam in the last three weeks, Schmidle says. Much like the F-35, the V-22 operates both ashore and afloat. And Marine Corps officials are using the statistics between the different maintenance regimes as a template for crafting estimates for the F-35. “We are increasingly confident that there are more savings to be had out there,” Schmidle says.

The service is already flying aircraft using the limited 2A software release at Eglin AFB, Fla., for pilot and maintenance training, and at Marine Corps Fighter Attack Squadron 121 in Yuma, Ariz. Though the software fielded is limited — allowing for basic takeoffs, approaches and familiarization flights — the F-35 simulators fielded for training already include a version of the more advanced 3F software package. Lockheed Martin is still working to compete the operational release of the software, but Schmidle says what has been included in the simulator is allowing for pilots to begin training beyond the capabilities of the aircraft. Ultimately, this should ease the transition from IOC in December 2015 to a full operational capability (FOC) later with the 3F software package, which includes more advanced electronic warfare options and a full weapons suite. “We are designing and flying tactics that we probably won’t fly in the airplane [soon] with the simulators,” Schmidle says. “FOC will be a natural extension of what we are doing” now at Yuma.

Advances in simulator technology have allowed for the equipment to go from being a tool in the past used to train pilots in procedures, to now being useful for advanced tactics training. Ultimately, 52% of the training syllabus for the F-35B will be handled in the simulator, also reducing the CPFH for the aircraft.