U.S. Air Force F-35 Costs To Climb

F-35 fighter aircraft
This F-35C operating from the USS Carl Vinson developed severe corrosion during its deployment in the South China Sea last November. The Joint Program Office is investigating the problem and why aircraft deployed in other regions have not experienced it.
Credit: MC Seaman Leon Vonguyen/U.S. Navy

The cost of Lockheed Martin F-35s for the U.S. Air Force is expected to grow this year, after years of a downward trend in price, because of delayed negotiations with prime contractor Lockheed Martin.

As the price rises, the decision to move to full-rate production is also appearing likely to slip to 2024, as required high-tech simulations are also delayed.

  • Long-awaited full-rate production decision could slip to fiscal 2024
  • Program Office and Pratt & Whitney say engine “crisis” will be improving soon

Despite this double shot of negative news for the program, officials are voicing some optimism in addressing one of the biggest issues facing the fleet. The “crisis” of engine capacity across the program, which had grounded more than four dozen of the aircraft in 2021, could be alleviated by increased depot output. Pratt & Whitney says a quality improvement program it has funded will show results.

“I think 2021 was a pretty good year for the program, despite all of the chaos that seemed to surround it,” F-35 Joint Program Executive Officer Lt. Gen. Eric Fick says.

Slow Negotiations

The F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) and Lockheed have been locked in extensive negotiations for a long-awaited Lot 15-17 contract, which will cover about 400 aircraft and engines. The JPO’s self-imposed deadline of late 2021 was missed, and another goal at the end of March is also likely to slip by without a deal, Fick says.

“I’m losing confidence that we’ll get it done by the end of [March], which was our revised target, but we’re working closely with Lockheed to figure out how we move the needle forward,”  he says.

Fick notes that the deal has been slowed by “pretty stiff headwinds,” which include the impact of COVID-19, supply chain disruptions and inflation. These will cause an increase in the cost per aircraft beyond the $80 million for an F-35A variant under the last Lot 14 deal.

“We only have so much money, and we need to buy so many airplanes,” Fick says. “So we’re trying to figure out how . . . to find a place that allows us to get the aircraft we need at a cost that we can afford while still recognizing some of those [factors],” Fick says.

The lower quantity of aircraft and other “key differences” from the prior Lot 12-14 contract have made it more difficult than expected to agree to an appropriate cost baseline, Lockheed says.

“We continue to engage in earnest discussions with our customer to drive closure on this negotiation so we can deliver critical F-35 capability to the services and our international partners,” Lockheed spokesman Brett Ashworth explains. “We will continue to use a data-driven process for as long as it takes to reach agreement based on what it will actually cost to build these aircraft.”

Delayed Simulation Tests

To reach full-rate production, the F-35 needs to go through what is called the Joint Simulation Environment (JSE), a series of intense simulations pitting the aircraft against modern air threats and air-to-ground operations.

Fick says the JPO is working aggressively through the validation, verification and accreditation of the JSE components. The office is targeting completion of this process in May, after which it will move into full system validation and verification, expected around September.

If this process holds, Fick says he expects the F-35 will begin “runs for score,” or evaluations in the JSE, in the summer of 2023. The program’s subsequent Milestone C full-rate decision will require a Pentagon Director of Operational Test and Evaluation report on the JSE. But since there would be only a couple months in which to compile that report, the full-rate production decision likely could not be made until fiscal 2024.

“In the event that our runs for score were to slip by any appreciable margin, there’s not a lot of leeway between the end of the summer, the generation of the report and the ability to have a milestone decision,” Fick notes.

Despite the delay of simulated testing against high-end threats, the F-35’s capabilities are broadly understood, Fick says, as evidenced by several recent deployments.

Some Engine Progress

The engine crisis peaked in 2021, as a shortage of power modules led to slowed engine deliveries. Last year, the JPO had a target to receive 159 engines; Pratt & Whitney delivered 152 of those, and 148 were late. None of the late engine arrivals affected aircraft deliveries, however.

Fick says the JPO is working with Pratt to return to delivering engines on time, with a goal of 174 in 2022.

Jennifer Latka, Pratt & Whitney’s F135 program manager, says the company is making up some of this lost ground and expects to catch up to the delays in deliveries by the end of March. It aims to get ahead of the contract. Delays last year were largely related to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially during the omicron wave, along with supply chain impacts and parts shortages.

Pratt  spent more than $40 million on a quality improvement program to identify problem areas with about 90 of the trickier parts of its F135 production line and bring them up to a higher manufacturing readiness level. This included a focus on eliminating variations in the production of specific parts, which were to blame for quality issues that caused delays.

For depot overhauls, last year was much better. For example, the Heavy Maintenance Center (HMC) at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma, targeted 40 engine overhauls but ended up delivering 51. Increased throughput at the HMC is one of three steps the JPO and the service branches are taking to increase engine availability, along with growing the global repair network and working to keep engines on aircraft longer.

Tinker “is the heart of our network right now,” Latka says. Pratt spent the second half of 2020 and early 2021 hiring and training more staff and bringing in more equipment to ramp up Tinker’s output. The facility is “always ramping because the fleet is growing,” she says. “We’ll be ramping [up] for the next decade.”

The fiscal 2022 defense authorization bill calls for the Pentagon to study integrating into the F-35 propulsion systems that were developed under the Adaptive Engine Transition Program (AETP)—the GE Aviation XA100 and Pratt XA101. Additionally, Fick says the JPO is undertaking a business case analysis (BCA), looking at combinations of engines and power and cooling systems, to address a lack of power coming from the F135 engine.

Under Block 3F systems, the F-35 is drawing 30 kW of power from the engine, more than double the system design of 14 kW. This decreases the engine’s life and the time between engine overhauls, Fick says.

The JPO is working with Pratt, Lockheed, GE, the military services and Pentagon leadership on the BCA to calculate what combination would be effective for Block 4 upgrades and beyond. The BCA also is considering other capabilities in which the services have expressed interest, including additional range and fuel savings. Fick says the services should receive the data in the coming months, although the full BCA will not be complete until later in the year.

Pratt has been “deeply involved” in this process, drawing on lessons from the AETP effort and other investments through a Navy program to “bring in as much as we can in the existing F135 architecture” to maintain commonality, Latka says.

The JPO and Pratt also are making progress with the installation of a new coating for the engine’s turbine blades to protect against cracks that occurred in arid locations with a high amount of calcium, magnesium, aluminum and silicate. This was noticed when F-35s deployed to desert regions in the Middle East, and a new coating was included in engine production in the spring of 2020.

All engines produced in 2021 have the coating, as do those that have been repaired at the HMC. While the new coatings are not required for F-35s to deploy, Fick says it is a “best practice,” and the JPO works with operators to take only jets with the coatings replaced. Nonetheless, “sometimes it’s inevitable that you can’t [wait for the coating process to be completed], and so the aircraft will go anyway,” he adds.

Lessons of Deployment

The F-35 fleet in 2021 saw two notable deployments at sea: F-35Cs aboard the USS Carl Vinson in the South Pacific and F-35Bs aboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth II in the Mediterranean. Each ship lost one F-35 while underway: An F-35C struck the ramp of the Vinson while landing in January, and an F-35B fell from the flight deck while attempting to take off from the Queen Elizabeth II in November. Fick says neither incident caused a fleetwide stand-down or other notification, and the Joint Program Office is continuing to support investigations of both incidents.

Beyond these mishaps, of which video leaked not long after they happened, the deployments are providing extensive lessons for the F-35 fleet. The first emerged when pictures of the F-35Cs aboard the Vinson were posted online with extensive corrosion to the jets’ low-observable coating.

Even more surprising, Fick says, was that the F-35Bs in the Mediterranean did not have any corrosion issues, pointing to environmental differences causing the problems.

“So we’re working to understand those things, to dig through them. We have folks working [on] that with both the users and Lockheed to try to understand the mechanisms, what might lead to the results that we saw differently on those two different platforms,” he says. “I don’t know the answer yet, but we’re working [on it].”

Additionally, the deployments are teaching the JPO about how to structure deployed spares packages. Fick points to a recent visit aboard the USS Nimitz when he inspected the small space that maintainers pack full of spare parts. The deployments are showing what parts will be needed.

“Because when you’re out at sea, you are truly an island unto yourself,” Fick says. “Making sure we got that right, I think, is going to be part and parcel of us really making a difference for the Navy, for the maintainers, for their ability to generate airpower.”

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.


"the F-35Bs in the Mediterranean did not have any corrosion issues, pointing to environmental differences causing the problems."
Since the F-35Cs operating in the South China Sea and the F-35Bs operating in the Med were presumably from different lots, isn't it more likely that there was a manufacturing error on the C lot?
ISTR that the heat/humidity/salt spray environment in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea are far worse than the Mediterranean.